Put a bra on that girl!”
That’s what one driver screamed at the artists who were painting a mural of two nude women on an underpass along San Juan’s Avenida Fernández Juncos earlier this week. And he wasn’t the only one. While some people beeped their horns and expressed support for the work that was going up, there were also plenty who shared the sentiment that these nude women shouldn’t be painted in a public space.
But making these women visible was precisely the point.
When the artists, all women and all members of the street art collective Moriviví, didn’t add undergarments, finishing up the mural according to their plans, someone else decided to do so, taking a roller brush to the wall overnight and adding a bra and panties on one woman and a bra on the other.
“It’s ridiculous,” says my husband, Francisco, when I tell him about the vandalism. He’s a photographer who shot a portfolio of Morviví’s members and their murals in Puerto Rico last winter after I interviewed Anamarie Sierra Pagán and another member of the collective in the neighborhood of Rio Piedras, near the university several of them attend. “For one thing, breasts are visible everywhere in Puerto Rico. I mean… the person who screamed that, the person who painted that… they’re probably sitting at home right now watching half-naked women dancing in a reggaeton video.”
The difference between a reggaeton video and the mural painted by Moriviví is that the latter was conceived and executed with the express goal of raising awareness about domestic violence. It was created in collaboration with the organization Paz para la Mujer and with permission from relevant government agencies, including the Departments of Transportation and Public Works. Moriviví was painting the mural at the behest of Paz para la Mujer as a project for International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women. The women in the mural were Afro-Boricuas, their eyes covered by their own arms, raised as if to protect themselves from seeing—and experiencing—more pain.
We presented a full-bodied Black Latina woman, with one breast larger than the other. This is a real woman.
The selection of the subjects—and the way in which they were depicted—was deliberate, said the collective in a statement on their Facebook page. “To present our mural to daily passersby, we had to compete with the billboards that form part of the publicity bombardment that distorts the image of women, present[ing us] with unrealistic, unattainable, hypersexualised bodies, commodified to sell products. For that reason, we presented a full-bodied Black Latina woman, with one breast larger than the other. This is a real woman, the one we must accept and protect,” they wrote.
Domestic violence is a big problem in Puerto Rico. In 2013, 11,696 cases of domestic violence were reported; considering that experts estimate that fewer than half of all total episodes of such violence are reported, the actual number of cases is undoubtedly much higher on the island, where the total population is around 3.5 million people. Part of the reason for such a high rate of abuse, Moriviví postulates, is because of the way women’s bodies are simultaneously sexualized and made taboo. “Today we must educate,” they added in their statement. “Nudity shouldn’t be taboo. If we can’t see and appreciate the image of a nude woman naturally and with respect, how are we going to respect every woman in our own lives?”
While the collective witnessed a massive outpouring of support, with women showing up at the mural to bare their breasts and disseminate photos from the protest on social media, some online commenters took a paternalistic tone.
“Do you know who Banksy is?” asked one blogger, going on to suggest that the college-educated women, whose work has been commissioned for various public works projects around Puerto Rico, who slept outside at the mural site to protect the boom lift from being robbed, and who have been a significant part of the street art festival Santurce Es Ley, simply know little or nothing about the culture of street art. “You should learn from him…. This isn’t about machismo or about feminism; it’s about competitive art. Those bra and panties couldn’t have been painted by just anybody, and that’s why you’ve got to practice, my girl.” A Facebook commenter also referenced Banksy, saying he wouldn’t cry about his street art being vandalized… though nobody saw any of the women of Moriviví crying.
The members of Moriviví have responded by saying that the painting of the undergarments wasn’t an act of vandalism, but one of censorship. And it’s one that doesn’t offend them, they say. In fact, the conversation that the censorship and the resulting actions have spurred is “exactly what art is about,” they say, and “is the true work of art.” But that doesn’t mean they won’t have an artistic response to the bra and panty cover-up. The artists say they’ll be “modifying the interventions” and will also be working on a new mural in support of the consciousness-raising campaigns planned for the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women, which will take place on November 25.