Artists' tribute to Mexico's missing and murdered women

By Cordelia Hebblethwaite
BBC News

Image caption,
Karen went missing in Ciudad Juarez at the age of just 14

Arsene van Nierop's footsteps clatter across the cold stone floor of Shoreditch Town hall in London.

She stops by a small black and white painting, and looks up, her head tilted slightly to the side.

It is a portrait of her daughter, Hester.

"She was a very small, small woman. She was open and spontaneous. She was kind to everybody; she was also chaotic...She was a really warm and deep-feeling person."

"I'm really glad to have her here," Arsene van Nierop tells the BBC.

Hester's portrait forms part of an exhibition depicting 200 of the hundreds of women who have been murdered or declared missing in the Mexican border city of Ciudad Juarez since the early 1990s.

Hester was brutally killed 12 years ago in Ciudad Juarez. From the Netherlands, she was visiting her sister on the way to taking up an internship in architecture in the US.

Her mother explains the story they have managed to piece together.

"She was beaten unconscious; the man strangled her and raped her, and then he put her under the bed."

Image caption,
Arsene van Nierop next to the portrait of her daughter Hester who was murdered in 1998

Arsene believes the attacker slept on the bed until morning, and then fled.

Hester van Nierop is believed to be the only European victim; most of the murdered young women were poor local factory workers and students.

Many of the killings were truly horrific, involving sexual violence and rape.

The murders began in 1993, and for a while captured the world's attention; dozens of journalists investigated, and numerous books and songs were written.

But to date, most cases remained unresolved, and it is still a mystery why women are being targeted in this way.

International tribute

Image caption,
Liliana Elizabeth Sanchez has been missing since 2003. By Toby Wiggins.

Two hundred artists from around the world - including Tracey Emin, Paula Rego, and Humphrey Ocean - are involved in the London exhibition.

Each artist was given some very basic information about a murdered or missing woman, and was invited to create a portrait of them.

British artist Tamsyn Challenger is behind the project. She travelled to Mexico in 2006 and was moved to take action after relative after relative shoved crumpled up postcards of their missing loved-ones into her hands.

And it was a conversation with one of the mothers that really struck a nerve.

"There was a moment where I just wanted to bring her daughter back," says Ms Challenger.

So began five years of work, tracking down information and photos about the missing and murdered women with the help of local rights groups and Amnesty International.

Each of the artists, "stands in for the woman who is missing, takes on her persona and her face, or her name, and represents them in this exhibition," explains the curator, Ellen Mara De Wachter.

Mexican artist Andres Basurto was given the task of creating a portrait of Melissa Gonzalez Luna. She was 16 when she disappeared more than three years ago.

All he had to work with was one small photograph - some artists did not even have that.

Mr Basurto decided to focus on the "positive energy" that came across through her eyes and her smile.

But it was not an easy project to work on. "It was very difficult, it was very moving. I wouldn't consider myself a sentimental artist, but I did sometimes find myself in tears."

It was hard but ultimately rewarding - indeed he rates his portrait as possibly the most meaningful piece he has done.

"I am proud of other work artistically, but this one has been the most significant," he says.

Monica Alcazar is another Mexican artist involved in the exhibition. Her piece, a crushed golden pendant, represents Maria Eugenia Mendoza Arias who was the victim of a horrific attack when she was 19 years old.

"She was dumped in the middle of the garbage. Her skull was actually broken. Someone ran over her in a car after raping her really violently.

"I crushed the pendant because of that, trying to evoke this combination of something that is fragile, that has been broken, abused, and then suspended for people to see."

Out of the spotlight

Image caption,
Andres Basurto wanted his portrait of Melissa Gonzalez Luna to be positive

Over the past five years, Ciudad Juarez has been in the news for the violence and havoc caused by Mexico's drugs cartels.

But the murder of these women is largely unrelated and pre-dates the country's drugs war.

Because almost all the women are "extremely poor" they are "seen as inconsequential," according to Tamsyn Challenger.

"The problem is that there are so many problems now in Mexico," says Monica Alcazar.

Andres Basurto agrees that these women have been "taken out of the spotlight," as a result of the drug-related violence.

The murder figures are contentious: local rights groups estimate that 300 women have been killed this year alone; official figures are significantly lower.

And no one is able to give an accurate estimate for the number of women missing.

Twelve years on from their daughter's murder, Arsene van Nierop and her husband, Roeland, are still fighting to get the man responsible behind bars.

"In Mexico women are litter, they are just to throw away," says Arsene.

"You learn to live with sadness all the time, and then after many years you think 'okay, I am now able to live with sadness, and I can now start my own life again'".

Tamsyn Challenger hopes the exhibition will tour internationally. And after that? She is not sure, but she wants the works to stay together.

"I see the project as a singular art work with many voices. It works as a mass protest."

400 Women is on at Shoreditch Town Hall in London until 28 November.

Related Internet Links

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites.