Translation by Gabrielle Garcia Steib
Images courtesy of Claudia Mandel Katz
Portrait of Claudia Mandel Katz courtesy of Alicia Olmos Ochoa
In 2014, during a visit to Mexico City, art historian Dr. Griselda Pollock gave a series of conferences at local universities and conducted a workshop titled Feminism and Critical Curatorial Practice organized by the Autonomous National University of Mexico (UNAM), the Universidad Iberoamericana (IBERO), and The Museo Nacional de Arte (MUNAL). Dr. Claudia Mandel Katz and I, along with other selected participants from both universities and the research and curatorial team at MUNAL, worked together to study, analyze, and reinterpret works of art in the museum’s collection from a feminist perspective of art history based on the work and writings by Pollock, particularly Feminist Interventions in Art’s History and Encounters in the Virtual Feminist Museum. During this formative occasion, all participants were presented with an invaluable opportunity to exchange ideas and engage in collaborative writing. An opportunity that allowed us to learn more about our colleagues, some of whom I have stayed in touch with and followed their work as in the case of Dr. Mandel Katz.
In 2009, Mandel Katz created The Women’s Museum in Costa Rica. Established as the first feminist museum in Central America, this online exhibition initiative found its physical space in Mandel Katz’s family home and since then has carried out important work for women’s rights in South America. To speak about the background and mission of this organization that now is part of The International Association of Women’s Museums (IAWM), as well as her academic interests and professional path, I reached out to Mandel Katz for this interview conducted via email.
Claudia Pretelin: Could you share with us a little bit about your academic background? How did your interest in art, gender studies, and memory begin?
Claudia Mandel Katz: First, I want to thank you for inviting me to participate in Instruments of Memory. It’s an honor for me to collaborate with this initiative!
My interest in art arose after studying for two years in the medicine program of the University of Buenos Aires. When I left the program, I started taking drawing classes at the Argentine Society of Visual Arts (SAAP) and the Association of Fine Arts for Students and Graduates (MEEBA). I was preparing myself in the studio of the visual artist, Domingo Onofrio to enter the then-called Prilidiano Pueyrredón National Academy of Fine Arts, where later I graduated as National Professor of Drawing and Painting. At the same time, I took extracurricular courses in engraving techniques, sculpture, ceramic murals, and for three years I took courses in textile techniques with Norma Correas at the Ernesto de La Cárcova School of Fine Arts. After several years of being an elementary and high school fine arts teacher, I pursued a degree in Art History in the Philosophy and Literature program at The University of Buenos Aires, graduating with a Bachelor of Arts.
My interest in memory and human rights has a lot to do with my experience of having lived through a military dictatorship between 1976-1983, a period in which I was politically active until I realized that the micro-machismo also occurred in the realm of militancy practice. Years later, while I was studying art history, I took courses at the Open Lecture in Human Rights in the Philosophy and Literature program at the University of Buenos Aires created by the journalist and historian Osvaldo Bayer to specialize in Education and Human Rights. From there, I developed pedagogical work in art and human rights in the school where I worked as a fine arts teacher in Rosario city. Later, my learning was extended to other spaces that gave me new pedagogical perspectives such as the “Meeting for the Unit of Latin American Educators”, organized by the Ministry of Education in Cuba. I traveled to Mexico with the student delegation of Centro Normal Nº1 de Rosario. We participated in the “First Intercultural Youth Forum” in Oaxaca and the Art and Human Rights Workshop in the framework of the “Third International Colloquium on Human Rights Education: The Challenges of Education”, organized by the State Commission for the Defense of Human Rights in the Puebla. In 2000, I participated in the “6th World Conference on Education for Peace” organized by UNESCO in Paris, and the seminar “Culture of Peace for a New Millenium”, organized by the University of Santiago de Compostela, in Spain.
In regards to gender studies, it is something that always concerned me and I began to develop in my academic work when I settled with my family in Costa Rica in 2002. I had the opportunity to complete three graduate programs at the University of Costa Rica. This allowed me to deeply learn the context of the Central American Region, and specifically, women’s art production. In my Master of Arts, I focused on female Costa Rican artists who worked with their bodies as a tool for their art. For my Ph.D. in Society and Culture Studies, I investigated the aesthetic practices of Latin American artists and the various forms of violence against women. For my Ph.D. in History, I worked in the construction of female subjectivity as an aesthetic-political praxis in dissidence in the face of the patriarchal discourse in the last decades of the 20th century in Costa Rica.
