May 6, 2019
by Carola Reyes Benítez
Zilia Sánchez, Troyanas (Trojan Women), polyptych, from the series Módulos infinitos (Infinite Modules), 1967. Acrylic on stretched canvas, 71 ¾ × 54 × 9 ½ in., Collection of Laura Delaney Taft and John Taft, promised gift to Walker Art Center, Minneapolis
Often as Art History students, we learn about frustrated artists who die without seeing their works being appreciated by the art community. Examples of this are Vincent Van Gogh, Toulouse Lautrec, and Johannes Vermeer. Being “undiscovered” is a reality many artists face and must deal with throughout their careers. It is refreshing to see artists in a later stage of their lives being discovered and appreciated for their work. Zilia Sánchez is an example of this phenomenon. At age 93, she currently has her first solo exhibition at the Phillips Collection in Washington DC, showcasing her 70-year career.
Zilia Sánchez was born in Havana, Cuba in 1926. After the revolution led by Fidel Castro, she fled Cuba for Europe, and later New York, finally landing in Puerto Rico, where she now lives and works. The exhibition, titled Soy Isla (I Am an Island), extends from her early days in Cuba to her more recent work done prior to Hurricane Maria, which devastated her studio in September 2017. Hurricane Maria destroyed the infrastructure of Puerto Rico, prompting much attention from the media. This has given rise to greater awareness of Puerto Rican artists, as they struggle to maintain their careers in an unstable country. In a way, it could be said that Hurricane Maria gave Sánchez the platform she needed to gain newfound international praise.
Extensive and impactful, the exhibition comprises a great number of works (around 60 pieces), that pour out to the neighboring galleries and stairwell. The evolution of Sánchez’s artistry is clear, spanning from drawings made in Cuba to her later—and best known—manipulated canvas paintings. Her central themes are the female body, mythology, and her relationship with the Caribbean. To produce many of her works, Sánchez inserts wooden beams into the painting skeletons and then places the canvas, creating protrusions that evoke beautiful feminine forms. Her works are large and heavy, and while their subject matter may appear light, they are flooded with metaphors about female empowerment and eroticism.
Zilia Sánchez, Amazonas (Amazons), from the series Topologías eróticas (Erotic Topologies), 1978. Acrylic on stretched canvas, 43 × 70 × 11 in., Princeton University Art Museum, NJ, Museum purchase, Fowler McCormick, Class of 1921, Fund, 2014-53
Sánchez identifies as a queer woman, and appreciation of her work benefits from greater acceptance of LGBTQ Latina women today. Her work feels timely, modern, and approachable, enhancing its appeal. Soy Isla is a testament to Sánchez’s sheer strength as an artist who established her career during a time of great political and social upheaval. Her art is purely the work of her imagination, and although she does not consider herself or her work political, her identity as a queer Cuban woman creating art about female identity in and of itself gives rise to political thought.
Recently, museums in the United States have presented retrospectives of Latin American female artists, including exhibitions of works by Tarsila do Amaral, Carmen Herrera, Frida Kahlo, and Lygia Pape. Sánchez’s inclusion in this sudden wave of attention is noted in Soy Isla. But in fact, she is no longer an isolated island surrounded by greater landmasses, but a participant in the wider world.
Soy Isla (I Am an Island) is on view until May 19, 2019 at the Phillips Collection in Washington DC. The exhibition will travel to the Museo de Arte de Ponce, Puerto Rico (opens June 15) and to El Museo del Barrio, New York (opens November 20).
Carola Reyes Benítez is an undergraduate Art History student at the NYU College of Arts and Sciences, and an intern at the Grey Art Gallery.