To Change Everything, All You Need Is a BodyFriday, February 15, 2019
This text has been possible thanks to the invaluable work of the artist Adán Vallecillo.
Clementina Suárez (1902–1991) was one of the primary agitators, catalysts and motivators behind the contemporary Honduran and Central American art scene. Although she dedicated herself primarily to literary reflections and practices—Clementina is considered one of the leading poets of Honduras and was the second woman to be published in the country with her book Bleeding Heart (1930)—she saw it as essential to develop her work as a promoter of visual and performance art, along with feminist activism and the circulation and engagement of critical thinking, crisscrossing the borders and limits of artistic disciplines. In her work, she uses her body as an incendiary tool, in an impassioned manner that acknowledges its essential role in the process of women’s liberation in the first half of the 20th century.
Clementina took her responsibility to Central Americans seriously, believing that if the conditions for an active art scene did not exist, one had an obligation to bring about such conditions. And that was what she did, right where she was, making use of the resources at her disposal—her homes, her friends, her intellectual community, her tensions, her contradictions. She put it all on the table to create spaces where literature—the world she inhabited—could connect with visual arts practices, and where artists could nourish their yearnings, expectations and debates.
Her momentum was a key link in the process of internalization and professionalization of the Central American art scene, radiating out of Mexico City’s Gallery of Central American Art, Rancho del Artista in El Salvador and the Morazánica Gallery in Honduras.
In the early 1930s, an era abuzz with emancipatory energy, Clementina set off for Mexico City, where she founded the Central American Art Gallery, a meeting place for intellectuals and artists influenced by the effervescence of the Revolution, such as Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera. She also became friends with the traveling Spanish poet León Felipe, who influenced her poetic work “Sailboats” (1937) and who was working during those same years, curiously enough, on a translation of the primary works of Transcendental Hispanism by American visionary Waldo Frank, “America Hispana: A Portrait and a Prospect” (1932).
Clementina was situated in a context that already sought an America for all, capable of overcoming the subaltern South-Center-North relationships that would come later on. This was the context in which they laid out a different way of conceiving of themselves, where all the identities that had been excluded from the hegemonic North-North logic found a place to fit in, taking as a reference the proposals of José Carlos Mariátegui, Joaquín García Monje, Heliodoro Valle, Victoria Ocampo and many others associated with a current of thought marked by an extraordinary and dynamic idealism known as arielismo.
José Enrique Rodó and his essay “Ariel” (1900) built the foundation for a broader process that would impact the vast majority of intellectuals over the first half of the 20th century, who were concerned with the construction of “our America,” a just, solidary, anti-imperialist America capable of defining itself and of overcoming the various colonialities rooted in Latin America’s socio-political structure.
Arielismo voiced its discontent with a process of accelerating modernization to which the recently formed Latin American States had been subjected since the end of the 19th century. The arielistas dreamt of a non-utilitarian America capable of transcending the conditions imposed by Anglo-Saxon positivism, opting for beauty over practicality, artistic practice over scientific imperialism and spiritual development over all the consumption implicit in the process of “modernization.” “Ariel” became a key manifesto for artists and intellectuals who sought to free themselves from teachings that racialized and objectified the complexity of Latin American identities.
“American Repertoire” (1919-1959) was a journal founded and directed by Costa Rican Joaquín García Monje that played an important role in the circulation of arielismo at the international level. Like its Peruvian contemporary “Amauta” (1926-1930) by José Carlos Mariátegui, it stood in defense of an America liberated by the arts in which artistic practice acts as a lever for social transformation, as expressed by Mariátegui himself in his first book The Contemporary Scene (1925) or by Waldo Frank in Our America (1919).
Within their pages, the Woman Poet—as Clementina referred to herself—was one of the few women to publish poems on what was, at the time, an uncomfortable topic: a celebration of the female body through the exercise of a hypothetical freedom, a freedom that was yet to be realized.
