Eugenio Viola on María Teresa Hincapié

Si este fuera un principio de infinito” (If This Were a Beginning of Infinity) is the first retrospective devoted to the work of María Teresa Hincapié (1954–2008), a pioneer of performance art in Colombia. Curated by Claudia Segura and Emiliano Valdés, the exhibition was the result of a collaboration with the Museum of Contemporary Art of Barcelona, to which it will travel this fall. In Hincapié’s work, the cadenced repetition of everyday gestures and actions and the deployment of an expanded temporality were strategies through which she transformed the commonplace into highly symbolic acts.

At the Museo de Arte Moderno de Medellín, an introduction recounted Hincapié’s shift from theater to performance art. In 1978, she began working with the Acto Latino experimental theater group, founded in 1967 by Juan Monsalve. Hincapié, like many other artists of her generation, was fascinated by the theories of Eugenio Barba’s International School of Theatre Anthropology and by Jerzy Grotowski’s Poor Theater. With Monsalve’s group, she performed in a series of street actions, embracing the Grotowskian concepts of theater as ritual and the body as a vehicle of ancestral memories and cosmic energies, elements that would then become emblematic in her own artistic investigations.

The 1987 action that gives the show its title was her first truly performative work. The artist went, with most of her belongings, to the Teatro Cuba, in the then-dilapidated Las Aguas neighborhood in the heart of Bogotá, and lived there for three days, carrying out her usual domestic activities. Described by the artist as training, this long-term performance takes everyday life as its starting point and is marked by the slowness of day-to-day actions. She reiterated this approach in Vitrina (Window), 1989: For three days, eight hours a day (the length of a typical workday), she performed in the storefront of the Librería Lerner, a famous bookshop located on the bustling Avenida Jiménez. There, clad in a blue nightgown, she executed ordinary tasks such as washing the window, walking around the space, and interacting with passersby, who were transformed into unwitting audience members. Hincapié used lipstick to write on the display window, then erased her words almost immediately with a soapy cloth.

Those two actions inaugurated a sequence of works in which the artist called stereotypes of womanhood into question and examined the expressive possibilities of domestic activities. Take, for instance, Hincapié’s emblematic Una cosa es una cosa (One Thing Is One Thing), 1990. In a space in an industrial neighborhood, over the course of eighteen days and in eight-hour shifts, the artist pulled objects—vases, pints, clothing—out of a series of bags and arranged these items on the floor as a sort of labyrinth or squared-off spiral, which she disassembled at the end of the day. Both Window and One Thing Is One Thing render the private sphere public, addressing a politics of daily life, private time, chores, labor, and the habitation of places. Beginning from a subjectivity centered on the body, memory, and desire, Hincapié inserts her actions into a profoundly unequal social and economic system, one accustomed to devaluing the female body and rendering it invisible. Hincapié, like other Latin American women artists of her generation—such as Cuban-born Ana Mendieta and Mexico’s Sara Minter—anticipated subsequent changes in the role of women. That’s why Hincapié’s work is so important, not only in Colombia, but also in the broader region.

Translated from Italian by Marguerite Shore.

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