Tecla Tofano, Decir [To Say], from the series 30 pecados vitales, 1974, ceramic, 16 x 26 x 16 cm, private collection, © Photo: Luis Becerra
Tecla Tofano (1927–1995) was an Italian-Venezuelan ceramist, draughtswoman and writer whose work and reception are emblematic of women artists in Venezuela. Her poignant and incisive works in ceramic, drawing and the written word1 testify to her main preoccupations: women’s issues and exploitation, discrimination, and the marginalization of certain layers of society by the more powerful. Her work in ceramics and writing consistently and overarchingly defied and denounced gender structures and questioned the status quo of machismo in Venezuela, along with socio-political problems, all with the boldness and biting sense of humor that came to define her. This article focuses mainly on her work in ceramics.
Tecla Tofano at her studio, 1968, gelatin silver print, 25 x 16.5 cm, private Collection, © Photo: Paolo Gasparini
In 1952, T. Tofano arrived in Venezuela married to a Venezuelan she had met in Rome while attending a communist conference. There is scant information on what her life in Italy was like before she left – she rarely spoke or wrote about her past –, but interviews with her and with her family members2 suggest that she had attended high school and worked afterwards, enduring the grueling Italian post-war years the best she could.
Arriving in tropical Caracas without speaking a word of Spanish, she enrolled in the ceramics and enamel program of the Escuela de Artes Plásticas y Artes Aplicadas in Caracas, under the tutelage of masters such as Miguel Arroyo, Reina Herrera, Cristina Merchán, and María Luisa Zuloaga de Tovar as a way of assimilating, becoming involved in the arts and learning Spanish. M. Arroyo had brought to Caracas the Bauhaus-influenced techniques he learned while studying at the Carnegie Institute of Technology in Pittsburgh. As a result, the ceramic production of the school had mostly an abstract orientation, comprised largely of utilitarian objects with little ornament or narrative, significantly influenced by Japanese and Scandinavian-inspired simplicity and refinement of objects, usually made with on a potter’s wheel.
Tecla Tofano, Vasija con manos [Vessel with hands], from the series Los Enlatados [Canned], 1969, ceramic, 25.5 x 18 cm, private collection, © Photo: Luis Becerra
Art critics Marta Traba and Nelly Barbieri have categorized T. Tofano’s works into two defined periods, the first spanning from 1955 to approximately 1963, which consisted mainly of utilitarian vases and bowls, roughly-textured and vibrantly colored. During this period, she was not overly interested in delicate shapes, fragile figures or problems of absolute aesthetics, the main concern among her contemporaries. Instead, T. Tofano understood ceramics to be more of an expressive art form. In 1958, she was awarded the Premio Oficial de Artes Aplicadas (National Prize in Applied Arts), a mere four years after she had begun her work in the medium. Within a short period of time, her career was beginning to receive praise and recognition, mostly within the context of the left-leaning cultural and political scene in Caracas, of which she was an active member. Her second, much more interesting phase began in 1964, when she obtained her strong artistic voice with a focus on molded objects, figures and a large-scale installation that culminated with the Ella, Él… Ellos [She, He…They] exhibition in 1977-1978 held at the Galería de Arte Nacional (GAN), ending her production in the medium.
Through the practice itself and feeling that ornamental and utilitarian ceramics were not what she was interested in, T. Tofano progressively shifted to the production of hand-molded everyday objects: food, faces and sexual organs, artifacts with an inherently political, critical and humorous bent. This formal step from the utilitarian to the figurative was important to her as it granted ceramics a sculptural autonomy, using clay as a means of expression and using the medium as a way of communicating while at the same time dignifying its matter. For her, this process represented a literal rupture with “the beautiful” – understood as decorative, pleasing to the eye – towards “the ugly”, which was what she was most interested in.
