Emancipation Without Asking Permission: Prudencia AyalaFriday, July 12, 2019
Although the concept, genealogy and development of artivism (art + activism) were primarily established in the late 20th century through actions undertaken by artists like Judy Baca, who founded the Social and Public Art Resource Center (SPARC) (1976) with Christina Schlesinger and Donna Deitch, along with M. K. Asante’s publication It's Bigger Than Hip Hop: The Rise of the Post Hip Hop Generation (2008) or artist Tania Bruguera’s Instituto Artivismo Hannah Arendt (2015), we can find a unique episteme for this type of political/artistic/activist practice in the political activity, feminism, self-publishing and activism of Prudencia Ayala (Sonzacate, El Salvador, 1885-1936). Her way of intervening in public space continues to inspire young Salvadoran artists like Víctor Crack Rodríguez, whose performance All You Can Refeel (2014) took place during voting in the presidential elections in El Salvador, or Las prudencias (Wisdom, 2019), performed by Colectiva Amorales on March 8, International Women’s Day, in the streets of San Salvador.
My first encounter with Prudencia’s work was during the show Prudencia Ayala for President! at the MUPI (Museum of the Word and Image) in San Salvador, as part of the exhibition schedule for YES Contemporary’s art trip 2016, at which time I was pregnant with my second child. There was a galvanizing shock between the incarnated process that was cutting open my body—as gestating body—and this immense volume of information regarding a boundless woman, “creator of emancipation,” who had also experienced maternity as another way of doing politics, in which having a child was integrated into her practice as an artivist.
Prudencia established an episteme of practice that very fluidly melds art with activism and social responsibility as a way of making a political impact. The actions she undertook in public spaces—which conform the general postulates of artivism—, open up spaces that produce “political gestures of future legality” that have no public space in which they could meld with the legal context where they were created. These gestures require the generation of a political response that is not politically-based, where there are no forebears as such, such as posting her candidacy for president when women’s suffrage had yet to be approved. As Prudencia herself explained so well: “I have launched my candidacy for President of the Republic in order to put forth civic activities reflecting women’s moral and mental capacity, which are equal to men’s; without concern for the barriers I must overcome in order to see women’s redemption triumph as a part of civil rights” (June 1930, Guatemala).
In Prudencia’s daily practice we can see the “specificity of a political era”—a trait that Tania Bruguera emphasizes as part of the structure of artivism—with which she proposes and “forces” the opening-up of a democratic space in a context where such intersections amongst the coordinates of freedom in egalitarian forms did not yet exist. In this way, she forced the political and juridical powers themselves to generate a response in the face of her feminist demands. The simple act of running as a presidential candidate created an emancipatory space that still had no context for existence.
Another of her efforts, as a publisher and author, consisted of circulating the feminist publication “Women’s Redemption,” where she presented the case for accepting the popular demand to legalize women’s suffrage, and which noted in its heading: “Collaborators: all those who sympathize with the civic-political cause in the mixed government” (Guatemala, June 1930).
Prudencia made way for a reality in which such equality already existed, taking for granted the possibility of a mixed government that did not appear as such in El Salvador until the early 1950s—the vote was partially approved in 1938, but it was not definitively adopted until 1950.
It took me some time to put together that Prudencia’s practices in political action, writing, publishing and activism made her one of the most emblematic early feminists in all of the Americas. She represents the onset of an anti-racist, decolonial emancipation which allowed her to make connections between coordinates distinct from the ones we have internalized feminism’s official history, based on the north-north connections between suffragists of the 1930s, which has unfortunately allowed such examples to be accepted as exclusive and universal.
Prudencia opened a space for activism for a potential equality, a fact that demonstrates a sort of “accelerationism” applied in her political positions, overcoming the layers of oppression that fell upon her body as a racialized territory in a context in which the powers-that-be were still not ready to assimilate the emancipatory movement that she was driving.
The Salvadoran artist Víctor Crack Rodríguez, in several conversations we have had together, sees Prudencia’s actions as a fundamental historical experience apt for reinsertion within the genealogy of Salvadoran artivism. “Her way of engaging in activism and politics in public space is amazing to me. Its simplicity, its clarity, its acuity, its aggressiveness, her way of camouflaging it with reality, her striking intuition; not a shred more, not one decoration more—or not a shred less, not one decoration fewer. That’s the problem that a lot of proposals have when they’re superficial, and they try to hide it in opacity in order to make their argument. She is so genuine. I’ve really gotten a lot from her legacy.” Crack Rodríguez has also mentioned her as a source to which he must return in order to understand the origins of the struggles that achieved what we now consider democracy, in order not to forget the foundations of freedom and pluralism that drove her. In his performance All You Can Refeel (2014), which questions the perverse relationship between power and democracy during the voting process for El Salvador’s presidential elections, Crack Rodríguez makes a statement by eating his electoral ballots in a gesture that connects hunger to power.
Likewise, Crack Rodríguez emphasizes the different ways of performing politics in an artistic manner by way of Prudencia: “I’m inspired by the clarity of her vision, which instead of being laid out as an aesthetic approach is organized by a concern for communicating influence, for freedom. Her clearest action was when she presented her candidacy for president, its way of ridiculing the very act of voting, but in a more complex way by running for office—which required judicial officials at the time to do some thinking. […] Conceptual art has always been a part of her practice, [for example] the fact that Prudencia used a cane, a symbol that was used exclusively by men, and which held a symbolic power. The fluidity of our beloved activist and artist reflects her thirst for making an impact on her environment. The essence of Prudencia’s approach is to make a political impact.”
Colectiva Amorales (The Amoral Collective), which is made up of young Salvadoran artists and activists, also situate part of their practice in the vein of artivism, in that they support an open and ongoing internal debate over whether all of their actions are conceptualized as artistic practice or not, given that they use performatic languages as a tool for social criticism. One example of this is the performance Cuerpos (Bodies, 2017), held during the September 28, 2017 march in favor of legalizing abortion in San Salvador, in which nearly 200 women lay on the ground covered in white sheets spattered with blood in order to decry the deaths of thousands of women brought on by obstetric complications.
Another one of their performances, Las Prudencias (Wisdom, 2019), held during the March 8th International Women’s Day march in San Salvador, reclaimed Prudencia as a symbol of their struggle, defined through the lens of anti-colonial and anti-racist feminism, using her non-westernized attire along with the powerful cane used by the “masters” or lords of the era.
Jaz Miranda, one of the members of the Colectiva, has commented that “remembering Prudencia means recognizing an entire genealogy of women who have resisted patriarchal, racist and classist society. It means looking at ourselves from within our own contexts, prejudices, assertions and histories, with those characteristics that are so frequently left unmentioned and obscured by hegemonic, white feminism. […] Prudencia is that woman who makes us look back on our own history, and from there we can look at our own present.”
A century ago, Prudencia opened up spaces that still cry out to be further expanded and informed by different struggles, through artistic practices permeable to social demands and needs in dialogue with an activism supported by languages of performatic action, allowing it to impact symbolic public space as thoroughly as possible.
*This essay was made possible by the support of Carlos Consalvi (Director of the MUPI), Mauricio Esquivel, Jaz Miranda, The Fire Theory and YES Contemporary.
Translated from the Spanish by Phillip Penix-Tadsen.
 My use of first names is intentional, as in Clementina Suárez’s work, as a way of undoing patriarchy by not referring to and signifying a woman’s work with her paternal surname, but rather with her own name.