400 Women confronts us with the faces of some of the women killed over the past two decadesin Ciudad Juárez, a town situated near the border between Mexico and the United States of America. These murders, which continue today, are not to be confused or conflated with the plethora of killings associated with drug cartels in the region. The murders addressed by 400 Women were, quite simply, motivated by the fact that the victims were women. The brutal circumstances of these killings – rape, torture, captivity and bodily desecration – bear a direct relation to the victims’ gender. Since the year 2003, when 400 was quoted as the official count of sexual homicides in the region, the number has become symbolic, incapable of capturing the actual number of murders in this growing tragedy. In 2006, the Mexican government closed its investigations into what is known by some in Mexico as a ‘femicide’, concluding that no federal laws had been violated.
400 Women is the outcome of 5 years’ work by visual artist Tamsyn Challenger. The idea for the project was sparked by her visit to Mexico in 2006, to make a feature for BBC Radio 4’s Woman’s Hour. Challenger was marked by encounters with relatives of the victims, in particular the way mothers would press into her hands cheap postcards depicting their lost daughters. On the flight back to London, she began thinking of a way to tackle the trauma she had encountered in Mexico, and began developing a conceptual portrait project of massive scale and reach.
For 400 Women, Challenger has invited each artist to paint a portrait of one of the missing or murdered women, and to somehow become that woman, standing in for her in the context of the project. The works are based on photographs she has obtained from Amnesty International, the support group Nuestras Hijas de Regreso a Casa (May Our Daughters Return Home) and the Esther Chavez Collection, together with brief forensic accounts of the murders. In some cases, where photographs were unavailable, artists have been asked to work with nothing more than a name. The pieces have all been produced in a size reminiscent of a Mexican retablo, or altarpiece.
The collective nature of 400 Women is striking: it brings together 200 artists to create a critical mass of voices addressing a single issue. As a group of portraits, each created in its own unique style, the project raises important questions about the capacity of art to imagine the dead and to deal with the specifics of violence and trauma. With 400 Women, Challenger asks artists and viewers to question their conscience, and to consider the catastrophic situation in Mexico, both as a localised crisis and as an indication of gender violence the world over.
A network of conversations has developed between the participants in 400 Women, between the artists, curators, supporters and their friends and families. The murders of women in Ciudad Juárez are not easy to comprehend; to do so requires creating a mental picture of a killing, getting to the bottom of particular motives for extreme brutality. Young or old, established or emerging, male or female, the aim has been for the artists involved to identify with ‘their’ woman. They have absorbed the shocking details of her story, considered the effect their portrait may have on her family, and exercised their capacity, in some small way, to do her justice. A profoundly sobering and humanising process, the portraits come together to form a wall of resistance. These women’s voices may be muted, but their faces induce a shared sense grief, and act as a reminder of the urgent need for justice.