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  • Amazonic Ambivalence in Imperial Potosí
  • Gina Herrmann*

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Figure 1.

Amalia Mesa-Bains, Amazona Azteca. Courtesy of Steinbaum Krauss Gallery, NYC.

At the Steinbaum Krauss Gallery in New York the Chicana artist Amalia Mesa-Bains exhibits the third chapter in her Venus Envy project: “Cihuatlampa, The Place of the Giant Women.” 1 Before I enter the gallery, I stand on Greene Street in Soho, gazing through Steinbaum’s window. I see myself reflected in a hand-held vanity mirror of truly Amazonian proportions (90x47x160). The mirror tells me that I am undersized for the gigantic world I am about to enter. The compact interior of the gallery fights against the immensity of the women who inhabit this imagined nation space; Cihuatlampa is indeed the homeland of the Amazona, and I have stumbled upon her boudoir. Her copper mesh high-heeled slippers (“The Shoes Only a Woman Can Fill” 17x26x80) have been carelessly kicked off onto the floor. Her matching dress, “Vestiture . . . de Ramas,” stands regally and stiffly by her shoes, an impressive garment of copper mesh and shimmering branches. The queenly cloak is immense (50x117x400); but where is the giant woman who can don it? She reveals her face and her body only in pictures. On the wall between the slippers and the dress hangs her portrait: an iris monoprint titled “Amazona Azteca.” 2 [image 1] Naked behind a dark wash of copper-colored [End Page 315] luminescence stands the robust, strong-breasted native of Cihuatlampa. From the waist down there is superimposed on her image that of an Aztec warrior figure—an amalgamation that projects a confident daring inherent to the unique Cihuatlampan culture: gynocentrist, indigenous. Although the colors and the materials of these pieces are copper, the effect says gold. In the New World, the possibility for independence among the fierce women is predicated not only on the “classical amazonian hallmarks of militancy, evasiveness, and reproductive control” (Wilson 215) but on the access to and control of gold. 3 The price list for the Mesa-Bains exhibition is printed on an oversized golden sheet. The costs are commensurate with the dimensions of the garments. $12,000 for the dress, $2,500 for the shoes: price is part of the art. How is the integrity of the exhibit compromised by the pieces being on sale? There is a contradiction between the exhibit as exhibit and the exhibit as a sale. The aggrandizement of women takes on a multiplicity of meanings: Mesa-Bains evaluates and makes valuable a certain kind of woman first in an imaginary world where art is fiction and secondly, and as a result of the first, in an elite economic sphere where a certain kind and quality of artistic form is worthy of display, and concomitantly, of purchase. The gallery—and the amazon women who inhabit it—is not just about art, it’s about consumer culture.

Something is scribbled in pencil on the wall next to the portrait. It would seem to be the gallery label for the triad (the slippers, the dress, the monoprint): 4

to tame women is to insure the social order and to reproduce sexuality in the positions and terms set by patriarchy. Therefore an untamed woman is suspect, dangerous and unpredictable. Cihuatlampa is the place of the untamed spirit.

This gallery label suggests a presence of a masculine order that is in no way present in Mesa-Bains’s exhibition. Cihuatlampa is the land of the Amazons; there are no men in this place. This territory of the giant women is as fantastical as the ever-evasive phantom Amazon populations of the New World chronicles. And while strong women [End Page 316] exist in fictional realms, in historical worlds, and in the terrain in between, they usually share their communities with men.

Mesa-Bains herself reminds us that the definition of “Amazon” is constructed in relation to men. The top of the gallery pamphlet quotes an (imaginary?) dictionary entry: “am-à-zon, 1. n. aggressive lust, unbridled will, disobedience, women who refuse traditional submission to men. 2. n. beings with strong breasts or with one breast. 3. adj. breastless, not brought up by the breast...