Ecology and Womxn Artists in Latin America

28 March 2022 - no responses

In the 1970s and 1980s, a number of women artists in Latin America began to work with questions related to the environment, ecology, and land. Alicia Barney from Colombia, Yeni & Nan from Venezuela, and Regina Vater from Brazil, among others, implemented experimental and critical strategies into their artistic practice to draw attention to the multifaceted ways that humans and the Earth coexist.[1] These artists, who Andrea Giunta and Cecilia Fajardo-Hill  included in their groundbreaking exhibition Radical Women: Latin American Art 1960-1975, explored intersections between the self, the body, and what might be called nature.[2] While they and other artists working in Latin America have paid close attention to ecological systems, many scholars and critics have analyzed them in terms that emphasize a generalized notion of mysticism, ritual, or the shamanic. Such perspectives risk creating an essentialist link between womxn and the natural environment and rely on narratives that can fetishize Indigenous world views.[3] Especially given the widespread impact of #niunamenos; the increasing expansion of feminism(s) to the perspectives of non-white and non-binary thinkers; the recent legalization of abortion in Argentina, Mexico, and Colombia; and Indigenous land rights movements that are by and large led by womxn, this text proposes to initiate a conversation around how artists are enacting visual, conceptual, and collaborative visions of gender in relation to emerging re-conceptualizations of ecology.

The ideas introduced by ecofeminism undoubtedly had a significant impact on feminist theory and the visual arts. Nevertheless, in recent years, scholars in Latin America have proposed related theories that are more specific to the present lived experience of womxn in the region. The Colombian theorist Astrid Ulloa suggests feminismos territoriales [territorial feminisms] to address the political dynamics of social movements led by women that center on the “circulation and defense of life, the body, territories, and the natural world, as well as the critique of the capitalist and extractivist processes of capitalist development.”[4] Building on Ulloa’s proposal, Argentine sociologist Maristella Svampa suggests the term feminismos ecoterritoriales [ecoterritorial feminsms] to refer to the struggles of women who take part in ecoterritorial movements and the “mobilizations of socio-environmental affected people.”[5] Alternatively, Mexican writer Francesca Gargallo highlights the term feminismos comunitarios [communitarian feminisms] to emphasize the communal aspect of women’s, mainly Indigenous, fight against patriarchal oppression, environmental violence, and for the rights to their territory.[6] These three proposals, in addition to others not mentioned, open up a more profound understanding of how womxn artists today are implementing their artistic practice to mobilize against patriarchal domination that has simultaneously subjugated them and the land as part of a system that disempowers both human and non-human beings.


[Emerson Uýra, Untitled from Thousand-Almost-Dead series (2018). Photography/print on fine art paper. Photo credit Matheus Belém. Image courtesy C.galeria]


But first, to understand the intersection of ecology, feminism, and art in Latin America, it is necessary to consider the long history of extractive capitalism as a model of economic development throughout the region.[7] In particular, neoliberal transformations have been central to this narrative: in the twenty-first century, the mining of natural resources by transnational corporations is one of the largest industries in Latin America.[8] It causes ecological devastation and also displaces numerous communities, often Indigenous, from their land. Womxn, who are the most impacted by land dispossession and environmental degradation, have been at the forefront of anti-extractivism, creating, as Silvia Federici argues, “more cooperative forms of existence and providing a vision of what a noncapitalist society might be like.”[9] In order to counter capitalist accumulation, some theorists and artists have proposed alternative ways of understanding the relationship between humans and the earth while others have emphasized the importance of land rights, food sovereignty, and communal practice.

In 21st-century contemporary art from Latin America, I would argue that there is a tendency among womxn artists who work with ecological themes to emphasize the possibilities of communal living and autonomy from state organizations, concretizing alternatives to capitalism’s extraction of land and life. This is primarily evident in artistic proposals that reimagine communal relationships between individuals and horizontal relations among humans and nonhumans.

