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Femininity in Kevlar: Nao Bustamante's women of the Mexican Revolution

The role of women in the Mexican Revolution has been obscured. An artist resuscitates it in a show @vpam_arts

On the surface, the lemon-colored outfit that resides on a mannequin in artist Nao Bustamante's studio is the very picture of femininity: a late-Edwardian ensemble, it consists of a floor-length skirt and a fitted jacket with dainty puff sleeves. It is the sort of fine frock you might expect to see on the subject of a late-Impressionist painting. Except for the fact that this graceful dress is made entirely out of bullet-proof Kevlar. 

For five years, Bustamante has been researching the role of women in the Mexican Revolution — in university archives and research facilities and through first-hand research in Mexico, where she had the opportunity to meet with a woman who had been a part of the conflict. 

Interestingly, this long-running project began almost incidentally: A gallery organizing a group show tied to the Revolution asked Bustamante to contribute some work.

"So I started researching the Revolution, looking into the role of women," she says. "They were cooks, they were laborers, they were fighters, they maintained supply lines. It's interesting to me how women get involved in a conflict, and this was a terrible conflict. So I wanted to make dresses that would protect these women metaphorically."

She also wanted to highlight the important place they held in the Mexican Revolution — even if it hasn't always been recognized by history.

"There is a vulnerability there," she says. "They are not in as many of the photos. Their story isn't always told."

The role of the soldadera (female soldier) in Mexico's decade-long struggle is now at the heart of a new solo exhibition by the artist, opening this Saturday at the Vincent Price Art Museum at East Los Angeles College.

The show is a multimedia installation that will include film, sculptural objects, historical artifacts, archival images and, of course, the Kevlar dress (one of five that will be featured in the show).

"Soldadera," as the exhibition is titled, will fuse bits of fact with fiction to tell a bigger story about the ways in which women's contributions can often get overlooked or distorted, but also the ways in which war penetrates even the most mundane aspects of daily life.

"I have military in my family, but a lot of people don't," says Bustamante, sitting amid dresses and other in-production objects at her Highland Park studio. "War is not a part of their lives. For many people in the U.S., war is separate from their daily lives. That's something I want to look at and think about too."

Bustamante was born and raised in the San Joaquin Valley and studied at the San Francisco Art Institute. She divides her time between California and upstate New York, where she teaches art at Renssaeler Polytechnic Institute in Troy. But she is best known in art circles for her work as a performance artist — which has spanned the range from the comically outrageous to the dead serious.

In one well-known early 1990s performance, she took to the stage in a skin-baring Aztec-inspired outfit and got white men in the audience to take bites from a burrito that she'd strapped to her hips. For another piece from that era, she appeared on "The Joan Rivers Show" as a fictional character (unbeknown to the show's producers), an exhibitionist named Rosa.

But she has also addressed difficult topics in serious ways. In the late 1990s she collaborated with celebrated performance artist and writer Coco Fusco for a piece that dealt with issues affecting women in Latin America, such as sex tourism.

Others may likely recognize Bustamante from her short stint on reality TV. In 2010, she appeared as a contestant on the Bravo network's art reality show, "Work of Art: The Next Great Artist." That, too, she says, was a work of performance, in which she played the archetypal reality show villain.

"I was on there as a more evil version of myself," she chuckles. (To be certain, in person Bustamante can be acerbically witty, but she is also reflective and thoughtful — nothing like her brassy character on the show.)

Interestingly, it was her stint on "Work of Art" that ended up indirectly feeding the whole "Soldadera" project.

"I got a lot of attention in both a positive and negative way for doing that show," Bustamante explains. "And the negative had a lot to do with my body. So I started thinking about making a gown — a talisman — that would protect me from the arrows of the media."

Shortly after that she was approached by a now-defunct Los Angeles gallery about a Mexican Revolution-themed show. As she became immersed in the research, she decided to transpose the idea of a protective garment to the women who had supported the cause of revolution — and she produced her first Kevlar dress.

At one point, she even tested the material's resilience with early 20th century weapons. "I worked with a gun dealer from upstate New York," she says, to locate an era-appropriate hand-loaded rifle that she employed to shoot at her dress. "I grew up in the Central Valley," she adds. "Guns were pretty common. I'm not a hunter or anything but I grew up shooting guns."

