Visualizing women’s stories: Mother and daughter artists focus on social justice

Maria Christina Tavera and Paloma Giossi (Photo by Sarah Whiting)

Interconnections rule for Maria Cristina Tavera and Paloma Giossi, mother and daughter arts activists. Tavera is widely known for her art contributions and Paloma is building her own cred integrating science and art as an up-and-coming arts activist in South Minneapolis. 

Tavera has dual U.S. and Mexican citizenship, and is a visual artist, printmaker and probably best known for her ofrendas – offerings for the Day of the Dead. “My mother’s family is in Mexico and I have an intrigue with the traditional arts of Mexico. But my art is also about contemporary issues,” she says. “When I started having children I thought about how different raising my children was from how my grandmother raised her children in Mexico.” 

A lot of Tavera’s art analyzes what it means to be a woman, and how being a woman is related to culture. 

For the “El Milagro” (the miracle) exhibition, she created the installation “Conception/Anti-Conception Center” in 2011, as a response to women friends whose biological clocks were ticking. It is a red home-entertainment center covered in gold birth control pills and pregnancy tests, representing the challenging indecisiveness about whether to conceive. On one side is a confessional of women’s stories about struggling with childbirth, miscarriages, infertility and fertility. 

The inspiration of folk legends

“My artistic mission is to create pieces that inspire conversations about topics, about how gender and cultural issues are viewed. I want to create access to arts for women,” Tavera says. 

She describes herself as a cultural liaison. For example, when the Frida Kahlo exhibit was at the Walker Art Center in 2007-2008, she secured a grant for new immigrant Latinas to take a bus from the Lake Street area of Minneapolis to the exhibit. 

Tavera says she overheard conversations (that later inspired her own artwork made out of hair) between Mexican women about hair, about how they associated the uni-brow with lesbianism, and about how facial hair in the U.S. is associated with masculinity. “Art has the capacity to teach non-Latinos about our Latino culture,” Tavera says. “To create a sense of community for Latinos, and to create places for conversation.” 

Tavera’s recent work of wood block and linoleum prints illustrates traditional Latin-American folk tales. One story is of a woman who feels betrayed and, in an act of revenge, drowns her children, which she later regrets. She spends the rest of her life at the river searching for them. This traditional tale parallels contemporary stories of women who suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder. 

Paloma interjects with a story. At 7-years-old, she opened the refrigerator to find a full-bodied, dead, plucked chicken with the feet and head still attached. Tavera, laughing, explains the chicken was for a still-life painting about traditional cooking in Mexico. 

As the director of the federal TRIO-funded McNair Scholars Program at Augsburg College, Tavera sees parallels between her art and her job in academia. “In both places I help people striving for equality reach their goals. I serve as a liaison so they [the students] can learn the culture of graduate school,” she says.

Defining a new feminism

Paloma attends the School for Environmental Studies at the Minnesota Zoo in Apple Valley, and is passionate about environmental science. She is participating in the Minneapolis Institute of Arts (Mia’s) Girls Design the World: Supporting Green Communities project. This STEAM (science, technology, engineering, art and math) project is a joint effort of Mia and the National Museums of Kenya, Nairobi. On their respective continents, the girls will define their own art/science project. Paloma wants to explore invasive species, loss of pollinators and a topic that is universal – water impurities. 

Paloma is on the youth advisory board of Courageous HeARTS, created by Lindsey Walz, a survivor of the 35W bridge collapse. The arts organization is to be a space for youth to heal, grow their dreams and learn to thrive. For Paloma, it is a safe space where she is learning to be an artist and how to raise money. 

But what Paloma is most avid about in her arts activism is her work with the Gay Straight Alliance. She wants to “… use my art to expand the understanding of sexual identity and the full spectrum of sexual identity.” Through Courageous HeARTS, Paloma, with other youth, are brainstorming a visual arts project about new feminism for an exhibit for the Guerrilla Girls Twin Cities Takeover. It will be something about “… combating gender stereotypes and working toward the full humanization of women,” according to Paloma.