Mónica Millán and Adriana Bustos’ collaborative project Plantío Rafael Barrett exemplifies this form of communal artistic practice.[10] It began when Millán and Bustos proposed to collaborate with Conamuri–a group of Indigenous women based in Paraguay–for the 2015 Asunción Biennial.[11] As the starting point for the project, they suggested to plant a garden patch–a plantío in Spanish–in the Plaza de la Victoria in front of the Paraguay National Congress. Millán, whose grandparents were farmers, had long been interested in questions of food sovereignty, and as the project first unfolded she began to ask herself: what happens when a farmer no longer has land?[12] For this first iteration of Plantío Rafael Barrett, Millán, Bustos, and members of Conamuri decided to return to the basics by planting corn and manioc. Beyond the garden, the project consists of a series of banners made by the collaborators, conferences with speakers such as the Jesuit priest and defender of Indigenous rights Bartomeu Meliá, interviews with and drawings of the Conamuri participants, as well as many additional instances of exchange. Following the 2015 intervention and through 2021, Millán and Bustos continued Plantío Rafael Barrett on various occasions in Paraguay and Argentina. Working with campesinos sin tierra [farmers without land], the project explores food sovereignty, access to land, the right to land, and communal labor.

Lydela and Michel Nonó, known collectively as Las Nietas de Nonó, are also invested in questions of food sovereignty, sustainability, and communal living through their multidisciplinary work that spans performance, education, activism, and dance. Based in Carolina, Puerto Rico, they build on their experience growing up in public housing projects during the 1990s, a time when the Puerto Rican government was especially tough on crime. As curator Marina Reyes Franco explains, “The sisters are vocal in their criticism of institutions like jails and schools, as well as the medical and food industries, which they view as power centers in an oppressive system that perpetuates poverty.”[13] In addition to their use of kombucha SCOBY, the bacterial “mother,” the sisters explore the relationship between memory and food, spirituality and healing. With their multimedia project Foodtopia, they examine histories of slavery and forced migration, as well as the importance of food and spiritual rites in Afro-diasporic identities.

On the other hand, the artist Uýra, a hybrid vegetal/animal entity of scientific biological knowledge and ancestral Indigenous wisdom, dissolves the boundary between the human and the nonhuman through her photographic performances. Walking through locations that range from the Amazon forest to the city of Manaus, she becomes enmeshed with the trees, shrubs, and rivers, or even the waste that fills the waterways of urban centers; she opens up different ways for humans to relate to the Earth, ones that reject the capitalist vision of nature as a resource in favor of an ontology that sees the body in continuum with the land. Uýra is the creation of Emerson Uýra, a visual artist, biologist, art educator, and researcher based in Manaus, Brazil who began their work in the sciences, but in 2016 found that art provided another way for them to communicate human/nonhuman relations and to fight for Indigenous land rights. The artist’s Indigenous background and the fieldwork they have done with riverine communities has been decisive to their perception of the world, emphasizing conservation as a practice that comes from the heart rather than the mind.[14] Through their work and research, Emerson Uýra attempts to look at the parallels between social violence and environmental destruction by engaging with a history of Brazil that is born from gender, racial, and environmental violence.

In the context of the present study, Narrating Art and Feminisms: Eastern Europe and Latin America, I also want to consider how womxn artists in Eastern Europe engage with topics of land and ecology while acknowledging the unique and distinct contexts in each of these regions. One particular figure of note is the Lithuanian artist Emilija Škarnulytė who, in her projects, delves into the many consequences of extractive capitalism, the Cold War, and industrial histories.[15] In October 2021, Škarnulytė presented her video installation Eternal Return in the Tate Modern’s South Tank to mark the 26th United Nations Climate Change Conference. Set 10,000 years in the future, the film looks back on the 21st century. To make the piece, the artist worked with mapping technologies–sonar, remote sensing, and seafloor scanning–to traverse Baia, an ancient Roman City now underwater, and the Gulf of Mexico, where oil spills have led ecologists to experiment with coral breeding to restore the damaged ecosystems. Škarnulytė is interested in what she calls “geo-traumas,” radical geologies, and the creation of new spatial geographies due to extractive industries.