CP: In your practice and writings, you have analyzed the female body, specifically as an instrument of memory. With the worldwide health crisis that is still affecting us, I’m curious to hear your reflections on the body in confinement, and how this crisis has deepened our tools of self-control.
CMK: It’s difficult to say what the impact of confinement will leave on our individual and social memory, but what we do know, thanks to Michel Foucault, is that there are no politics that do not imply body politics because our bodies are traversed by power.1 I think that the perversity of the effects of necropolitical and totalitarian management of neoliberalism, which deepened with the global crisis, is expressed in the dimensions of what Hannah Arendt called “managed massacres”: the human and the environmental.2
What the pandemic has made clear is the inequality between the wealthy countries and the poor countries in terms of the monopoly of intellectual property of vaccines which rest in the hands of pharmaceutical empires and their global distribution. In the article “Learning from the Virus” published in El País, philosopher Paul B. Preciado points out that COVID-19 now reproduces itself in living spaces of individual bodies–the aggressive border policies that took place in national territories excluding immigrants and refugees perceived as a threat. Now, “the mask is the new border”, he explains. The abjection of the necropolitical device lies in the myth of infinite growth that brings a great crisis within it since it involves the destructive logic that it causes: that of the environment and the exclusion of bodies to be considered marginal and sacrificed.
CP: In your text Aesthetic on the Edge: The Female Body, Memory and Resistance, you describe reflections on memory, among other things, from the perspective of Andreas Huyssen and Elizabeth Jelin and you analyze it from the work of Regina José Galindo. What is your relationship with the concept of memory? And, reposing one of your questions in this case applied to writing and art criticism– how is it possible to transform individual experiences into collective and public meanings in our contemporaneity?
CMK: My relationship with the concept of memory has always been, and continues to be fundamental because it is deeply linked to my emotions and affections. I grew up in a Jewish home. I lived with my maternal grandparents who migrated to Argentina from Lithuania and Poland. My father and my grandfather sometimes spoke Yiddish at home, but what struck me was that, besides at my insistence, my grandfather never spoke a word in Polish. Later, I understood that his refusal to speak his native language didn’t have to do with forgetting it. He arrived in Buenos Aires from Łomża as an adult, but he associated speaking Polish with his painful experiences linked to anti-Semitism in Europe. Pain is an emotional anchor that, although is private, as Sara Ahmed explains in The Cultural Politics of Emotion,3 allows us to deconstruct the rhetorical figures that articulate the textual politics of forms of discrimination such as racism, sexism, and homophobia.
In my memory, my roots were woven into the recent past in Argentina. Later, I wrote an article about this, where I compared the representation of memory through the cases of the Jewish Museum of Berlin (1999) by Daniel Libeskind and the Parque de la Memoria de Buenos Aires (1999) to pay tribute to the victims of state terrorism in 1976. Working with human rights, and memory, according to Rita Segato is nominative–we do not see what we do not name.4 For this reason, I find it necessary to make visible otherness, to name the human sufferings articulated by unnamed imaginaries, such as violence against women in its most visible forms. Deconstructing individual experiences is political work, whether applied to art, writing, or art criticism. I believe individual experiences can be transformed into collective and public meanings by redefining our subjectivity to seek our autonomy, by seeking to subvert hegemonic discourses. Following the Rancièrian perspective–by proposing new meanings of the visible, the speakable, and the thinkable.5
CP: Can you talk about the creation of the Women’s Museum in Costa Rica. How did this project initiate? What are the museum’s goals and how have they evolved since the museum began until now?
CMK: The creation of the Women’s Art Museum of Costa Rica began in 2009 when I was investigating the theme of violence against women in contemporary Latin American art. The museum was created in parallel to the writing process of my book, Estéticas del borde/ Border Aesthetics.6 It felt necessary to have a space to visibilize the works of female artists that address these issues in their practice.
