Women in Exile: Three Female Artists With Something to Get Off Their Chests

by Katharine Ernst

Exile always seems like this forbidden place, a place for dangerous criminals convicted of human rights abominations, but this isn’t the reality of the world we live in. In many cases, artists have been forced into exile just for making art. In many conservative governments, making art is seen as a crime against the regime when art provokes thought and critique, and God forbid a country’s citizens have a different view from the country’s ruling party.

Many female artists have faced this fate, having been exiled from places as far flung as Italy and Iran. Exile creates a chasm between the person and the country, undermining the exiled’s ability to connect to their identity and leaving them with feelings of displacement. Three female artists and exiles have stood out to me in particular: Tina Modotti, Ana Mendieta and Shirin Nesat. Each artist uses her artwork to assert her beliefs without telling her viewer explicitly what to think. These women quietly approach the minutiae of life as a woman in a way that balances out the harshness of the political crisis in which she lives. Beyond their apolitical political activism, these women, even as early as the 1920s, worked in “unconventional” mediums so as to reject the European canons of painting and art for arts sake. Each artist focuses on the idea of beauty, but their art doesn’t exist solely for visual pleasure – these women have something to get off their chests.

Tina Modotti, Italy (1896-1942): Modotti was an Italian photographer who lived in many countries, from the U.S. to Mexico and later Russia. She was Edward Weston’s model and lover as well as a friend of Frida Kahlo (you may recognize Modotti’s character in the movie “Frida,” played by Ashley Judd). Her style of photography was highly simplistic and focused on the mundane beauty she found in her everyday life, in telephone wires or fabric, which she turned into art. Her images tend to have a intentional flatness that carried into her later work.

As she became more involved in the Communist Party of Mexico, her photographs reflected her ideological switch. The subject of her photos shifted from beauty to work. She began photographing the common man, people’s hands and the Mexican masses. She positions her workers to create a flatness in the finished photograph, as in Worker’s Parade, below, or in the above photo, a self-portrait. Because of her involvement in the Communist Party, she was expelled from Mexico and extradited to Mussolini’s Italy, where she intended to work with anti-fascist forces. She never made it there, however, and moved instead from country to country in Europe, working for the party, and eventually returned to Mexico under a pseudonym, where she died in 1942.


Cloth Folds, 1924

Hands of a Marionette Player, 1929

Workers Parade, 1926

Ana Mendieta, Cuba (1948-1985): Mendieta was born in Cuba and sent to the U.S. as a child to flee the Castro regime. She and her sister moved around from refugee camps to foster homes until they were reunited with their parents in the late ‘60s in the U.S. Mendieta is known for her use of diverse mediums: her most famous work deals in body art, performance art and earth works. Her Silueta series is quite beautiful to watch: she travels to natural sites, generally in the Mexico or the U.S., and carves a woman’s body into the earth. The form could be on a beach, where the tide would fill and empty the woman, or else Mendieta might fill the form with gunpowder and set it on fire. She used Cuban folk tales and mother earth as her source of inspiration. Silueta takes back the natural, the feminine, and contrasts it with the civilized or industrialized, or the male elements. Mendieta subtly asserts her feminine, artistic power through the medium of the very earth itself. Mendieta died young at 36, allegedly pushed out of a window by her boyfriend, Carl Andre, the minimalist artist. (His lawyer insists that Mendieta fell accidentally or committed suicide.)


Silueta series in Mexico, 1973-7

Untitled (Silueta), 1980

Itiba Cahubaba (Old Mother Blood/Ensangrentada Madre Vieja), 1981

Shirin Neshat, Iran (1957-): Neshat is a photographer and video artist that currently lives and works in New York City. Her work explores the different experiences of men and women in Iranian society. Shirin’s photographic work usually shows women covered in a full chador while holding weapons. The parts of their body that are showing are usually covered in Farsi cursive. Her video works are less overtly political than her photography – she made the 2009 film Women Without Men, based on the Shahrnush Parsipur novel of the same name. 

Her work is political but, like the work of Modotti, presented as a contrast and balance to the extremist regime that has taken over her country. As a result, her politics infuse her work, stopping short of the point of propaganda. Neshat presents the status of women in Iran in her art matter-of-factly, without informing the viewer of her purpose; her work is instead laden with images that raise questions about the status and future of Iran’s women. Like in Turbulent, where Neshat shows a woman singing in a series of screeches and moans, her works evoke a symphony of sound that says more than words could ever articulate.

Rebellious Silence, 1994


All Demons Flee, 1995


Photos and videos via MoMA, MOCA, the Met, Galerie Lelong, Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society, YouTube and the Guggenheim


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