Visual Arts

Artist immortalizes 'disposable' slain women of Ciudad Juárez

In her home in Lexington, artist Diane Kahlo sat behind paintings from her exhibit Wall of Memories: The Disappeared Señoritas of Ciudad Juárez. So far, she has painted the faces of more than 150 girls and women who have been murdered in the Mexican city. Hundreds more have been killed.
In her home in Lexington, artist Diane Kahlo sat behind paintings from her exhibit Wall of Memories: The Disappeared Señoritas of Ciudad Juárez. So far, she has painted the faces of more than 150 girls and women who have been murdered in the Mexican city. Hundreds more have been killed.

In Diane Kahlo's living room, stacks of framed faces sit on what used to be a dining room table. At her nearby worktable, she illuminates those faces in small, precise strokes: brown eyes that gleam with mischief or stare gravely ahead or smile with joy. One girl has flipped a braid over her shoulder; one wears her graduation cap; another shows off the white frills of her quinceañera dress.

Kahlo paints their lives so they won't be remembered only for their deaths.

The dead girls and women of Ciudad Juárez, Mexico, have a certain fame all their own, as will happen when hundreds of girls are murdered, many of them raped and mutilated, their bodies thrown into vacant lots or dusty cotton fields.

Kahlo is up to 150 painted portraits and images, but there have been many more victims; no one really knows. She paints with fury, sometimes with tears, but most of all as a mother.

"I painted them as a mother would because I'm trying to create a memory," said Kahlo, 61. "I wanted them to be remembered as they were," not as they were found, sometimes mutilated beyond the point of identification.

Kahlo's daughter, Anna, is 31, older than many of the murdered girls, and Kahlo says she has broken down when painting and thinking of her.

"It's very emotional," she said. "Very often I get very low looking at these faces."

But she can't stop.

"I've become obsessed," she said.

The 150 that she has finished are in her show that opens Monday, Wall of Memories: The Disappeared Señoritas of Ciudad Juárez, at the University of Kentucky's Tuska Center for Contemporary Art. It runs through Nov. 4.

A culture of impunity

Kahlo embarked on this project three years ago, when she began researching the girls of Juárez. The issue was at the intersection of many of her interests: Mexico and Latin America, violence against women, femicide, border and immigration issues. As a child, she lived in El Paso, Texas, just across the border from Juárez, and the headlines sliced into happier childhood memories of the area.

The murders started becoming an issue in 1993, when the mutilated bodies of dead girls and women started being found around Juárez. The numbers of murdered women now range from 400 to 1,000 since 1993; the explanations are just as varied. Some blame serial killers or the omnipresent drug wars. One theory looks at Juárez's numerous factories, known as maquiladoros, which gave precedence to women workers, some say, because their hands are smaller and more agile and because they could be paid less. But that upset traditional power structures.

Most of all, however, it's a culture of impunity, where killing women — and men, too — almost always goes unpunished.

Alice Driver is a doctoral candidate at UK, and her dissertation is about the disappeared women of Juárez.

"The roots of the problem are just the fact that in Mexico, there is a dysfunctional justice system," Driver said. Only 1 percent of criminal cases come to any conclusion in Mexico. "So any kind of justice has to come through other media: filmmakers, writers and artists."

With a grant from the Kentucky Foundation for Women, Kahlo began collecting photographs of the murder victims. She found them in newspapers or with the help of groups fighting to find the girls' killers.

"I started thinking: How do we memorialize and how do we remember?" Kahlo said. "How do we make this more personal?"

She started thinking about portraiture, which is not a "hip" art form, as she says, but it's one that was most often used to celebrate the rich and powerful through history.

"I decided to do portraits of girls who were considered to be disposable," she said. "They were poor, young, and I wanted to immortalize them."

And so she has, with delicate, precise portraits surrounded by gold leaf, a rich and luxurious backdrop for these "disposable girls" that calls to mind religious icons of the Eastern Orthodox church. (Kahlo, who says she has lived many lives, belonged to the Greek Orthodox Church when she lived in Greece in her 20s.)

Kahlo also made each frame and wrote each name, stamping each letter one at a time. She painted over the names with an eggplant-purple hue, a royal color. She wanted the names to be almost invisible, forcing viewers to walk up close to acknowledge them.

Sometimes, she could not find a photo of a victim. In that case, the girl is represented with imagery, much of it drawing from Mexico's Catholic and Aztec traditions, such as a tiny figurine of the Virgin of Guadalupe, or Mexico's most popular religious icons, or snakes and birds. She also spent hours decorating small skulls to commemorate the bodies that were never identified or those that were never found. Her coffee table will also be in the show; it's a full-size coffin that's covered in an intricate bean-and-sequin mosaic. Another coffin will feature an embellished full-size skeleton.

Poignant portraits

One of the most poignant portraits is that of Susan Chavez Castillo, 36, a poet and protest leader against the Juárez femicide. In January, she was found strangled, with one hand cut off.

The Chihuahua state attorney general said her death was due to an argument with some gang members. That explanation was met with skepticism in Juárez, according to media reports.

(Chavez's death occurred only a few weeks after Marisela Escobedo Ortiz, whose daughter was killed in Juárez in 2008, was shot dead while picketing the governor's palace in Chihuahua, the state capital.)

Alice Driver said the importance of Kahlo's exhibit is that she moves beyond the sensationalism of the violence, "beyond the naked corpses of women, beyond a discourse that blames victims for inhabiting public spaces at the wrong time or in the wrong place," she said. "By focusing on the humanity of the victims, Diane reminds viewers that the victims were daughters, sisters and wives."

Kahlo's show covers so many facets of a current event that UK faculty are organizing activities around it. On Oct. 13, the Latin American studies program will show a documentary about the killings. Later in the month, UK will host a "project generator" for writers, artists and filmmakers who are working on social and political issues.

The project generator will be led by Beth Connors-Manke, a lecturer in the Division of Writing, Rhetoric and Digital Media.

"It's art trying to deal with such an intensely and implacably political issue," Connors-Manke said of Kahlo's show. "To have it here in front of us in Lexington seemed like it could be a catalyst for other multi-modal work."

Now to the unavoidable topic: Yes, Kahlo is related distantly to famed Mexican artist Frida Kahlo, a relationship that Kahlo finds prickly. On the one hand, she is proud of her name; on the other hand, she doesn't want to be accused of riding on her famed relative's coattails.

But this project has changed things a bit.

"The name brings recognition, but I don't attempt to paint like her," Kahlo said. "I wanted to do something Frida Kahlo would approve of, something she would care very deeply about."

The show will move to Berea, and perhaps elsewhere, Kahlo said, and she's going to keep adding to it.

"I can't imagine stopping right now," she said. "I'm not sure how, but I'll do as many as I can."