This Naked Body Has A Voice: Mexican Art Models Call Out Abuse
An art-model collective gives voice to a group of women that, for centuries, has been seen but not heard.
MEXICO CITY — Inside an enormous palace, thousands of people have admired a painting of a young woman in the nude. Hundreds of brush strokes breathe life into the cushions where she reclines. The silence that usually dominates her surroundings is interrupted when, in front of a group of visitors, she speaks for the first time in over 100 years.
“Comfortable and elegant, right? Or so it seems. But I’ve been on my elbow for hours. Tricks of the trade,” says Liz, who prefers to go by her first name only, giving voice to the model in the 1920s painting “Desnudo Barroco,” by Mexican painter Germán Gedovius. The model’s name is unknown.
For three days in August 2022, the National Museum of Art in Mexico City presented “Obras al desnudo” (“Works in the Nude”), where models gave life and voice to the women depicted in the works of its collection.
Workers of the art world
In front of each piece, a model posed in a flesh-toned leotard, matching the position of the model in the painting. When visitors gathered in front of a piece, a recording would play, reciting what today’s models imagined to be the thoughts of their predecessors.
“It was a fantasy,” says Friné, an art model who helped conceive and also participated in the exhibition. “If we could say, ‘We are still being treated poorly,’ what would they do? The rebellion of the models. Every one of them would come out of the paintings to speak out and complain.”
“Obras al desnudo” was the brainchild of Movimiento de Modelos de Arte en Resistencia, an activist collective of art models founded in 2022 by Friné and several colleagues.
In the past year, the movement has successfully advocated for fair wages and ensured that art workshops adopt a set of safety protocols the group developed. But its ambitions are greater: It wants model work to be respected and acknowledged as art.
“We are the workers of the art world,” says the movement’s manifesto. “We are the ones about whom the historical narratives and museum labels say nothing. In every park, in every fountain, in most of the paintings are our faces, our bodies, our emotion, our power. … We are the anonymous bodies that invade the city.”
Artist Víctor Gutiérrez draws Viridiana López, an art model also known as Viroxz, during a drawing workshop at his gallery in Mexico City.
Women as objects
Its safety protocols, or the Reglamento de Interacción con Modelos (Rules for Interacting with Models), are as basic as prohibiting workshop participants from touching, recording or photographing the models, or making comments about their physical appearance.
“You’re old news,” “You look skinnier” and “Nice legs” are some of the comments a model will hear in a typical day of work, Friné says.
“There is an idea that you can touch women models because they are objects. … People expect suffering to be a normal part of a model’s work,” says Friné, who goes by that name in honor of the ancient Greek courtesan and art model Phryne. “The artists’ union benefits from the women models not being united. The institutions benefit because we don’t say anything when abuses take place.”
“Before [the movement], having a fair wage or having some type of insurance would not have occurred to me,” says Liz. The mere space in a studio was good enough, she says.
For Viridiana López, or Viroxz, who has been modeling for over eight years, salaries must be decent and match the time spent and physical skill level of the model. “We want optimal conditions for conducting our work because our body is naked. Its space, where we put our genitals, our feet, hands and faces, must not be dirty.”
“Now I put all my energy into researching the artists who hire me, so I know who they are and understand their work, and also to figure out how much to charge them. If the person wants to pay me 3 [Mexican] pesos [17 United States cents], then no,” Viroxz says.
Isabel Juárez, who has modeled for 13 years, says studios in other Mexican states have asked to adopt the movement’s rules and protocols to prevent abuse.
“I think in the spaces there is a constant fear of breaking through the barrier and doing [things] differently,” Juárez says. Given that making art for a living is itself precarious, she goes on to say, those who run the studios know that having 20-year-old women models is guaranteed to fill their workshop. “If they bring in a 60-year-old man as a model, they’ll get a third of the attendance. It’s a vicious circle until people begin to invest in new ways.”
Following a sexual abuse incident at an art academy, Friné wanted a way to continue her passion for art safely. She created a workshop called “Morras para Morras” (“Girls for Girls”), a monthly drawing session where the model and attendees are all women.
Promoting different body types, Friné says, works as a filter to see the kind of people attending the workshops. “We don’t want to go to the same dirty old men who [are] going to try something with the woman model,” she says.
“I’m a fat morena girl and I like it,” says Liz, who says she always sees thin, blonde women at the workshops. “Why aren’t there [different] girls? I’d like it to start being me.”
Participants of the “Morras para Morras” (“Girls for Girls”) workshop.
The power of the body
Liz explains how disappointed she feels when she sees her body painted differently on the participants’ canvases. “I’ve been holding my arms in this pose for several minutes. Draw them as they are. Draw this part hanging down because that’s how my body is,” she says. “Fat has always been synonymous with something that is not beautiful, something lazy. And I feel that, when they draw me in these poses that carry an aesthetic, they think, ‘Oh, yes, she looks nice, but she’d look better if she didn’t have that excess weight.’”
For both Liz and Friné, these alterations minimize the effort the models make during the sessions. “It’s very common for them to make us voluptuous like hentai, and it’s like, ‘That’s not me. That is not my body. You’re not seeing. You’re exaggerating [some parts] and eliminating others,’” Friné says. “The body can do everything. I am offering you the power of my body so that we create together.”
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