That original dress now has two 9-mm slugs embedded in the apron. To be certain, it wouldn't protect anyone from contemporary weapons, which are much more powerful. "I'd have to do something much more fortified," the artist explains.

Over time, the idea of producing a single Revolutionary-era dress has turned into a full-fledged project with many moving parts.

Bustamante spent time in the archives of the Benson Latin American Collection in Austin, Texas, studying the ways in which "Adelitas" — as soldaderas are affectionately known — were portrayed in the editorial cartoons of the early 20th century. (The Revolution lasted roughly from 1910 to 1920.)

"It went from images of these chaste, almost Victorian figures with delicate features, and over time, she became beastly, with an oversized head," Bustamante says. "Eventually, she becomes normalized."

These days, the figure of the Adelita has been rendered into a pinup icon — employed by restaurants, graphics companies and magazine covers. "She is a sexualized thing," explains Bustamante, "with the loose white blouse, the breasts out, hand firmly planted on the flag."

For more realistic images, Bustamante dug through through photographic archives at UC Riverside, which contains an extensive collection from the Mexican Revolution. There, she found the photos of women she used as models for the Kevlar fighting costumes she made for the show. 

"Some scholars say it was the most photographed war before the Vietnam War," says Jennifer Doyle, the UC Riverside professor who guest-curated Bustamante's VPAM show. "It lasted for 10 years and it was a site of popular interest in the U.S. and internationally."

The outfits, made with the assistance of costume designer Sybil Moseley, are more than simple sculptural props. Bustamante used them in a short film she created, which reimagines a portion of a movie by Russian avant-garde filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein. In the early 1930s the director, already well-known for epics such as "Battleship Potemkin," started work on a project called "¡Que Viva México!" The project was never finished and among the un-filmed sequences was one titled "Soldadera."

For her exhibition, Bustamante uses Eisenstein's script as a point of departure for a six-minute video that imagines what that footage might have looked like. It's not a literal re-creation of Eisenstein, she says: "I like to say I dipped a ladle into his work and aesthetics."

Perhaps the most moving portion of the entire "Soldadera" project was the journey Bustamante made to Mexico to meet with Leandra Becerra Lumbreras, who, by various accounts, turned 127 in 2014 — which meant she would have been in her 20s when the Revolution went down.

"Touching her was like traveling in time," says Bustamante, with a touch of awe in her voice. "She had survived all of her children. She was this fountain of love."

Bustamante spent two days filming the fragile centenarian as Becerra acted out episodes of her life and drummed on a cookie tin. During the Revolution, she had served as a soldadera, helping maintain supply lines.

"She was like in her own time zone," recalls Bustamante. "She was straddling this divide, talking to the dead but being present with us at the same time."

Doyle says that when Bustamante showed the raw footage at a workshop at UC Riverside "half the room was reduced to tears." 

Becerra passed away in March. But the footage from Bustamante's visit will make its way into another video piece that will also go on view at the Vincent Price.

Doyle says the whole project has made her think a lot about the ways in which society regards women.

"You see the dress and you know it's made out of Kevlar and you imagine that the woman is going to be shot," she explains. "It identifies her as a moving target. It speaks powerfully to the experience of being an object of violence. It also gets at the way that the world of the woman gets narrated in terms of risk and harm: don't walk down the street at night, don't take risks, don't expose yourself — that sense of being really limited."

For Bustamante, "Soldadera" is now an ongoing piece of her life. She wants to do a mock battle reenactment in the desert with soldaderas. She is working on interviewing refugees and women soldiers about the things that protect them. There is talk of a documentary. And throughout the course of the exhibition, she, along with students and faculty from UC Riverside, will produce a series of blog posts for KCET's arts website Artbound about the issues she explores in the show.

For Bustamante, who is Mexican American, all of this has also been a way of reconnecting with her own past.

"Every Mexican family has a member that fought in the Revolution," she says. "There are stories in my family of two great uncles who fought on different sides and they would meet at my uncle's land to share a meal and then they'd go back to the fight."

"The Revolution," says Bustamante, "it divided families."

"Nao Bustamante: Soldadera" goes on view at the Vincent Price Art Museum on Saturday at 4 p.m. and runs through Aug. 1. 1301 Cesar Chavez Ave., Monterey Park, vincentpriceartmuseum.org.

Find me on Twitter @cmonstah.

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