October 11, 2011 | Culture and Media
Woman of the Week: Andrea Arroyo
Artist Andrea Arroyo is raising awareness about the murdered women of Ciudad Juarez, with a series of 400 drawings.
By Anna Louie Sussman
Four years ago, a young woman in Andrea Arroyo’s neighborhood of Washington Heights was murdered while she was out for a jog. The community was put on alert, and a day or two later, a suspect was apprehended.
The event shocked her for two reasons. Arroyo, a widely-exhibited visual artist and curator whose work is held by institutions like the Smithsonian, immigrated from Mexico City in 1983, and until that moment, the city felt “incredibly safe” to her. All of a sudden, it wasn’t. Even more shocking, though, was the speed with which the police acted. In Ciudad Juarez, a border city of 1.5 million, over 400 young women have been killed since 1993 – and nearly all of the murder cases remain unsolved. Witnessing the swift police response in New York threw the official indifference in Juarez into sharp relief.
“Suddenly it dawned on me,” Arroyo, 49, recalled, “that it was just one crime – a horrible crime, to be sure – but the perpetrator was caught so quickly.” The more she thought about the impunity in Juarez, the more she felt compelled to respond: with a series of drawings, 400 in all, representing each of the known victims, who were largely schoolgirls and low-wage workers known as maquiladoras who filled the factories established by multinational companies in Juarez’s free trade zone just across the border from Texas. Almost all were sexually assaulted before they were killed.
“It’s a big project, so it took some time for me to actually commit to doing it,” she admits. “Four hundred drawings – that’s a big commitment, and I do make my living as an artist.” But once she started, there was no going back. In fits and starts, with a few weeks off here and a burst of concentration there, her white chalk danced across sheet after sheet of black paper, until she found herself with around 320 drawings.
“The black paper evokes mourning and infinity, the white line evokes a police chalk outline, and also light and life,” she explained. Unlike some artists, who have evoked the victims through portraiture, she chose to create “abstract tributes” rather than memorials.
The drawings, which together form a series called “Flor de Tierra, Homage to the Women of Juarez,” should be viewed alongside another body of work for which she is perhaps better-known, “Flor de Vida,” which celebrates the lives and stories of extraordinary figures like Frida Kahlo and Cleopatra.
“It’s a parallel project that elevates the victims to the same level of the women who everybody recognizes, and underscores the idea that the life of all women is equally valuable,” she said. “Why is the life of a recognized woman more valuable than that of a victim?”
Despite the clear message, she insists the drawings do not constitute advocacy or activism. While she researched the topic heavily on the internet and spoke to someone who works closely with victims’ families, she herself has not traveled there, nor has she spoken to the families.
She has exhibited a selection of them on several occasions since she began the project, and they will be up for a month beginning October 15, 2011 at the Azucarera Gallery in New York City.
“In New York, the case of Juarez is not very well-known, so every time I show, it serves its purpose [of raising awareness],” she said.
“It’s my personal response,” she said. “I don’t see it as a service or as advocacy. I am very humble about that. I see it more as art, and then I hope it would also serve a purpose.”
Anna Louie Sussman is a writer and editor for the Women in the World Foundation website, and a frequent contributor to major U.S. magazines and newspapers.