aura_in visibility of the feminine”

by Helena Mendes Pereira

Fernanda Fragateiro (PT, 1962) brings together, in this exhibition, recent and unseen works that evoke artists and architects who, due to their condition of being women, have not managed to inscribe their names into History. In the artist’s words:

“AURA is the title of a book by Carlos Fuentes[1], published in 1962, the year of my birth and tells the story of an old woman who summons the past by making another woman appear, much younger, Aura. The two women are one. The book is about the desire to appear and to remain.

Aura is thus a kind of ghost and voice that is present in absence. The word Aura is also breath; emanation; atmosphere; celebrity. Aura is also a woman’s name. The artists who appear in my work have an aura, there is a rumour around them for the stories surrounding them, for the disappearance they have been subjected to.”

In a 2015 interview with Maura Reilly (USA, 1950), Linda Nochlin (USA, 1931-2017) stated that “In the West, greatness has been defined since antiquity as white, Western, privileged, and, above all, male.” But the realisation that the canons of art history in the West are problematic is not new. In her 1971 essay, Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?[2], Linda Nochlin warned women (researchers, historians) who try to name female Michelangelos or Picassos:

There are no women equivalents for Rembrandt, Delacroix or Cézanne, Picasso or Matisse. Any more than there are black American equivalents for the same. The problem is systemic: it lies not in our hormones if we are women, or in the color of our skin, or if we are people of color – but in our institutions and our education.  The question of equality centers on the very nature of institutional structures themselves, on patriarchy, and on the white, masculine prerogative that is assumed as “natural”. It is precisely this ideological stronghold over women and non-white people that have prevented them from succeeding historically.

Maura Reilly is the director of the Zimmerli Art Museum at Rutgers University. And she has dedicated her entire career, as an author and curator, to underrepresented artists, especially women. In the book “Curatorial Activism, Towards an Ethics of Curating”[3], she states the following:

Statistics demonstrate that the fight for gender and race equality in the art world is far from over. Despite decades of postcolonial, feminist, anti-racist, and queer activism and theorizing, the art world continues to exclude “Other” artists – those who are women, of color, and LGBTQ[4]. Discrimination against these artists invades every aspect of the art world, from gallery representation, auction-price differentials, and press coverage to inclusion in permanent collections and solo exhibition programs.

(…) how can we get people in the art world to think about gender, race, and sexuality, to understand that these are persistent concerns that require action?; how can we all contribute to ensuring that the art world becomes more inclusive?

Several curators throughout the world are addressing, or have addressed, this issue of discrimination head-on.

These curators – and others like them, interested in art world injustices – have curated everything from biennials and retrospectives to large-scale thematic exhibitions, focusing on both historical and contemporary material.  Some have tackled the historical canon, inserting artists into narratives that had hitherto omitted them because of their sex and/or sexuality. Others have organized large monographic exhibitions of artists who have been historically overlooked, while others still have curated thematic exhibitions of modern and contemporary art that account for a wider display and thereby expand the historical canon and/or the contemporary art discourse in general. 

Women are still far from being the “future of man”, to use the famous expression of the poet Louis Aragon (FR, 1897-1982). We have not yet taken the place that is due to us in reconstituting and rewriting humanity’s past.[5] The solution to this sex and gender informational deficit is therefore clear: we must reduce the deficit of female representation.

When women are involved in decision-making, research and knowledge production, they are not forgotten. Women’s lives and perspectives emerge from the shadows. This benefits women everywhere and, as the story of Taimina, the maths teacher who loved to crochet, shows, it often benefits humanity as a whole. And so, going back to Freud’s ‘riddle of femininity’, it turns out the answer was in front of us all along. All “people” needed to do was ask women.[6]

Intentionally, the work of Fernanda Fragateiro seeks this mending, rewriting or reconstitution of an Art History that gives back the place to women, the artist being a researcher, a devourer of archives that support this urgency of gender representational justice. And this is always the starting point: the story one wants to tell so that history is fairer and closer to reality. In her dives into the sources of information, Fragateiro returns with the context of the influence of these authors, whose contributions she does not mimic, but rather reads, allowing them to nourish her forms and, with the subtlety of one who listens to the details, the artist produces a body of objects with references in architecture and design, almost like topographies of the landscape, geodesic records of places as if the minimal and beautiful form could not hide the human presence and, above all, the absence of the inscribed woman. The singularity of Fernanda Fragateiro’s work lies precisely in this path between story, archive and form, in this process of synthesis of a memory to be written, of a woman to be inscribed. The design of cities, of territories, is the inscription of Humanity and, perhaps for this reason, the materials used have that plurality, that dispersion that we find around us. Textile, metal, concrete and other industry mortars, sometimes photography itself and, always, the semiotics (and even iconography) proper of book titles, when it is not the page volumes that dictate what one wants. Possibilities linked by the message – from the story to the encounter with the poetic-philosophical that is daily –, by the tenuous palette, profoundly of nature but sometimes pop and by the elegance and the drawing, because the drawing is the thought and the fight is the engine.

