Missing women of Juarez, Mexico, remembered at arts center in Philadelphia

Photo: Diane Kahlo, “Wall of Memories.”

At Fleisher Art Memorial, a community arts center in South Philadelphia, there is currently a staggering show presented by artist Diane Kahlo entitled “Las Desaparecidas de Ciudad Juárez: A Homage to the Missing and Murdered Girls of Juárez.” In the Works on Paper gallery at this Knight Arts Challenge winner, Kahlo explores the horrific topic of the women of Juárez, Mexico who have been disappearing at unthinkable rates: more than 700 have gone missing between 2010 and 2014, with some disappearances dating back as far as the 1990s. After being kidnapped, these girls are often forced into the sex trade, abused, raped and often killed. Kahlo’s project seeks to give a voice to the victims of these unimaginable crimes, as well as address the crisis of violence against women worldwide.

In order to remember these women, Kahlo set out to paint some 150 portraits of the abducted and murdered–a small portion of the total, but a challenging and poignant undertaking in its own right. One wall of the space is entirely covered by dark frames containing the faces of the many missing and dead. They are often based on images shared online by the families in order to find their loved ones, and in the case that Kahlo could not find an image, she used a symbol instead: a heart, a hummingbird and a butterfly, for instance, represent some of the girls’ lives.

Portraiture has historically been reserved for upper-class individuals and those deemed ‘worthy’ of commemorating, but Kahlo rightfully saw it appropriate to honor the abducted girls in this way so that they would receive even a small gesture in light of their fates. Each portrait requires attention and care, and it is only fitting that these stolen girls are remembered as people and not as statistics–or worse yet, forgotten. By seeing them each–and all of them together–Kahlo’s hope is also to inform us of these terrible facts in order to prevent atrocities of this type in the future.

A Day of the Dead-style skull by Diane Kahlo.

Elsewhere, the artist creates brightly colored skulls covered in sequins to reflect Day of the Dead decorations. During this Mexican holiday, family members come together to remember their deceased loved ones by decorating their graves with flowers, toys or food and drinks. A full-sized coffin in the middle of these skulls is covered in images that refer back to indigenous cultures and art forms, as well. This testament to both contemporary and distant history helps Kahlo tie together the tales of the missing girls of Juárez with their history, while providing similar Day of the Dead decorations in their memory.

Diane Kahlo, “Virgin of Guadalupe.”

Across the way there is an altar built with a life-sized sequined skeleton and a depiction of the Virgin of Guadalupe, one of the most famous Mexican religious depictions. Surrounded by candles, this shrine–along with a giant mandala–do well to remind us of the fragility of life and all of those lost in Juárez. With Kahlo’s touching tribute to the ‘disappeared of Juárez,’ perhaps we can all learn more about this ugly and ongoing feminicide in order to end it and make sure nothing like it happens again.

“Las Desaparecidas de Ciudad Juárez” will be on display at Fleisher through Oct. 9.