“I don’t believe in applied arts, minor arts or major arts. I also don’t think I am resolving any sculptural problem, because tri-dimensionality is not necessarily sculptural. Shapes are my way of expressing myself and they are felt as such. Yes baroque, yes cluttered, yes not too eye-pleasing, and yes, sometimes shocking because what I seek to say is not pretty.”3
Tecla Tofano, Sra. Mascara de Cutis [Mrs. Mascara de Cutis], from the series Las Senoras [Ladies], 1977, ceramic, 29 x 23 cm, private collection, © Photo: Luis Becerra
T. Tofano’s transition from the focus on utilitarian ceramics earlier in her career was never fully understood or accepted within the culture of the booming oil superpower that was Venezuela in the 1970s. Although the country was rapidly modernizing, the prevailing ideology was still machista, sexually repressive and conservative. At the same time, Caracas’ artistic scene was focused on a wave of abstract geometry-dominated male artists such as Alejandro Otero, Carlos Cruz-Diez and Jesús Rafael Soto, among others, whose works were progressively taking over the strong figurative painting scene that preceded it. It is in this milieu that her bold ceramic figurative works became a heavy counterweight to the mainstream, moving her formally and conceptually closer to Pop Art and its agenda critical of consumerism. It also provided the forum for her acerbic observations about inequality and gender issues that are, even by today’s more open-minded societal standards, quite complex. For example, the installations Los Accesorios [The Accessories, 1971] featured handbags, shoes, and other consumer-oriented feminine items – and Lo Que Comen Los Que Comen [What People Who Eat, Eat, 1973], a critical feast of ceramic food that displayed diners, a table, chairs, and food, that was a frontal attack on inequality and the consumer society.
It was in the second phase of her work in ceramics that her pieces evolved completely into hand-molded, roughly-finished, baroque objects, asymmetrical in shape, and into what she considered her Ars Politica: objects derived from consumer society with a clear subtext of social and political criticism grounded in feminist discourse. It was then that T. Tofano took ceramics to its conceptual limit, producing almost brutalist sculptural pieces linked to ideological and sociological notions of womanhood, machismo, and subjugation, building a discourse permeated by the idea behind the object and, furthermore, by the notion of the complete series or exhibition as a whole, in which every piece, even autonomous ones, would belong to a group. This phase grew out of a desire to expostulate humorously about the bitter situations in which women lose to enslavement, alienation and cruelty, and her own traumatic experiences, such as the accidental death of one of her daughters and her own rape soon after her arrival in Caracas, events that she randomly mentioned.4 Her main interests lay within the realm of being used, abused and objectified, along with the ideas of resistance, education and small heroic actions that are essential to the daily lives of the women to whom she relates through her work. About her process, Marta Traba elaborated:
“Tecla, as opposed to what children and primitives do, conveys a vision of the world deeply marked by a critical spirit; [her art] does not consist in a simple path, but instead is comprised by many trails in which she denounces and corrects situations … it is social art in the sense that the projects are inscribed solidly within the real life of a community [her work] pursues a boundless articulation, an exasperated grotesque. It’s close enough to popular traditional ceramics, to its clumsy volumes and weight, with which she intends to describe situations and things through clay. [With] caustic humor, corrosive gaze, they varnish the system with significance.”5
Tecla Tofano, En vía de liberación [On the Way to Liberation], from the series De genero femenino [On the Female Gender], 1975, ceramic, 30 x 20 x 12 cm, © Photo: Luis Becerra
For Tofano, any medium she worked in was an opportunity to denounce, with acid humor and irony, the subjugation of women by the patriarchy. In this sense, her ceramic works have a shared kinship with Pop Art, specifically with its view of consumer society and its repetitive patterns, representation and targeting of women. The use of body parts combined with accessories and objects in her pieces was clearly a strategy to courageously reference submission, deference and subversion. Examples of these themes include the piece Decir [To Say] from the series 30 Pecados Vitales [30 Lively Sins], 1974, in which a female mouth screams the letters of the word “to say”, and an encaustic red penis penetrates a photographic camera in Medio de reproducción visual [Visual Reproduction Medium], from the series Esa munda macha [That Male Chauvinist World], 1973.
In November 1975, her exhibition Del Género Femenino [On the Female Gender] at the Galería Viva México in Caracas was devoted to the exploration of labor, family and the problems that all women face in society: discrimination, abuse, low wages, slavery, etc. For instance, in the piece En vía de liberación [On the Way to Liberation], a faceless woman brings her hands to her head as if in recognition of herself, while from her pregnant belly we can see a snake emerging from an inverted female symbol that becomes a cross, in a clear reference to maternity, self-identity and stereotypes. It must be noted, however, that T. Tofano was not only interested in women as under-privileged and marginalized members of society, but in people in general, along with their unequivocal social fractures and values.
