I consider that in life there are all small satisfactions. Life is too important a thing to take it seriously. I make art laughing, which is very serious, by the way.
– Feliza Bursztyn
Feliza The Revolutionary
The retrospective exhibition “Welding Madness” is the culmination of a research project curated and led by Marta Dziewanska and Abigail Winograd that covers almost the entirety of Bursztyn’s works as well as including materials from the artist’s archives. Prior to this new show, her works were only shown sporadically, with pieces from the series “Las Histericas”, “Las camas”, and “La baila mecanica” being displayed separately in the United States and Europe. This exhibition is the first monographic display of Bursztyn’s oeuvre in Europe.
The art of Feliza Bursztyn was innovative and trailblazing in her own country, but it was also found to be highly unorthodox in the international context during her lifetime. Her artistic experiments in form, aesthetics, and medium, were inventive and brave. They defied, questioned, and critiqued subtly and comically the conservative, elitist and paternalistic culture in Colombia, where a predominantly white oligarchy dictated how women and the working masses should live.
Welding shapes, refining industrial junk, questioning the traditional order
Feliza Bursztyn, who was a young woman from a good home, started to work as a sculptor and welder in the sixties. The artworks she was creating were novel and unique, made using industrial scrap. The choice of these materials acted as a subversive gesture, as she was using materials associated with men’s work, . In addition to this, using industrial scrap was a way of recycling materials that were useless from the social perspective, being rejected by society as well as the given factory. She made objects that weren’t pleasant to look at. In other words, she did everything that she wasn’t supposed to do as an upper-middle class woman, who was expected to be quiet and almost transparent. Instead, her work went against the dominant social outlook and her expected role in the family structure.
I wanted to work with scrap metal, but I was so poor that I could not even
afford scrap metal. One day at Rogelio Salmona’s house I found a room filled with
Nescafé cans. With them I made my first exhibition
– Feliza Bursztyn
Feliza welded her first pieces from the scrap metal that was left abandoned in the factories and car workshops in the area where she lived in Bogota. She started her career with a series of sculptures called “Chattaras” (junk, trash). This aesthetic decision came from both economic necessity (this material was for free) as well as from her philosophical outlook on the state of the Colombian economy, which underwent rapid industrialization and social transformation, producing a new proletariat class without rights and state protection.
After these initial experiments and explorations in form, she moved on and designed an automated series, “Las Histericas” (1967–1968). With these pieces, Feliza Bursztyn pioneered kinetic art in Colombia. She attached simple turntable motors to welded configurations of long, flexible stainless-steel bands sourced from Bogota factories. Each work in “Las Histericas” was an assemblage of circular configurations of metal. These made an ugly and noisy sound, as when put into motion the thin metal strips would clash together. These sculptures were alluding directly to the 19th century psychiatric diagnosis of hysteria: a mental disorder assigned to women on the verge of a mental breakdown, who were perceived as frantic, frenzied, too chaotic, and unpredictable (like the movement of Bursztyn’s works) by psychoanalysts such as Freud and Jung. The word hysteria originates from the Greek word for uterus, hystera.
I have built works out of scrap metal which, because it is made of this material, reduces the cost. I have built sculptures for public squares and for parks and for schools. In some places I have worked on a wall, that is, made a mural with the “leftover” scrap metal from the same construction. Convert an aesthetic space. That serves for the rest of the eyes or sensitive taste. I think that by doing this the sculpture has deep social leanings.”
– Feliza Bursztyn
Experiments in space and movement
The next step for Feliza was to create the first multimedia installations in Colombia. These took the form of site-specific constellations of motorized sculptures with an accompanying soundtrack. Once again, she amazed and shocked the local audience with “Las camas” (The Beds, 1974). Bursztyn attached hidden motors to thirteen beds. The beds were covered with a shiny satin coating. The colours of the coverings were meaningful and intentional. A review of “Las camas” explains their significance. The yellow, blue, and red covers represented the national flag, with other beds being covered in an “attractive bishop purple”. This was in contrast with another area of the exhibition where all the beds were a neutral colour, somewhere between an “ice white and pale lilac.” The review goes on to explain the symbolism of the colours, “an obvious interpretation would be: the State, the Church, and the People.” The artists exhibited “Las camas”, spotlighting in a darkened and carefully prepared setting (surrounded by black curtains). “Las camas” also has an audio element, music created especially for Bursztyn by the experimental electronic musician Jacqueline Nova. The wildly jerking beds, which simulate sexual acts alongside the sensual coverings, and darkened surroundings of “Las camas” flaunt a theme of sexuality and of a brothel, a theme that is still taboo in such a heavily-Catholic country. “Las camas” was a manifestation of female sexual liberation as well as emancipation from the oppression of the state and church.
Satire as a superpower
Feliza Bursztyn in “Chattaras”, “Las Histericas” and “Las camas” is radically transgressive, but at the same time her works are humorous and playful; they are not dark, seditious, or pessimistic. She approaches overwhelmingly destructive and oppressive realities, like the undesired consequences of liberal economics, unsustainable industrialization, and the dominance of the Catholic Church, with humour, and by doing so, she destroys the constructed social power of these dogmas and institutions. They are no longer super powerful, but institutions that can be undermined and ridiculed.
The majority of her oeuvre is kept in Colombia; few pieces can be found in the collections in other countries, for example at the MOMA in New York City and Tate Modern in London. With this in mind, the exhibition in Museum Susch is a very rare occasion for in-person experience with these disruptive and impactful art pieces, which normally you would have to travel to Bogota to see.