Agnes Martin (Canada, 1912-2004), artist; Alison Smithson (UK, 1928-1993), architect; Anni Albers (Alemanha, 1899-1994), artist; Charlotte Perriand (FR, 1903-1999), architect and designer; Clara Porset (Cuba, 1895-1981), designer; Dara Birnbaum (USA, 1946), artist; Denise Scott Brown (Zambia, 1931), architect; Eileen Gray (Irland, 1878-1976), architect and designer; Judith Shea (USA, 1948), artist Lilly Reich (Germany, 1885-1947), architect and designer; Lina Bo Bardi (IT, 1914-1992), architect; Lotte Stam-Beese (Poland, 1903-1988), architect; Otti Berger (Croatia, 1898-1944), designer; or Ray Eames (USA, 1912-1988), artist. With a focus on modernism, these are just some of the authors, women, whose works and life stories move and inspire Fernanda Fragateiro, who finds in them the common thread of her own margins, of her tangents, in other words, of an artistic production that has developed over almost 40 years with undeniable points of contact with architecture, with design and, above all, with the landscape and the word. Perhaps the condition of her own difficulty of initial visibility, despite an undeniable consistency of artistic production, which begins early on during her attendance at the Faculty of Fine Arts of the University of Lisbon.

Fernanda Fragateiro was already an activist as a student, letting herself be inundated by the revolutionary and transforming spirit of the Carnation Revolution in 1974, and the issues of equality and gender equity have always structured her actions and fights. She organised exhibitions only with other women artists, refusing the primacy of patriarchy and seeking to build a space that was hers. The path leads her to alternative exhibition spaces, to the public space and to an inevitable relationship with different contexts and communities. In the profusion, the artist, author, woman, learns the codices of the system and seeks to counteract it, to connect, to inscribe herself without leaving what distinguishes her, without falling into formulae. Fernanda Fragateiro thinks about the exhibition spaces, and the presentation contexts, observes the time, and draws to measure. Her work has no inscription in styles, in a particular technology, but the artist inscribes herself, has already inscribed herself. Her international career and her unanimous recognition speak for themselves and therefore need no introduction, even for the most stubborn of the patriarchal faithful. Her lines, intersections, encounters, textures, colours, references, and homages are her singular language, her narratives of the days and, above all, of the modern times in which we build ourselves as a civilisation.

I read the catalogues of other exhibitions by the artist, with other texts and words that have been said about her and her work. Process, matter, materials, laboratory, form, archive, construction, poetry, authors, architects. Especially female authors and architects. I go through the titles of the works in this exhibition: landscape, disappearance, essay, homage, difference, repetition, oblivion, study, architecture and, of course, aura. That aura or Aura is the sharp image engraved on the cloth. I feel the exhibition, not as a retrospective or anthology, but as an expanded synthesis of who Fernanda Fragateiro is, of what her 60 years of age and almost 40 of production without breaks are. And in this synthesis, expanded (why not) there is the greater cause of feminism, of being a woman and knowing that you must contribute to history being revised, to new discourse being produced, to absolute equality being demanded.

It is therefore up to you, workers, who are the victims of inequality and injustice, it is up to you to establish on earth, at last, the regime of justice and absolute equality between men and women.

Flora Tristan (France, 1803-1844), União Operária, 1843[7]

[1]Carlos Fuentes was born in Panama in 1928. The son of Mexican diplomats, he spent his childhood in various cities on the American continent, such as Montevideo, Rio de Janeiro, Washington D.C., Santiago de Chile, Quito and Buenos Aires. He also followed the diplomatic route but made a career as a writer of novels, novellas or essays. He died in Mexico in 2012.

[2]   on May 17th, 2023.

[3] REILLY, Maura – Curatorial Activism, Towards an Ethics of Curating. London: Thames & Hudson, 2018. Page 17.

[4] The acronym, in 2023, was updated to LGBTQIA+.

[5] SAND, Shlomo – Breve História Mundial da Esquerda (2022). Lisbon: Livros Zigurate, 2023.  Page 225.

[6] PEREZ, Carolina Created – Mulheres Invisíveis: Como os Dados Configuram o Mundo Feito para os Homens (2019). Lisbon: RelógioLouis Aragon D’Água Editores, 2020. Pages 333 and 334.

[7] Quoted in SAND, Shlomo – Breve História Mundial da Esquerda (2022). Lisbon: Livros Zigurate, 2023.  Page 212.