Feminist Futures with Frieda Toranzo Jaeger

Feminist Futures with Frieda Toranzo Jaeger
Frieda Toranzo Jaeger is a Mexico city-based artist. Her work explores themes of hybridity and technology; Western iconography is subverted to play with colonial ideas of art, and intertwined with Indigenous embroidery techniques to unveil a cosmic odyssey through feminism, botany and hydraulic frisson.

“I think our ideas of the future are mostly constrained rather than enhanced by capitalism; because capitalism colonises our ideas, our imagination, and therefore our visions of the future. And it’s becoming increasingly narrow, so every time we think about the future – it’s either an apocalyptic one, or some kind of sci-fi space colonisation landscape, which is binary and sterile.”

Frieda wants to revive images of (an automated) utopia, bringing them into the present to imagine a future in which everything is possible. Her spacecraft vehicles drive themselves, all you need to do is sit back and enjoy the ride. Simultaneously referring to iconography from the 1400s and 1500s, she cuts into a period that popularised the altar painting – pieces carried by missionaries and multi-panelled works that were easy to transport:

“People were still figuring out how to paint, they were experimenting, it was trial and error and I love the idea of seeing this process of figuring it out from first principles… The potential of painting is that it can change your ideology. We need new beginnings, and I do that, I go back to revisit the foundational myth of Adam and Eve so you can be like – I didn’t chose this and I don’t relate to it [a copy of Lucas Cranach the Elder’s diptych Adam and Eve (1528) has been repainted to feature two Eves in a queer origin re-telling]. I give you the choice to revisit this history with another lens. That’s why I revisit history, especially European history, because I want to resist these flat yet pervasive stories and ideas.”

Toranzo Jaeger’s work wilfully resists categorisation – she is a painter, but the canvases in A Future in the Light of Darkness are often shaped and linked to form freestanding or free-hanging objects. Their surfaces are embellished with faint trappings of carnival glitter and pearls. Rich embroidery glides across them, sometimes framing an image, sometimes creeping through it, sometimes hovering on the surface. Long fringes trail like trim on a shawl, carrying fetishistic frisson. Create to Destroy, Destroy to Create/ On Taste and Poetry, Fuego (2019) hovers over the cab of a hot-rod convertible, its seats and gear stick trimmed with flames. Meanwhile, real flames can be seen raging in the rear-view and wing mirrors.

Her exhibitions are full of territorial incursions and pushbacks. Based in Mexico City, Toranzo Jaeger is sensitive to the use of art by Spanish colonisers in the 16th century and beyond. “Art” was European, whereas the cultural products of indigenous peoples were “craft”. Where the altarpieces offered the Indigenous peoples of Mexico a vision of the sacred that was populated by white Europeans in a Holy Land on the other side of the world, Toranzo Jaeger’s hinged paintings take us to outer space, or a post-apocalyptic near future.

“I choose to reference Diego Rivera because for me, he is a figure of repression not revolution. I think this is the Mexican idea of an artist, and because I’m a Mexican, I will always have to deal with him. This is the history the West remembers of us. I really want to drop out of the tradition of this macho painter – I want to detach myself from him. When [Rivera] started to do all these murals, he gave himself the power to represent indigeneity in Mexico, and I think that’s super problematic. Nobody wants to revisit and retell his stories in Mexico, because his version of events is so set in stone. And I think that’s wrong, history should move, history is a dialectical process.”

Cranach’s Judith appears naked, with the head of an embroidered sunflower in place of the head of Holofernes, and her sword on the neighbouring panel is transformed into a brightly coloured weapon worthy of a fantasy game. For New Futures We Need New Beginnings (2022) a six-sided tower, the upper panels jutting out like gullwing car doors, is a sleek silver-grey that is habitually described as futuristic, but is the precise aesthetic of a contemporary MacBook Air; A beautifully embroidered potato plant (native to Central America) floats ready to sustain life on another planet.

Car culture has been fuelled in equal parts by testosterone and gasoline, in turn inspiring some great feminist art. Like her queer repainting of works by Cranach, Hieronymus Bosch and Hans Memling, Toranzo Jaeger’s appropriation of car culture feels knowing, subversive and celebratory rather than satirical; People make out in the back seats; The dashboards carry paintings by Hilma af Klint and Georgia O’Keeffe; These vehicles are emblems of love and liberty.

“I think it’s an exercise in critical thinking, which right now, is in danger. I think we as humans – because we are rational, relational and aware of our existence – should never stop exercising critique and critical analysis. Regardless of what you do, even if you think it’s right or not, you can exercise critical thinking around it. As I’m a painter, I should be critical towards painting as a medium. I understand for example, painting’s relationship with commodity, preciousness and market values. I want to explore how I can move within it. This is what I do every day, so I think it would be foolish of me not to criticise it.”

It is not only European art of the colonial era that gets picked up and reworked, Toranzo also has the macho frog-prince of Mexican art in her sights. In the 1940s Diego Rivera painted a sequence of Indigenous Mexican women selling huge armfuls of fleshy calla lilies, mostly seen from behind. Here, there is a sense of imminent retaliation on the part of the silent faceless women: two of Toranzo Jaeger’s paintings feature arms thrusting through the window of a car we’re positioned in, throwing calla lilies back at us. Rivera’s legacy is being repainted with a flaming ferocity and an enticing blend of lush surfaces mixed with dynamic forms. Underpinning this is her love-hate fascination with 16th-century art. She drives her points home hard and fast, but wherever she’s heading, there’s pleasure to be had along the way.

“I ‘like’ the symbol of the heart because it talks about our desires, not our needs – it talks about desire in a capitalistic sense. Pressing the ‘Like’ button: this is a machine of endless appreciation for desire. And it becomes really hard to stop being part of this. I am also curious about how this symbol has functioned throughout history. This consistent symbol has moved in so many different directions. In medieval times it was associated with fertility. In my work I have opened up my heart and laid it on the floor. It’s kind of a tragedy, the disaster in desire…  I want to destroy the preciousness that the Western canon has given to painting. This is why I chose to integrate another genealogy – embroidery, which has a very different status. I want these worlds to collide; It’s also a tradition that has been passed down through the women in my family, and I think it’s an important tradition to keep alive.”