In the late 1940s, Clementina collaborated with her new husband, painter Chepe Mejía, to open the “Rancho del Artista” in a rural cottage on the way to Santa Tecla, establishing one of the most emblematic spaces for the genealogy of contemporary Central American art. Their clear objective was to revitalize a context that had been choked out by the military dictatorship. Local and international artists and personalities of all types came together there. A well-known anecdote tells of the time Clementina asked one of the then-ambassadors of Spain to depart as persona non grata, to which he replied: “Madame, I am not accustomed to being treated in this way,” to which she answered, “Well, you’ll just have to get accustomed…”. This was evidence of how the processes of emancipation were already well established in the “terms of engagement” employed by the artists of this era.
The space featured a permanent exhibition of young artists like Camilo Minero or Luis Ángel Salines in dialogue with poetic readings by authors such as Eva Thais or Rafael Paz Paredes, and including open discussions of the political and artistic panorama with Chepe Mejía or Salarrué, who was no friend to the concept of “homeland” and argued for changing the name of El Salvador to its original name, Cuscatlán.
The Woman Poet recognized the importance of epistemic practice, of putting into circulation all kinds of thought in order to establish a nurturing environment for critical discussion. To do this she put in place a residency program, offering up the space as a resource. As a result, the sculptor Francisco Zúñiga was able to take up residence at “Rancho del Artista” along with all of his assistants during the development of his sculptural homage to the revolution, titled Allegory of the Constitution of 1950.
Clementina cultivated a space that was truly welcoming to all that was contemporary at the time, and even Roque Dalton himself commented about her in his work “Poor Little Poet that I Was” (1976), saying that “if Clementina didn’t exist, we would have to invent her.” “Rancho del Artista” also shared space with another important Salvadoran gallery, a key component in the professionalization process of the Salvadoran art market, the Forma gallery, owned by painter and promoter Julia Díaz.
In addition to her work revitalizing the Central American visual arts scene, we cannot overlook the complexity of her poetic practice, which is situated on the vaguely-defined frontier between performative practice and feminist activism.
In 1932, she gave a series of poetic lectures at the National Theatre in Tegucigalpa, where she scandalized the society of the era by displaying a seemingly naked body, evocative of the totemic Isadora Duncan. It was a body that displayed its infinite potential, that used reading as a way of adjusting to the movement of the soul, as Duncan herself noted in “The Philosopher’s Stone of Dancing” (1920), in a social context dominated by the debate over women’s suffrage in which the anti-suffragist movement argued that women were intellectually incapable of assuming the responsibilities of political life as citizens, rendering them barred from emancipation.
Clementina resisted. She would not take “no” for an answer. She undertook a process of resignification of the female being with the understanding that identities are multiple, and that our desires are diverse and do not fall into any singular construct. She believed there was no single path to accessing identity, much less was one consigned to being a body who maintains the stability of the domestic space. She used her body as a way to break free from the oppressions that women endured in early 20th-century Honduras, a conservative, puritanical and fearful society in which being female meant being one more cog in the social apparatus of reproduction.
Her intellectual contemporaries referred to her as the “New Woman” of Honduras. She founded, edited and directed the journal “Woman” (1933), which she distributed on the streets of Tegucigalpa in order to give evidence of a process of emancipation that was part of an international movement from which Honduras could not be separated.
Clementina produced a feminism of her own, one which celebrates a body that recognizes alterity, which does not exist without an “I” that is collectivized by all, which takes experience acquired through corporeality to be a node of knowledge in and of itself, which focuses on highlighting the “particularity” that is always acquired through a collective process of disordering of the pre-established order. It was her own way of bringing about the conditions for equality through intervention in spaces reserved exclusively for male intellectuals, giving evidence of a now-inevitable social change. In this way, Clementina vindicated “essentiality” by promoting the conditions of equality and justice essential to achieving an emancipated social and collective practice, free from any guardianship or tutelage.
Translated from the Spanish by Phillip Penix-Tadsen