Women’s heads and shoulders are fastened to wooden plaques displayed the way a hunter might exhibit an animal they have killed. On my first visit to the Nahualli Art Gallery in Merida, Mexico I saw some sculptures titled Trophy that I couldn’t stop thinking about. Each of the Trophy sculptures featured women with different kinds of horns. Their faces were eerily similar. I was to find out later that artist Melva Medina used her daughter Aura Metzli as the model for each piece. Aura is a fashion designer and her jewelry inspired the items in the Trophy sculptures. The women’s jewelry looked like it might be giving them pain. In this piece one imagines the thorns from the roses jabbing into the woman’s skin and scarring it. As I looked at the trophy sculptures I thought about the message they sent. Although the feminist movement has tried to change the way we view women they are still so often regarded as possessions, as trophies to be hunted like prey, captured and displayed by men. Just think about the common phrase ‘trophy wife’ and the casual, crude way the current president of the United States joked on a recording, about the ease with which he could possess a woman’s body and take advantage of it. Think about his succession of ‘trophy wives’ each one younger than the last. While researching the Trophy pieces online I discovered they had been part of a 2016 exhibit at the Museo de la Ciudad de Merida. The exhibit was called Silent Prey or in Spanish Presas del Silencio. It included many of Melva’s sculptures as well as fashion and jewlery pieces by her daughter Aura Meztli. The Silent Prey exhibit was meant to draw attention to the ongoing physical and sexual abuse of women and young girls. There seemed to be little information about the exhibit online so one afternoon I asked my sister to return to the Nahualli Gallery with me so I could take some more photos.
I hoped I might even have a chance to talk to Melva or Aura, both of whom we had met along with their husband and father Abel on our previous visit to the gallery. As luck would have it Melva was at the gallery and genuinely pleased about our interest in the Silent Prey exhibit. Would my sister and I like to go over to her studio just a few blocks away and see the other pieces from the exhibit she had in storage there? As we walked to her studio Melva told us that prior to creating the work for Silent Prey she and her daughter Aura had spent eighteen months doing research by visiting and working at shelters and safe houses for abused women and children. When we entered Melva’s studio the first thing we noticed were these sculptures that certainly explained why the exhibit had been called Silent Prey. My sister and I stood mesmerized and moved as we stared at a dozen naked female torsos with shaved heads bowed and eyes and mouths shut. Their sorrow was palpable. The mantillas or prayer shawls on some of the women’s heads and the candles in front of them certainly implied the women were praying. Did they pray for healing because they had been the prey of the men who abused them? Were they praying for the courage to tell their stories? Later I saw some photos of the art installation when it had been on display at the Museo de la Ciudad de Merida.The women were arranged in a circle and all were draped in the mantillas traditionally worn by women to Catholic mass. The lighted candles in front of each sculpture flickered eerie shadows onto the women’s faces. The religious connotations of the exhibit made me think of the centuries of abuse women and children have suffered at the hands of clergy, abuse that has been allowed to go unpunished and unrecognized in so many churches.
Melva told us that all of the sculptures in the exhibit had been inspired by drawings her daughter had done. She then opened a portfolio of her daughter’s pieces and leafed through them one by one. The horrific story of the abuse of a young girl they detailed literally took our breath away. I almost wished Melva would stop turning the pages in the portfolio as one terrifying and tragic image after another was revealed. In many of the pieces the girl’s lower body was a cage. In others it was clear to see that the perpetrator of the violence had seduced the girl and covered up his deathly evil intent with beautiful words.In this image he appears to have used music to trap her and leave her heart and body a tortured prisoner unable to escape. After looking at her daughter’s sketches it was clear their vision had been directly translated into Melva’s work. I couldn’t stop looking at the sculptures like this one where the girl’s heart is hanging, dangling and damaged inside the cage her body has become. She holds a skeleton’s head in her hand. Is she contemplating death? Look at the hair ornaments which are obviously instruments of torture and pain. My sister and I were both moved to tears as we stood looking at Melva’s sculptures. My sister is a former nurse and I am a former high school teacher, and in those areas of work there is no escaping the fact that you will be witness to the stories of women and girls who have experienced violence and abuse. Later my sister and I would talk about how hearing stories of abuse and physical violence is difficult, but that seeing it in the visual way Melva and her daughter have portrayed it was in some ways even more disturbing.
Because the person telling the story is not right there you aren’t intent on helping them and listening to them. The artwork has in some way more permanence than an oral story, and lets you focus and think and contemplate the horror of the womens’ experience. It transforms their stories into another medium that speaks to people in different ways and allows you to almost viscerally access the emotion the women feel.In this sculpture the young girl is literally split in two. Melva said when it was exhibited a pendulum hung between the girl’s legs illustrating how she vaccilated about whether to choose death as a way to end the torture and escape her abuser.
Melva told us after Silent Prey was intially exhibited she tried to look for other opportunities to display it but that has been difficult. She believes people would still like to ignore the reality of physical and sexual abuse.
While I was thinking about Silent Prey and preparing to write my newspaper column about it, Pope Francis was meeting in Rome with the heirarchy of the Catholic Church to discuss the issue of endemic abuse and violence against women and children by priests and clergy in his denomination. I kept wishing Silent Prey could have been on display at the Vatican during that meeting. Artwork like Melva and Aura’s needs to have an important place amongst the masterpieces in the Vatican’s twenty billion dollar art collection as a visible sign the church is taking sexual abuse seriously.
There is a spiritual dimension to the work Melva and her daughter did to create Silent Prey. Melva believes the exhibit is the result of divine inspiration and guidance from God. She feels she and her daughter are part of something bigger, a worldwide effort to protect the innocent. Their stunning artwork inspires the viewer to support that cause in any way they can.