The goals of the museum are to defend gender equality and the human rights of women and girls. The mission of the museum is to be a space that seeks reflection, research, and dialogue– a space that produces knowledge of feminist values. In the beginning, the museum didn’t have a physical space. It was just a virtual site for female artists to exhibit their work. Soon it became a permanent digital archive. The museum’s permanent collection is located in a small studio at my house and is made up of works donated by more than 30 artists.
We offer guided tours to groups and visitors interested in learning about feminist art. We have received student groups from various institutions, including the Women’s Studies program at the Universidad Nacional, the International Council Educational Exchange (CIEE), and others from Casa del Artista, Universidad de Costa Rica, and Universidad Veritas. In 2012, along with the Institute of Gender Studies at the Universidad Estatal a Distancia (UNED) and the Banco Popular we organized the first Concurso Nacional de Fotografía “Zero Violence Against Women”. Another important project was the Video Festival organized by Chinese artists in Costa Rica in 2019, along with the Mexican artist and curator Elizabeth Ross, 5 célula arte, and members of the community. The project was carried out at the Universidad Veritas thanks to the generous support of Susana Sánchez Carballo and the Instituto Confucio de Universidad de Costa Rica. The same year we participated in the “Museum Educators Meeting” where 52 people from 28 museum entities attended, from six provinces of the country. On November 25, 2020, partnering with the Centro Cultural de España en Costa Rica we carried out the first virtual edition of the Ibero-American Festival of Videoart and Animation “Zero Violence Against Women”. Recently, the museum’s team at the Museo de las Mujeres Costa Rica expanded and we created an open call in collaboration with the Centro Cultural de España en Costa Rica to host the Art and Gender Laboratories in October and November of 2021 under the title “Gender in Deconstruction: Dismantling Violence Against Women and Girls” which was aimed at educators in Costa Rica and Central America.
Another important aspect regarding feminist pedagogy is that in 2021 the State University of Distant Learning in Costa Rica published a didactic unit in a first preliminary digital version titled Gender and Multiculturalism in Contemporary Art for students of the Master’s in Social Work through the Humanities program. The theoretical categories of this text, that will reach other countries in the region, are exemplified with works from our virtual exhibitions and also from the physical collection of the museum.
CP: Tell me a little about the process of being included in the International Association of Women’s Museums? What is the experience like belonging to this association and what have you learned from the collaboration?
CMK: The process wasn’t immediate. Up until 2008, at the time of the First International Conference of Women’s Museums in Merano, Italy, women’s museums had evolved independently and often knew nothing about each other. The second conference was held in 2009 in Bonn, Germany, and further strengthened relations and common projects. In 2010, the 3rd conference took place in Buenos Aires, on May 24th and 25th. It was also part of the 2nd International Women’s Feminist Congress of 2010. It was during this congress that the International Network of Women’s Museums was created, the first step for the creation of IAWM. In May 2012, the 4th Annual International Conference of Women’s Museum was celebrated in Alice Springs, Australia, where representatives of various women’s museums reunited in the Great Hall of Fame of National female pioneers. This meeting in Alice Springs was a milestone because it was decided that the network of female museums would convert into an international association with registered regulations. Articles and a resolution were approved and an executive board of six members from various continents was elected.
In November 2016, the 5th annual IAWM conference took place under the title “Museums for Women: For a Culture of Equality” organized by the Universidad de la Ciudad de México; it was directed by the Federación Mexicana de Universitarias AC (FEMU) and the Universidad de la Ciudad de México. On August 31- September 3, 2021, the 6th IAWM conference took place in a hybrid model (virtual and in-person ) in Hittisau, Austria under the motto “Y todavía creamos/And still we create.” From 2016-2021, I was a member of the board of directors of IAWM, which was a very enriching collaboration experience due to the possibility of knowing how other women’s museums work (physically or virtually). Being a network that brings together more than 60 women’s museums, there has been a very interesting debate between the differences between women’s museums and gender museums and on the importance of the education and empowerment of women. We have participated in various diverse projects: in 2017, for Women’s Day, IAWM was represented through an exhibition in the European Parliament held in Brussels. Europe’s Parliament Committee on Women’s Rights and Gender Equality organized a global forum for gender equality leaders from State members of the European Union and other countries to discuss the topic “Economic Empowerment of Women.” In 2018, we collaborated on the virtual exhibition “Best Female Friends” which was organized by the Women’s Museum in Bonn, with the text “Carmen Lyra y Luisa González Gutiérrez: Amigas, Maestras y Activistas Comunistas”. In 2020, we sent the artworks of five Costa Rican artists for the exhibition project: “Birth Cultures”, a traveling exhibition that opened in the Frauenmuseum Hittisau, Austria and would travel to Barcelona, Ukraine, and Italy in 2022. In 2021, we participated in the project “SHHH! Stories of Abortion”, which was organized by the Women’s Museum of Norway and it includes a variety of individual experiences with abortion across the world. We sent stories together with historical and cultural data specific to Costa Rica.
