This Artist Turned the Scars of Abused Women into Haunting Sculptures
For his new series “Detrás de las paredes,” Argentinean artist Marcelo Toledo interviewed survivors of gender violence, transforming their wounds into works of art with a call to action.
Nereida, as photographed by Jorge Oviedo. All images courtesy of Marcelo Toledo
A version of this article originally appeared on VICE Mexico. Leer en Español.
Marcelo Toledo’s new collection is deceptively simple. Each of his 14 sculptures are made of brilliant, polished metal and boast a finish that comes only from months of work and years spent focusing on the medium of sculpture. But for the first time in the Argentinean artist’s career—one that has bestowed worldwide recognition upon him—Toledo’s work invites another reading and tells a different story. The 14 sculptures that make up his new series Detrás de las paredes (“Behind the Walls,” in English) were inspired by the scars of 14 different women who, in various countries around the world, suffered the physical and emotional consequences of gender violence. “I really want the series to shake people,” Toledo said when we visited his studio in Argentina. “The public [initially reacts] with an ‘Oh, look how beautiful,’ but [they leave] with an awareness that feels like a dagger in the heart.”
Toledo first made a name for himself in the international art circuit thanks to his work based on Eva Perón, the iconic Argentinean actress and politician from the 1940s, and her jewelry. The series, called Evita: Figure, Woman, and Myth (2007) garnered such acclaim that Toledo was enlisted to design all of the jewelry for the renowned Broadway musical Evita, which is based on Perón’s life. Even now, as he discusses everything he’s been able to accomplish because of his work with Perón, he seems incredulous. “I never thought it would have such an effect,” he recalled. “I was on the front page of The New York Times, and I had a show in Shanghai in 2010 that four million people saw. The numbers are impressive.”
In 2015, Toledo had the opportunity to create a series for the Fortabat Museum in Buenos Aires, the purpose of which was to raise awareness about breast cancer. The series was called Manos de mujer, or (“Hands of Women,” in English), and featured 14 sculptures that replicated the hands of famous Argentinean women, emphasizing the role of the hand as a symbol for early cancer detection. The pieces were later sold at an auction, and the proceeds were donated to Movimiento Ayuda Cáncer de Mama (MACMA), a breast cancer awareness organization that also offers support services to women who have been diagnosed with the disease.
Manos de mujer was Toledo’s first effort to explore deeper themes in his work. “A few years ago, I was more preoccupied with aesthetics rather than the conceptual. But then I began to take contemporary art classes with a coach and I put my background as an artist, my technique, my work, and my time into the pursuit of new pieces that were meant to tell something.” Bit by bit, he laid the foundation for his most recent collection. However, he felt something was still missing: the spark that would ignite his most ambitious project to date. And then everything began when he received an invitation to an awards presentation.
On September 29, 2015, Toledo attended the Perfil Awards in Buenos Aires’ prestigious Teatro Colón. The awards—given to individuals and organizations that defend freedom of expression—had decided to offer tribute to the #NiUnaMenos movement, a feminist collective that protests gender violence, which had surged throughout Argentina in the middle of that same year. The initiative, whose name translates to “Not one woman less,” was launched in response to the increase of gender violence-based crimes in the country. “I already knew about the movement, of course. It was the first year that these women had taken to the streets. When I saw that they won [the Perfil Award], I watched as 15, 20, 30 women took to the stage. As one of them spoke, the others were crying and they clapped. It was so moving and so profound, and I realized how I could mobilize around this subject. It was a subject that stirred and touched something in me. I’ve never been violated, nor do I have any women in my family who’ve been victims [of gender violence], but the issue caught my attention and I started to do some research.”
The battle against gender violence was and continues to be an effort that transcends borders. Toledo contacted foundations and organizations that specialized in the subject and started reaching out to photographers who were already working in the field, like Christopher Thomas, who had been photographing burn victims in Nepal, Pakistan, and other countries in that region; or Jorge Oviedo and Camilo Ponce de León, who had done similar work with women in Colombia. They, along with Germán Romani and Ariel Grinberg in Argentina, became active members of the project, sharing with Toledo the tragic stories of these women and photographic evidence of their wounds, which he later transformed into sculpture.
“It’s difficult to approach a story that’s complex and painful in a cold or technical way. [Usually, when] I think about turning a story into a work of art, I [start] thinking about the technique I’m going to use, the texture that I’m going to give it so that it looks like or has some kind of point of reference to what’s seen in the photo," he explained. "But in this case, we’re talking about real people. It’s not as if I’m sitting around imagining something that could’ve happened—this happened, it was huge, it was painful, and from that, I’m creating or giving life to a piece of art. The idea isn’t to be morbid, but to try to heal. To transform that wound and that pain into a work that will be beautiful, and transform it into something conceptual that helps testify and ensure this doesn’t happen again. It’s pretty complex, but that’s the goal. For me, that’s the ‘click’ of being an artist: to transform reality into something else, like alchemy.”
While there were only 14 sculptures in the final collection, Toledo interviewed many victims for Detrás de las paredes who preferred not to be depicted. Their stories helped shape the general concept of the show, but in talking to Toledo, one is left with the impression that what moved him most was the strength of the women who had the courage to lend their image to the project. Karina Abregú, for example, is an Argentinean woman whose husband attacked her before lighting her on fire.
“When we went to photograph Karina, I was very nervous,” the artist recalled. “We arrived [at her home, and] there were patrol cars and police watching out for her because even though her attacker was in jail, his family lived just three blocks away and threatened her daily. So it wasn’t like we were just seeing what happened and how she was coping with that reality—it was also what was still happening. I created sculptures based on the physical scar of the victim, but in reality, it’s the psychological scars that last longer when a person experiences gender violence.”
Another case that impacted Toledo was that of Soledad, a Peruvian sex worker who was attacked and disfigured by three clients in the Constitution neighborhood of Buenos Aires, leaving her in a coma for six months. Working with Soledad, who is transgender, allowed Toledo to expand upon his study of gender violence and adopt a more inclusive approach. Their meeting had such a profound impact on the artist that he decided collect donations to help fund the identity document that would legally change her name to the one she’d wanted for so long. At the time, the government ID cost 400 Argentine pesos—a difficult amount for Soledad given her income, her status as a foreigner, and the fact that she’d only just emerged from a coma. “The artist forms bonds that go far beyond those of an exhibit,” he explained, remembering the experience.
The scope of Toledo’s project has vastly exceeded any of the predictions he had when he began conceiving the idea. In 2016, Detrás de las paredes was named a work of cultural interest by the city government of Buenos Aires. Shortly thereafter, it was selected to be exhibited at the United Nations during a World Congress of Women in March 2018. Along with the exhibition’s increased visibility, the overall scale of the project has also grown. The 14 sculptures remain the central focus, but the series now has an addition: A compendium of 120 metal sculptures to remember the estimated 120 women around the world who die everyday due to gender violence. Each new piece simultaneously resembles thorns from flower stems and tombstones.
Detrás de las paredes seems poised to become yet another international success in Toledo’s career, but the artist believes it’s important to return over and over again to the root of everything: to the women, to their struggle, and to their unyielding desire to raise awareness.
“The day that I met Karina,” he recalled, “I thought that if something like that had happened to me, would I be so [intent on raising] awareness? Would I focus more on what had been done to my body? But she… no. She was more focused on the struggle, [on ensuring] that what happened to her not happen to other women. At one point she said to the photographer and me, ‘Do you want me to take off my shirt?’ I was mute, and then I asked ‘Are you sure, Karina?’. [And she answered,] ‘Yes. Think what I’ve lived with all these days. For me, this is my body. It’s not the one I had before.”