Despite some of the intersections between Škarnulytė’s work and that of womxn artists working in Latin America, I would suggest that there are significant differences, specifically between how they confront questions of ecology through topics of extractive capitalist industries. From this trans-regional dialogue, a differing historical relationship to extractivism and capitalism and, relatedly, regional histories of slavery and colonialism emerge. Nevertheless, perhaps recognizing this difference unfolds possibilities for discussing the unique but intersecting challenges of womxn artists working with ecological practices between Eastern Europe and Latin America.


By: Madeline Murphy Turner


[1] For further reading on Regina Vater’s ecofeminist practice, see Gillian Sneed, “Regina Vater’s Ecofeminist Rituals of Waste and Renewal, 1983–88,” post: notes on art in a global context (May 12, 2021).

[2] Radical Women: Latin American Art, 1960–1975 initiated in 2017 at the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles, USA, and traveled to the Pinacoteca de Sao Paulo, Brazil and later to the Brooklyn Museum in New York City, USA. I choose the term “nature” here because it is the term that is primarily used when discussing the work of women artists of this time and their focus on land, animals, and other organisms. Nevertheless, it is important to note that the contemporary decolonial scholarship I am interested in primarily uses the terms “nonhuman” or “other-than-human” to refer to these living entities, which, in the Western colonial world have been separated from and subjugated by the human.

[3] Throughout this text, I use the term “womxn” rather than “women” when I refer to a range of artists that include creators who identify as trans, nonbinary, or cis. When drawing references from texts, exhibitions, or projects, I maintain the original term used by the author, curator, or project organizers. While the topic of gender identity is fundamental to this conversation, a detailed analysis is beyond the scope of this brief introductory text.

[4] Astrid Ulloa, “Feminismos territoriales en América Latina: defensas de la vida frente a los extractivismos”, Nómadas 45 (octubre 2016).

[5] Maristella Svampa, “Feminismos ecoterritoriales en América Latina: entre la violencia patriarcal y extractivista y la interconexión con la naturaleza,” Documentos de Trabajo 59 (2021).

[6] Francesca Gargallo Celentani, Feminismos desde Abya Yala. Ideas y proposiciones de las Mujeres de 607 pueblos en nuestra América (Bogotá: Ediciones Desde Abajo, 2015).

[7] Silvia Federici, “Women’s Struggles for Land and the Common Good in Latin America,” in Re-enchanting the world: feminism and the politics of the commons (Oakland, California: PM Press, 2019), 134.

[8] Maristella Svampa, Neo-extractivism in Latin America socio-environmental conflicts, the territorial turn, and new political narratives (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2019).

[9] Federici, 135.

[10] Elements of Plantío Rafael Barrett were exhibited in the 2021-2022 exhibition Simbiología: Prácticas artísticas en un planeta en emergencia at the Centro Cultural Kirchner, Buenos Aires, Argentina. The project is named after the anarchist theorist Rafael Barrett who in his writing denounced slavery in the Paraguayan yerba plantations and, in 1910, profound class inequality in Argentina. His work prioritized food sovereignty, access to land, private property, and the de-signification of food from a commercial means. According to Millán, when she first proposed to the project to Conamuri, the members of the group were already familiar with and admired the work of Rafael Barrett. Conversation with Mónica Millán by the author. March 2, 2022.

[11] While there are five linguistic families and nineteen distinct Indigenous self-identifying peoples across Paraguay, Conamuri specifically designates themselves as a group that is composed of “Indigenous and peasant women.” For more information see:

[12] Conversation with Mónica Millán by the author. March 2, 2022.

[13] Marina Reyes Franco, “Atlas San Juan: Afro-Caribbean Connection,” Art in America (March 1, 2019).

[14] Conversation with Emerson Uýra by the author. January 19, 2022.

[15] I am grateful to Inga Lāce for offering me points of investigation in relation to this topic. Emilija Skarulyte, Sophie Cavoulacos, and Valentine Umansky. “Image Tectonics: A Conversation with Emilija Skarnulyte,” post: notes on art in a global context (October 28, 2021).

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