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.