2004-11-19 / Columnists

From The Artists Studio

Lina Puerta is a thin woman with intelligent eyes, a bright smile and long dark hair divided into two braids, the day I interviewed her in her Fort Tilden studio. Puerta’s sculptures have appeared in RAA galleries. She has presented clay and pottery workshops at RoCA. Her most evolved artwork to date is presently on display at Manuel de Dios Unanue Triangle Park at the corner of Roosevelt Avenue, 83rd Street and Baxter Avenue in Jackson Heights, Queens through November 28. The exhibit of seven sculptures, collectively known as “Confesiones desde el Vientre” (Confessions from the Womb), covers territory the artist has explored before — the abuse and victimization of Latina women, but in a very different way from work she has previously shown.

This is not only the first public art Puerta has produced. It is the first installation piece created by the sculptor. In addition, the installation is not purely physical. An essential aspect of “Confesiones” is the written histories of actual Latina women, now living in Queens, who are symbolized by the sculptures. In a sense, the women themselves are symbols of countless other women, not just Latinas, who are taken advantage of and undervalued in their societies. But it is these moving written, personal histories of real women that give this exhibit its humanity, its power and its profound emotional impact.

Puerta has created seven teardrop-shaped brightly colored fabric and fiber-filled sculptures nestled in a canopy of trees, each suspended from the end of a 15-foot pink pole. Seven blue plastic nets hang from these poles and contain, womb-like, these non-descript human-shaped dolls in fetal position. Calling from Puerta’s Pre-Colombian ancestry, each doll is covered with ancient symbols and hieroglyphs, representing qualities of strength and power that were chosen by Puerta to express each specific woman’s life story. These immigrant Latin American women have survived and even triumphed over physical and emotional abuse, rape and oppression. Their story text is posted next to the sculpture to which it relates.

As stated, this is not new territory for Lina Puerta, though her art does not always deal with the abuse of women. In the spring an exhibit of her work, “Our Bodies, Our Songs, Our Cries,” explored the relationship between women’s emotional experiences and their physicality. It examined how women’s sexuality has been distorted by Western society. She writes in her artist statement, “I am interested in the woman’s body and spirit, her connection to the earth and the world around her. Through my art I am in search of the spiritual/physical energy that lies within the woman and its relationship to her ancestral inheritance. I am concerned with the abuse and oppression that our societies have imposed over women through centuries and I try to express this from what I perceive from the women I know best in my life, or that I feel close to, such as my mother, sisters, grandmother, aunts, friends and myself.” Puerta believes that a woman’s strength comes from a biological factor – “because we are designed to bear life, we have a natural nurturing, protective body that effects the psychological.” This is why in her work she tries to represent the uterus, vulva and womb – entities that are somehow sacred. She is interested in primitive cultures because she believes that, unlike today’s society, they valued women for this sacred aspect of their lives. Indeed, her sculptural work harkens back to religious and magical figures of these so-called primitive cultures and frequently connects to a primal, visceral core within the viewer.

Puerta points to the hardships and strengths of women she has known when asked what the inspiration has been for her to tell the stories of women through her art. But when pressed further as to what in her own life has prompted this work, Lina reveals an even more profound story. Born in the United States, she went back with her parents to their native Colombia when she was seven. Her father owned a nightclub and one night was accidentally killed trying to break up a gun battle between bodyguards of local drug lords. Lina was sixteen. The guilty men were never brought to justice. Profoundly affected by this tragedy and fed up with Colombian society, she came back to the United States on her own at the age of seventeen, supported herself and put herself through college.

Females have an amazing emotional strength that stems from their physical strength, their child-bearing capacity, according to Puerta. In a male-dominated society, especially in Latin societies, this is not recognized — all too often not even by women themselves. Lina found her strength, as did the seven courageous Latinas represented in “Confesiones desde el Vientre.” Through her art and various workshops Puerta has given, she wishes to raise women’s self-esteem. By revealing the inherent power of her sex, she hopes she can inspire others to take control of their lives and destinies. By exposing the unfair standards imposed on women to have “perfect” bodies she attempts to free them from the pressures of that distorted mirror. She wishes for men, also, to learn the true value of women and to be freed from the misconceptions that affect us all. When asked what she has learned from those she teaches and those who have seen her art, Lina says she is amazed, for example in the present exhibit, how many men and women state that the same thing has happened to them or a mother or a friend.

Puerta’s favorite materials include clay, which brings her close to the earth and her pre-Colombian roots, but she is also attracted to “interesting stuff I find in the garbage.” She plans to combine the mediums of clay and video in a future project. It will be interactive and very different from anything she has done. It will again be public art, which is for Lina “so effective in reaching so many people.” Whatever it is, I personally can’t wait.

Rockaway Artists Alliance

by Susan Hartenstein

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