INTERVIEW: Tamsyn Challenger, the inspiration behind the exhibition 400 Women

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.

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

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