Tecla Tofano, Ella, Él…Ellos [She, He…They], 1977, ceramic sculpture installation, hand modeled and glazed clay, variable dimensions, © Photo: Carlos Germán Rojas
In December 1977, a 50-year-old T. Tofano announced that her exhibition Ella, Él… Ellos, held at the Galería de Arte Nacional in Caracas would be her last work in ceramics. She declared that she had exhausted the possibilities of clay as a medium, having achieved everything she could do with it. This large-scale ceramic installation was comprised of three composite human-sized enameled clay bodies lying on square beds in a room: a woman holding a baby, a man with his genitals covered with a grape leaf, and a “third” sex: “they”, the other. She imagined a theoretical “being”, containing all physical and sexual traits of both genders. Her twenty years of experimenting in ceramics and clay had come to an ultimate conclusion that would put an end to her work within the medium. In this grand, final sculptural work, she related metaphorically to this “third ideal sex” as being, for lack of a better word, a hermaphrodite. The true notion that T. Tofano was grappling with was that of someone as “a new, imaginary being, a symbol of a possible symbiosis of values essential to both ‘men’ and ‘women’, without discriminatory or oppressive limitations”.6
Today, we might refer to this as relating to gender fluidity, yet in 1977 she explored this topic in a way that holds extraordinary contemporary relevance.
“That she may not continue to be a birthing machine, a mother and father without knowing how to, marginalized or ignorant, exploited and fake exploiter; that he will not continue to be the inseminator of possible species in the path to extinction, and an in-communicated being, in the exercise of a false power yet also ‘exploited’ and this being, symbolically ‘bi-sexual’, will reunite in essence the best of each, that it can be consciously capable of crying and laughing, be strong and weak if necessary, fighter and pacifist, dreamer, sweet and real, lover and loved, father and mother at the same time, and above all, the artifice of a new collectivity in which nobody needs to exploit or socially discriminate from their gender with roles that are excluding and unreal.”7
Tecla Tofano, Medio de Reproduccion Visual [Visual Reproduction Medium], from the series Esa Munda Macha [That Male Chauvinist World], 1973, ceramic, 23 x 13 x 20 cm, private collection, © Photo: Luis Becerra
T. Tofano’s life after announcing her retirement from ceramics did not mean a total withdrawal from an active life. On the contrary, she remained involved in academic classes, family, writing, drawings and social activism. In 1992, she presented a solo show comprised of 22 drawings of the major Arcana of the Tarot cards. As a last statement about her work and future, Tofano declared herself the first woman to draw one, in the vein of past male artists such as Albrecht Dürer, Salvador Dali and Bonifacio Bembo. She acknowledged the tarot deck as an active state of consciousness representing the fundamental principles and values of human life, such as life itself, death, along with the ethical and spiritual dilemmas in our interactions with others, that enable us to project a spiritual portrait of our life and the hereafter. After this exhibition she made very few social appearances; her last years were mostly quiet and behind the scenes. T. Tofano suffered a stroke and passed away in 1995.
Recently and fortunately enough, her works have resurfaced in several important international surveys, yet the relevance of her pioneering work is still the subject of further study. In 2017, Cecilia Fajardo-Hill and Andrea Giunta included T. Tofano’s work in the traveling exhibition Radical Women: Latin American Art, 1960–1985, showcasing internationally works that until then had probably never been seen before outside Caracas. In October 2018, the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston organized the exhibition Contesting Modernity: Informalism in Venezuela, 1955–1975, curated by Mari Carmen Ramírez and Tahía Rivero. Six works by T. Tofano were included along with a strong group of Informalist artists whose works and political views were dissident to the increasingly rapid social transformation that the country suffered with the oil boom and were confronted with the clear hegemony of the imperative geometric abstraction current.
T. Tofano’s work and voice has never been more relevant and worthy of recognition, as they are part of a history that needs to be rewritten and included as testament to one of the artists responsible for developing a true pioneering feminist world vision in Venezuela, opening the path to the many voices that came after hers.8