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400 women: review and interview with artist Tamsyn Challenger

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Artist Tamsyn Challenger took some time out before the launch of her exhibition, 400 Women, to discuss the tragic inspiration behind the project and the plans for its future.

Could you tell us a bit about your background?

I studied art at Winchester School of Art and KIAD. My work has been exhibited in the Truman Brewery and Candid Arts in London and I’ve worked as a collaborative artist with the Magdalena Festival in Barcelona and with Triangle theatre. My first solo show ‘The Tamsynettes‘ was at Transition Gallery in Bethnal Green in March 2010.

What is the project 400 Women about?

400 Women is a project made in response to the brutal rape and murder of countless women and girls in the border region of Ciudad Juarez, Mexico. It’s reliant on a mass collaboration of artists painting the portraits of the missing and murdered and for me each artist participating represents the women I have given them to work with.

What was the inspiration behind 400 Women?

The idea behind the project was sparked when I met several of the mothers and family members in Mexico in 2006. One mother in particular singularly effected me. Her name is Consuelo Valenzuela, her daughter Julieta went missing in 2001. Just as I was leaving her on our final meeting, she pushed postcards of her daughter into my hands. The face looking up at me, was such a poverty of an image. It had been reproduced from a snapshot and the face was blurred. I think I just wanted to bring that face back again and that’s really what started 400 Women in my mind.

Has there been a particular case that has moved you the most?

That’s very tricky. I have so many stories in my head, memories of the mothers I met, of course, however there are a number of women and girls I’ve sent out to artists that have really stayed with me over the 5 years I’ve worked on the project; Airis Estrella who was found raped and strangled in a cement tube at the age of 7; Barbara Araceli who was originally identified with the cotton field murders in 2001 and then found misidentified by the Argentinian Forensic 5 years later. Her mother died in 2006 never knowing what had happened to her daughter.

How did you find so many artists?

They are mostly artists I like and respect. I basically just asked them if they’d like to be involved. I sent out the project proposal and most have responded positively. Of course, what happens is that you then get interest from artists who hear about the project from those already on-board but it’s primarily been invite only.

How has this project affected your own art and did you paint a woman?

Inevitably, if you hold a conceptual project like 400 Women in your mind for five years I think it will eventually spill out on to paper or in my case board. Originally, I was going to make a name portrait (which is a work where an image isn’t available) but I’ve found that I have been scratching out portrait after portrait recently and so I have in fact made a portrait for 400 Women.

Who was she and when did she go missing?

Her name is Karen Olivia Avile Herrera. She was 14 when she went missing in 2003.

What can we all do about this situation?

Amnesty International are producing an action postcard to accompany the project it would be great if everyone signed one to go to the Mexican Government.

What do you hope to achieve by this exhibition?

The intention behind the project has always been to make a large-scale art work utilising many voices to stand against violence toward women. This is still very much at the heart of 400 Women, for me. The situation in Juarez is an open wound but 1 in 4 women in this country and in the US suffer domestic violence and my hope is, that this project will raise awareness for gender violence across the globe.

Are there any future plans for this project?

There has been interest from a curator in the US and so we are hoping to tour the project. I would love to see it in Mexico eventually.

Review: 400 Women

400 Women is the artistic response to the brutal murders of over 400 women in the US border town of Ciudad Juárez, Mexico, over the past decade. Organised by artist Tamsyn Challenger, around 200 artists were given the name or image of one of the murdered women and were asked to paint them accordingly.

The portraits vary from classical to abstract. Many of these paintings are angry and political in their intent while others simply pay tribute to the memory of these women. The paradox of these pictures; the many faces of hope and the reality of what became of them (and what didn’t), creates an overwhelming sense of sadness. However, 400 women makes no apology for this and pushes us to feel something of the aching loss that falls at the feet of these families. It almost feels wrong to overlook a portrait in this exhibition, to not give each woman the attention of which they’ve been so disrespectfully starved of.

400 Women takes place in the basement of Shoreditch Town hall and could easily be overlooked as a place for an exhibition. In this sense, the location feels fitting and adds extra resonance to the project. It’s very much a basement in its slightly cold and eerie atmosphere and in the fact that it’s a place you wouldn’t really want to be alone in. Some of the bricks are crumbling and the paint chipped, giving weight to this dilapidated feeling which ironically seems to mirror the Mexican judicial system that has failed these women. With this no frills location, there is no distraction from the glaring notion that all these women were savagely raped and killed, with many more still missing.

You can’t hide from the tense and uneasy atmosphere that 400 women seems to create and it almost feels like you’re attending a funeral wake. Much like a funeral, these portraits have almost become the grave stones that so many of these women have been deprived of. We are also aware of the disappearance of something less tangible; that of equality and accountability as these women and their families have been denied justice and have been left without a voice.

These portraits come in different shapes and sizes but collectively they ask a bigger question. In a time where the Mexican government has near washed its hands of this situation, 400 Women asks how so many murders and voices can, in good conscience, go unheard. Were this happening with the same ferocity and brutality to the male population, would this situation be greeted with the same level of sluggish apathy? We are invited to join in the helplessness and grief that surrounds us and, if nothing else, be the antidote to the collective amnesia that seems to rule the Mexican government, and remember.

400 Women takes place at Shoreditch Town Hall and runs until 28th November.

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