Some museums swallow artwork with cavernous rooms and high ceilings.

Brooklyn Museum’s new exhibit, “Radical Women: Latin American Art, 1960-1985,” does not have that problem.

There’s almost not enough space to hold the ideas and themes carried in the collected works. Encompassing some of the most turbulent years of Latin American history and the feminist movement, the exhibit evokes a spirit of rebellion in almost every sculpture, painting, photograph or video.

Radical Women: Latin American Art, 1960-1985 at the Brooklyn Museum. (Jonathan Dorado/Brooklyn Museum)
Radical Women: Latin American Art, 1960-1985 at the Brooklyn Museum. (Jonathan Dorado/Brooklyn Museum)

The first piece of art dangles from the ceiling to greet visitors. It’s a video display from Peruvian poet and choreographer Victoria Eugenia Santa Cruz. She tells a story of when she, an Afro-Latina, remembers when a stranger called her black as an insult.

That source of shame becomes a source of pride through her words and movement. To the left of the video is a sign translating her poem from its original Spanish to English.

“And I bless heaven because God wanted that/Jet black should be my skin color.”

From the start, Radical Women” eschews the stereotypical images of Latinx identity.

The featured artists explore and subvert gender roles, discrimination, trauma, gender binaries, sex, motherhood and language. For non-Spanish speakers, all of the signs throughout the exhibit are bilingual.

Santa Cruz’s piece leads to a section devoted to uprooting the traditional self-portrait. In one corner hangs a series of photos from Colombian artist Rosa Navarro. Using her namesake, a rose, her portraits finds her with roses covering her eyes. They’re buds in the first few frames, but over the course of the next photos, the petals wilt and fall to the side of her face. It’s not unlike how our own faces change as we slowly age before our eyes.

Radical Women: Latin American Art, 1960-1985 at the Brooklyn Museum. (Jonathan Dorado/Brooklyn Museum)
Radical Women: Latin American Art, 1960-1985 at the Brooklyn Museum. (Jonathan Dorado/Brooklyn Museum)

In another part of the room, there’s Judith’s Baca’s tableau with three panels: two depicting women, one dressed modestly and the other looking edgier. The middle panel is a mirror with your reflection. As a woman, you’re trapped between the virgin-whore dichotomy, which this American artist transformed into a playful yet thought-provoking sculpture.

One of the exhibit’s curators, Andrea Giunta, remarked during a press preview that there’s a sense of humor in many of the works. That playful spirit was how these artists worked through or deconstructed something like violence or love. The humor could show up in dark pieces as well, like Gloria Camiruaga’s short, “Popsicle,” in which various people lick popsicles with toy soldiers in them. It’s bizarre to watch something so innocent that becomes poignant once you notice the popsicle has left a stain on everyone’s lips. The soldiers can leave, but the damage of war remains.

The exhibit, which first premiered at the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles during a celebration of Latinx art, represents over 120 artists from 15 countries. The curator’s original list featured over 400 women from Latin America, Latinx and Chicano communities.

Giunta said the curators focused on some of the strongest pieces that were “exploring or investigating the body.”

Many of the works on display were forged during the time of political upheaval. At first glance, Carmela Gross’ beige-colored canvas bag looks like a futon mattress in the center of the exhibit space. Look closer, and you’ll see the name, “Presunto,” translated into English – “Ham,” the Brazilian slang word for a corpse – and the work takes on a whole new meaning. It’s now a body bag, made to protest the in violence in Brazil.

Radical Women: Latin American Art, 1960-1985 at the Brooklyn Museum. (Jonathan Dorado/Brooklyn Museum)
Radical Women: Latin American Art, 1960-1985 at the Brooklyn Museum. (Jonathan Dorado/Brooklyn Museum)

“Radical Women” is about life as much as it is about death.

There are a handful of works from Cuban-born artist Ana Mendieta, including a few photo series where she plays with gender and beauty conventions. She had a serious side too, like the set of staged pictures where she recreated a rape scene in her apartment to protest the rape and murder of a fellow college student. In the short film, “Rock Heart with Blood,” she’s nude, sitting by the side of a river or stream. There’s a body-shaped hole in the ground next to her where she lays a rock shaped like a heart. Mendieta then pours bright red paint over the rock, as if to give it life. She stands up and slowly lies face-down in the pit, her burial ritual complete. She’s a mother who gives life and then returns to earth to complete the cycle.

With so much to fight for, these women rebelled against anything that stood in the way of living freely. These pieces were political long before they were collected together and threats of a border wall to separate the States from Latin America returned.

The artwork in “Radical Women” are proud echoes of the female and Latinx experience, and they’re ones we haven’t heard from enough.

“Radical Women: Latin American Art, 1960-1985” will be on view at the Brooklyn Museum from April 13 to July 22.

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