“When the canvas is cut, it opens endless possibilities,” says Colombian painter Cristina Camacho, who weaves intricate patterns into stacked canvases. Her current solo show, /ˈvʌlvə/, at Praxis Gallery — her third since graduating from Columbia’s MFA program in 2015 — evidences an increasingly audacious and masterful play with light, shadow, color, and gravity. Compared to her previous series, which rely more on abstract patterns and geometric forms, /ˈvʌlvə/ blooms with a sense of narrative and symbolism. The canvas seems to have a life of its own, rife with the desire to speak something formerly absent.
For Camacho, this project was born out of a shock that turned into an urgent need to give voice to a word that is rarely uttered outside of medical contexts: vulva. “At age 30, I learned that I had been calling an essential part of my body that defines so much by the wrong name. There is the vulva, and then there is the vagina, which is just the hole.” Camacho gestures emphatically as we talked, seated among her artworks. “The word ‘vagina’ comes from the Latin for ‘sheath,’ into which the sword is placed. That’s it — a completely male-dominated language that talks about the female sex as if it’s just the hole.”
Spelled phonetically, the show’s title prompts the viewer to practice saying the neglected word out loud. “All the words we use to signify our vulva are either horribly objectifying or very pristine,” she says. This linguistic stance toward the vulva contributes to the female body’s objectification in patriarchal societies. “In Spanish, we have the vulgar slang la concha, which means [cunt and] shells, and then we talk about the clitoris as if it’s the pearl, a precious thing that we need to protect from the world and is, again, meant to be desired and eventually acquired by someone else, a man.” Camacho found herself estranged from a vital part of her body because of the language and, more broadly, the culture she grew up with.
Camacho incorporates in her art the symbols and images that pervade Euro-American conceptions of the female body, and become ingrained in women’s thinking about our own bodies, but the artist reclaims these images through weaving, a craft largely belonging to women. In each of the works, the carefully cut canvas drapes voluptuously to evoke a womb-like space that is decorated with cross-stitching of flowers. “My mind was flooded with these ways of thinking about my body that I was taught. You see a lot of flowers, because we are thought to be ‘deflowered’ in this constant abstraction of our body into flowers and orchids.” Pointing to “Light Blossom” (2019), she asks of her younger self, “How did I think about the inside of my body as a creative young girl? What do the eggs that I supposedly have look like? What happens when the eggs don’t get used?” At the center of the canvas, a mauve vertical line blooms into a diamond-shaped cluster of eggs, glowing pale yellow at the top and elongated into a poignant drip of red at the bottom.
The show’s phonetic title seems to capture the vulva just before it solidifies into a signifier, renewing its possibilities of meaning production. Camacho also engages with traditional symbols of the female body, re-presenting them through weaving, and reshaping their meaning in the process. “In many cultures, women have used weaving to communicate and tell stories when they’re silenced. The other name we have for vulva is labia, meaning lips, and there is the association that we need to keep both sets of lips shut. In this macho culture, women don’t have a voice or a sexual expression,” Camacho relates. “So, incorporating weaving into this project is very important.” Weaving, for her, is both a craft she learned from her mother and an age-old tool of resistance for those women deprived of a voice.
When I confess that the slit canvases in /ˈvʌlvə/ remind me of female genital mutilation, Camacho clarifies, “This project is actually the opposite of mutilation, which is about taking something away. My work is about filling the void we have in our culture, language, and body, giving the void the voice and meaning that it deserves.” Camacho’s canvases are never aggressively cut; rather, the cuts are delicate, even poetic. While she has control over her compositions when sketching grids on the canvas, the moment she lays the canvas down and starts cutting, she works with uncertainty and surprise, not knowing how the canvas will fold or fall.
This lack of complete control, however, is exactly what drives her work. For Camacho, the moment the canvas falls is the moment the work comes alive. From then on, it’s a process of “negotiation with the canvas,” in her words, for weeks or months on end. The cutting of the surface is both literal and symbolic: “There is a surface in our culture that we need to break, and there is a surface in the canvas itself that we need to break to bring about a new life to the surface. Both metaphorically and in painting, this has always been the work: the idea that there is a preestablished surface that is flat, but there is so much more in the void that is concealed underneath.” Camacho becomes excited before she leans forward, narrowing her eyes, and asks, “What happens when I cut open that surface?”
The answer is a revelatory group of artworks that exudes joyful energy. Vibrant or serene in color, the paintings share an intricacy in composition and abundance of symbols. Having wrestled with and redefined the images that have repressed and silenced her and so many other women, Camacho seems to have made peace with the ghosts of the past: the trauma that accompanies a sense of ignorance about her own body, and the frustration at the absence of positive expressions. As she restores a voice to the silenced lips, she has also found her voice and refined her craft as an artist — and opened a space to be filled by infinite voices to come.
Cristina Camacho: /ˈvʌlvə/ was on view at Praxis Gallery (501 W 20th Street Chelsea, Manhattan) May 16–July 5.