CP: What are the plans for the Museo de las Mujeres in Costa Rica and how can those interested in collaborating, donating, or spreading awareness of the museum learn more about the organization?
CMK: We plan to expand the project “Gender in Deconstruction: Dismantling Violence Against Women and Girls”, which would benefit 200 educators in Costa Rica and other Central American countries so that in turn, each of them can replicate the theoretical and methodological framework of the labs in their workspaces. This would benefit more young women and girls. We plan to systematize the process of this experience and make a digital publication with the results. We also hope to open a volunteer program to carry out residencies or internships for up to 3 months at the Women’s Museum of Costa Rica which is aimed at female students or professionals who speak Spanish at an intermediate level. For now, this plan has been postponed due to the pandemic. For those interested in collaborating, they can send me projects, proposals, or donations of work to become part of the permanent collection. To contact me you can reach me through email or phone: https://www.museodelasmujeres.co.cr/contacto
CP: What is your favorite instrument of memory?
CMK: There are two irreducible instruments of memory that impact me often: one is the song “La memoria” by León Gieco and the other is the memorial of Yad LaYeled, located at Yad Vashem, the world center for the Holocaust Memorial in Jerusalem, Israel. It’s a memorial to the half-million Jewish children murdered in Shoah, the Hebrew word for catastrophe. The memorial Yad LaYeled was designed by the architect Moshe Safdie. It is built in an underground cavern in which you have to descend to enter. Upon entering, the only light you see is the dim flickers from burning candles that reflect in broken mirrors, a metaphor for the million stars that recall the massacred children, while along the way of the memorial, the name and ages, and birthplaces of the children are heard.
Thank you, Claudia!
1. Michel Foucault, Historia de la sexualidad, 1999. México, Siglo XXI.
2. Hannah Arendt, Eichmann en Jerusalén: Un estudio sobre la banalidad del mal, 2003. Barcelona. Lumen.
3. 2004, Edinburgh University Press & Routledge.
4. Rita Segato, Nombrar el género y la raza, 5 de febrero de 2020. Facultad Libre. Visit:https://youtu.be/qWsYuSWX_WU
5. Jacques, Rancière. El desacuerdo. Política y filosofía, 2010, Buenos Aires, Nueva Visión. Visit:https://www.cnnchile.com/mundo/de-los-25-paises-con-tasas-mas-altas-de-femicidios-14-son-de-america-latina_20180815/
6. Claudia Mandel Katz, Estéticas del borde. Prácticas artísticas y violencia contra las mujeres en Latinoamérica. San José, Costa Rica, Editorial Universidad de Costa Rica.
Thank you, Claudia!
Claudia Mandel Katz is a professor, researcher, curator and the founder and director of the Women’s Museum in Costa Rica since 2009. Professor of drawing and painting from the Prilidiano Pueyrredón National Academy of Fine Arts, Buenos Aires, Argentina. She received a Bachelor degree in Art History from the University of Buenos Aires, Argentina, graduated with a Master of Arts, and a double PhD in History and Society Studies and Culture from the University of Costa Rica. She is the author of the books Map of the female body. A deconstructive reading of visual creators in Costa Rica and Aesthetics of the border Aesthetic practices and violence against women in Latin America.
If you are interested in learning more about Claudia Mandel Katz and the Women’s Museum in Costa Rica, check out their website museodelasmujeres.co.cr and follow them on Instagram @museodelasmujeres_cr
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