Feliza La Loca, her approach to patriarchal culture of Colombia
No. Quite the opposite. I embraced the crazy thing, and insisted on it to really do what I wanted. Because I do believe that we live in a macho world. And being a sculptor and not being a man is very difficult. For people to take me seriously, I resorted to that trick, because they thought: ‘Maybe that crazy lady does interesting things’. And I think this worked.
– Feliza Bursztyn
When we learn about Feliza Bursztyn from her art and from the multiple interviews that she gave to the Colombian press, we find out that she was radical and unapologetically uber-feminine. She dressed in miniskirts and high heels (considered by the wealthy class to be “zapatos de puta”). She was often seen in jewellery and with full make-up. But at the same time, she was a skilled welder who designed and made motor-powered structures. The exhibition also contains archive material that demonstrates that she sometimes came across as distant and mysterious. At other times,, she would be a hostess and fiesta organizer at her place in Bogota, where artists and intellectuals passed their free time. We also also discover that her voice was high-pitched and her accent from Bogotá was strong. She constantly cursed. She was completely out of the box and had a vibrant personality.
Rebel spirit in oligarchic and conservative society
Feliza was born in Bogota, Colombia, to Jewish parents who were immigrants from Poland. AAn outsider, not fully accepted by Colombian society, she would often have to, she would often have to name the exact Bogota Bogota hospital in whichwhich she was born in order to prove herself as a Colombian native.
Her father did well in his adopted country. HHe was an entrepreneur and owner of a prosperous textile business. He benefited from when Colombia was undergoing the first phase of industrialization by import substitution. With the aid and encouragement of the government, his textile business took off. He was also one of the leaders of the Ashkenaz community in Bogota.
The wealth that Feliza’s family accumulated funded her art studies in New York and Paris. Like many other Latin American artists after and before her, among them, Luchita Hurtado, Carmen Herrera, Rufino Tamayo, Frida Kahlo, Anita Malfatti, and Tarsila do Amaral, she tried her luck in the capitals of the art world. Feliza, on the other hand, didn’t want to stay abroad for long because she was certain she was meant to be a Colombian artist working from her homeland.
Feliza returned to Bogota in 1960. However, her iHowever, her international travels gave her a lot of inspiration, especially her studies in Paris, where where meetings with the Nouveau Réalisme sculptor César contributed to her choice of medium and artistic style. This period of temporary emigration impacted her personally. She got married in 1952 in New York and had children shortly after, two girls. The marriage did not end well. Her husband wanted Feliza to quit being an artist, to quit being herself, in other words, and become a fully domesticated creature with only family on her mind. The tumultuous relationship ended with a divorce, although legal in Judaism but not tolerated within conservative and strict Jewish circles.
The divorce was personally devastating; she lost her daughters, who remained with their father in the States, and she also lost her parents and relatives in Colombia in the aftermath of her divorce.. She was ostracised and alienated by her family and community. But she built a new life after that, the one that she constructed according to her liking. She remarried in 1970,to the chemical engineer, Pablo Leyva. They met while he was finishing his doctoral studies in economics. Pablo was interested in art and helped his wife with the making of complex electronic circuits for some of her motion sculptures.
Feliza, celebrity and free spirit
Feliza had an active social life. Her home became a place where the cultural circles of Bogota met and partied. Her friends were other artists, writers, actors, musicians, theatre directors, and architects. She lived and worked in that house, which was originally a fabric factory owned by Feliza’s parents. Her home has changed dramatically over the years, but the industrial aspect of it (high ceilings, windows and cement floors) remains. In 1963, after the unexpected deaths of her lover, the poet Jorge Gaitán Durán, and her father, she inherited a section of the factory: the garage area, a large and narrow space. This was the original and the first house she stayed in. Over the years, it was remodelled and new parts of the factory and property were added to it. The house was like her works, made out of fragments of discarded construction materials.
Feliza was supportive of the anti-establishment forces. She visited Cuba and spoke in favour of communist opposition. Her political sympathies made her a suspicious person in the eyes of the special forces in the seventies, when guerrilla civil conflict was in full flow. Feliza Bursztyn was briefly arrested and detained in 1981. After that incident, she fled the country. She found refuge in Paris the following year. Unfortunately, she died suddenly while having dinner at a restaurant with friends, including writer Gabriel García Márquez, at the age of forty-nine, from a heart attack.
Legacy and meaning of Bursztyn’s art
Feliza Bursztyn confronted in her life and through her art the hegemonic ideologies of oligarchic, elitist, and sexist Colombian power structures. She exposed its constructed and amendable nature with humour. Her liberative art, along with her media presence and quasi-celebrity status, meant for women in Colombia that emancipation is possible and that it can be done without violent conflict because she showed that the emperor has new clothes. Which meant that Colombia’s political and economic elites no longer had a monopoly on the acceptable way of life. During her lifetime, in the 1960s and 1970s, socialist and feminist ideas spread throughout her country, and new generations challenged the status quo, directly opposing the conservative power elites.
Unfortunately, this violent conflict lasted till the late nineties, and the peace treaties with leftist guerrillas were concluded in separate negotiations subsequently in 2012, 2015, and 2016. The civil war produced around 8 million internally displaced people. Alternative ideologies were not accepted by political institutions up to the second decade of the 2000s. Last Sunday, June 19th, Colombian voters chose, for the first time ever in the history of the country, to elect a socialist candidate as the country’s president. Gustavo Petro, a former guerrilla fighter and senator, won the elections and the other contenders accepted the results. The peaceful transition of the government has started. Looking back from this perspective on Feliza Bursztyn’s legacy, we can appreciate her brave and strong spirit of civil disobedience and contestation. We should also recognize her tremendous impact on Latin American art related to her formalist and multimedia innovations.