Bringing femicide to life

A temporary exhibit called ‘Femicide in Mexico – enough is enough!’ at the Museo Memoría y Tolerencía in Mexico City uses creative methods to highlight a wide range of issues associated with femicide, bringing Mexico’s human rights crisis to life in new and important ways. 

As I walk into one of the first rooms of the exhibition, I am met by a low, murmuring soundscape that is at first hard to decipher. A series of small speakers are spaced out along both sides of the room at ear level. Upon approaching one, the sound becomes more distinct. The roaring rumble of traffic coming from one speaker; the high-pitched whistle of a wild wind in another.  Femicide DF 2

Titled ‘Sounds of Death’, this installation by Teresa Margolles features ambient sounds recorded at sites where women’s bodies were found. Each speaker plays a track from a different location, transporting you for a moment to a place of unspeakable violence.

It is disconcerting to hear the everyday sounds tumble out of the speakers. I am struck by how many of the recordings include the sounds of traffic and other signs of civilisation – these deaths did not take place in seclusion in the middle of nowhere. Such are the levels of impunity in Mexico that few expect to be caught.

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‘Inquiries’ by Teresa Margolles – pictures of some of the women disappeared in Ciudad Juárez from the 1990s until now.

A definition of femicide on the wall catches my eye:

[Femicide] is the murder of women for the simple fact of being women. The term femicide denounces violence against women, where the main reason that drives the perpetrator to commit violence against women is hate for the female condition. A femicide is not a simple homicide, but rather a deliberate attack for reasons of gender.

I venture further into the exhibition, pausing at the entrance to a darkened room. The haunting strains of Aztec lullaby Tu Tu Teshcote, the only sound in an otherwise reverent stillness,  creates an eerie atmosphere. (Note – click on the video below before you continue reading…)

Each of the four walls is adorned with photos taken by Mayra Martell, who set out to document the personal objects of disappeared females. She visited victims’ homes and spoke to their families, in order to reconstruct their image and paint a fuller picture of who these women and girls are.  Femicide DF 7

Perhaps the most striking photo, which stands out for its heartbreaking normalcy, is a to-do list handwritten by Erika Nohemí Carrillo. She was a 19-year-old civil engineering student when she was disappeared in December 2000.

Erika’s list, which had both short- and long-term goals, included: work hard to pay school fees, buy new shoes, read Plato and be nice to people. To date, her whereabouts is unknown.

Another part of the exhibit highlights how femicide investigations are often mired by useless bureaucracy. Rows and rows of grey, metallic shelves are crammed full of ring-binders, each labelled with a different name, or, all too often, simply a case number where the body has not yet been identified. Many of the victims, denied justice, are left hovering somewhere between life and death.

Newspaper clippings and details of individual cases are pinned to the walls. One provides a chilling account of a judge who exonerated a man that stabbed his girlfriend in the face, neck and abdomen. She survived the brutal attack, leading the judge to conclude, ‘If he had wanted to kill her, he would have done it.’

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These are just a few examples of the ways that the artists and other contributors have used creative, innovative forms of exposing the horrors of femicide in Mexico. Often, it is the mundane, everyday details that most wrench the heart.

I left the exhibit feeling both humbled and inspired by this impressive body of work. It certainly created a space within which to reflect on the wider issue of femicide, while also searing many of the individual cases into my memory for a long time to come.

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Photo by Mayra Martell of Olivia Manuela Nevarez Avila’s bedroom. She was 23 and the mother to three children when she was disappeared in November 2008.
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