Profile: Tamsyn Challenger: 400 Women
October 13, 2011
Artist Tamsyn Challenger is the mastermind behind the creation ‘400 Women’, which exhibited at the Edinburgh Festival this summer.
Bringing together 200 internationally acclaimed artists, the exhibition responds to the brutal murders and rapes of over 400 women in the Mexican border town of Ciudad Juárex over the past decade, each one represented by a different artist. Tamsyn spoke to The Fresh Outlook about the five-year installation, and what has led her to such success.
How did you get involved with visual art in the first place?
When I left art school I don’t think I had the confidence or it ever really occurred to me, ironically, that I could be an artist. Funnily enough, I don’t think it was all that encouraged. So, I did other things for a while and slid into making radio documentary. And this is where I met the producer Richard Bannerman who encouraged me to come up with concept again. He reinforced in me the idea that you can go out on your own and make what’s in your head and then turn up the next day and say ‘I made this’. People will either respond or not but the least you can do is try. It was a hop and skip from making my own little essays in sound, to finding my way back to making visual work. I sometimes see my work as visual essays.
Do you find you are extremely protective of ‘400 Women’ from its ties that it has with your experiences in Mexico? I do.
I’m extremely protective of 400 and it probably does stem from how personal the work is for me. But I think any artist that has struggled over a work has a burden of care for what they’ve produced.
With 400 Women, of course, I am tied not only to the work itself but to each face represented there and I feel a responsibility for them. With a conceptual and political work like 400 you have to be very single-minded. Particularly given the numbers of people involved, from the other artists I enlisted to collaborate and make each missing or murdered person individual, to the curators and people interested in housing the installation, to the mothers themselves.
And then of course there are the rigours I’ve embedded into the work itself; always having to be in a specific type of site that invokes for me the backdrop of Consuelo’s hands amongst other things. So, yes, I’m protective.
What does the success of 400 Women mean to you?
Honestly, I’m very mixed up by the success of 400 and the impact that questions like these have on me. Someone very important to me recently suggested when I was describing how I felt after the Edinburgh Art Festival that: ‘It’s not a fan-soliciting effort, it’s just a ‘thing’, and the more voguish it or you become, the harder it is to hang onto integrity’ and I think he’s right. It’s very easy to fall into an ego-pit and in my view, the more ego that’s in political art, the more lack-lustre the actual work becomes and the less teeth it has. Moira Jeffrey said in her article for the Scotsman that 400 Women was ‘like a bullet to the brain’ and my hope is that I can retain that immediacy in my work. I worry that the more comfortable I am with success the less likely that will be.
I had the idea for 400 Women after an uncomfortable meeting in Mexico with Consuelo Valenzuela, the mother of Julieta Marleng Gonzalez Valenzuela who went missing in 2001. The shame I felt at needing to get away from her and the confusion at not really being able to identify the face of her daughter from the badly produced postcards she was pushing into my hands, led me to begin a five-year work that has resulted in the installation 400 Women. I had an almost urgent need to re-personalise that postcard image. And this is what I try to retain; the importance of the success of 400 isn’t for me, but for each individual face or name that is seen by someone new walking around each site that the installation goes into.
Have there been any particularly influential role models that have helped you in your career and ambitions?
I suspect everyone I have ever met, liked or not, has had an impact or informed my decision making in one way or another. But my mum is still the most influential person in my life. She is a quiet but serious feminist and I attribute my feminist bones to her.
Conversely, my sister is a small but louder kind of person who has inspired me in countless ways. I still find her mind a terrifying but potent fascination. Her chutzpah and fearlessness definitely unlocked the idea in my mind that you can make work without any backing, security or say-so from someone else.
If you could achieve one thing in your life, what would it be and have you achieved that goal yet?
Immortality? Not really, I seem to get more mortal every day.
Your pioneering work has been seen as extremely influential for women and artists alike; how would you like to be perceived as a role model?
There are bounds that come with being a role model that I’m loath to take on. I’m fiercely independent and have never learnt the skill of wearing a black-cloak-of-conventionality. I’m very far from saintly, so I’d rather people didn’t pick me for their role model. I think there are better ones out there to be had, just have a look to the Nobel Peace Prize winners this year.
For more information about Tamsyn’s work and future exhibitions, please visit her website: www.tamsynchallenger.co.uk
[Image of Tamsyn Challenger courtesy of Albie Clark]