A feminist visual artist, María María Acha-Kutscher’s work tells women’s stories. Through her various projects, including her illustrations for the #DefendHer campaign, María María’s artwork shows the lives of real women who have shaped our world by advocating for a more just and equal society. María María—like Global Fund for Women, JASS, and MADRE—believes art is a critical form of activism.
In this Q&A with María María, we learn about her process to create the intricate portraits used in the #DefendHer campaign and her thoughts on the important role that artivism plays in the movement for gender equality.
Why are you excited about being part of the #DefendHer campaign?
The main focus of my work is women—their stories, their struggles for emancipation and equality. For almost 10 years, I have been developing a project called Women Working for Women that illustrates how women throughout history have been working to improve life for our gender. So I’m thankful to be a part of this important campaign.
This commissioned work is the most enriching experience that I’ve ever had. I learned from everyone involved—Global Fund for Women, JASS, and MADRE, design agency Good Stuff Partners, and of course, the defenders. The women human rights defenders and their communities inspire me with their strength and activism.
The campaign reminds us that we, as a global community, must continue to support the most vulnerable communities to build a fair world.
You call yourself a “feminist visual artist.” What does that label mean to you?
I describe myself as a feminist visual artist because of the political dimension of my work, which plays a dual role. [The work] is an artistic product in itself and it’s also an instrument that contributes to political transformations, especially for women. The experience of being female is shared by all women; it crosses race, origin, social class, and sexuality. When I started working as an artist, I knew that I wanted to make work about being a woman. It seemed important to do it from a feminist perspective because I believe that art is a powerful political tool.
From your perspective, what is the role of art in activism?
The intersection between art and activism is very interesting because it recognizes conflict—in this case, the defense of human rights—from another point of view. By creating images that appeal to our senses, to our subconscious, artists are witnesses of their time.
In the background of each woman human rights defender’s portrait, there are a variety of symbols. Can you tell us about the meaning of these symbols? How did you decide which to include in each portrait?
For years, I have been researching how to develop a language based on symbols and silhouettes that create a narrative about women and their history. I was inspired by several examples in human history, like the Mexican antique cultures codex, a historical memory through symbols.
With the #DefendHer campaign, I had the opportunity to apply this research to create a visual narrative to tell the audience the story of each woman human rights defender; the risks they face, the work they’re doing, and the progress they’re making —translating their stories into images.
In the background [of each portrait] I include some universal symbols, like birds that represent freedom. I also created new feminist symbols, such as the flying uterus (which represents the idea that “my body is mine”), and Rosie the Riveter with fist raised (“We can do it”). Additionally, there are symbols to contextualize the spiritual and cultural aspects of a community. For example, I included the presence of the symbol of the Oshun goddess and musical instruments in the Miriam Miranda illustration.
The inclusion of silhouette scenes in the backgrounds is also very important because it’s more descriptive. For example, the presence of the community as a principal scene reminds us that women human rights defenders belong to a community, she and her community defend their rights together.
The backgrounds also show a “dark” and “light” side to illustrate the risks the [women human rights defenders] face and what they are defending. For instance, in scenes from the Irina Maslova illustration, you can see sex workers under arrest and a sex worker breaking chains with birds flying to symbolize the decriminalization of prostitution.
Another symbol that I repeat often, especially in illustrations of defenders protecting land, are silhouettes of children playing as a sign of hope for the future.
Can you share how the artwork evolved from your initial concept to its final state?
Since she first stage of the process, the illustrations show two levels of communication; the portrait of the women defenders in foreground and a background that shows what rights she is defending and more.
The initial background was more abstract, like wallpaper that showed a few symbols and decorative elements as a pattern. Through several brainstorms with Global Fund for Women, JASS, and MADRE, the background evolved to something more narrative and clear. First, we decided to include scenes to show the challenges the defenders face in doing their work as well as their progress. Then we decided to include the community of the defender to show that she is not working alone; she is part of a community, a movement, so they struggle and defend jointly. In the final stage, we decided to eliminate many of the decorative elements to clean the space and simplify the communication.
The constant dialogue in this collective creation process was very enriching for the artwork.