October 26, 2012 | Myrna Anderson

For Voces, her new exhibition, Mandy Cano Villalobos has embroidered 400 white shirts with the names of murder victims.

Calvin art professor Mandy Cano Villalobos chose pale pink thread to embroider the nearly 400 white shirts in her new exhibition, Voces, which runs at the Center Art Gallery October 26 through December 15. It’s the pale pink of the crosses, faded by the sun, lining the highways in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, each erected in memory of a woman who was murdered there.

“I’m very much interested in bringing to light these women, who have worth” said Cano Villalobos, who has spent four years stitching shirts for the exhibition.

An exhibition of many parts

In Voces ("Voices" in Spanish) each white shirt—an oxford shirt next to a T-shirt next to a camisole—represents a woman. Each is embroidered with a different name: Cinthia Irasema Ramos, Irene Castillo, Lourdes Guiterez Rosales and so on. The shirts hang from wooden stands lined in rows in the center of the room and more are piled in a heap in the corner of the room. Lining the wall of the exhibition are stacks of folded shirts that have yet to be embroidered and near the stacks is a ring of chairs where sewing circles will sit and continue to embroider names for the duration of the exhibition. Missing persons posters, created by Cano Villalobos, line the walls. “That, in conjunction with the sewing circle, informs people that this is an issue which is not finished, but perpetuates,” she explained.

At five places around the walls of the room are shrines composed of framed photographs of the women, religious images, stuffed animals, high-heeled shoes, jewelry, bottles of orange Fanta and Goya and Mexican foods and candies and other items. At an entrance to the gallery, a television plays a video of Cano Villalabos and a group of Mexican refugees, all women, embroidering names into the shirts.

Voces commemorates the femicides, the woman-specific killings, of Chihuahua, Mexico’s largest and northernmost state, which shares a border with Texas. “A lot of women are being killed there, and their murders are directly linked to their being women,” said Cano Villalobos, who has taught at Calvin since 2009. Most of the victims have been raped, beaten and tortured and their bodies are discarded in the desert or along the highway. There could be many motives for the killings, Cano-Villalobos said: gang violence, drug violence, sport killings, domestic abuse.

Some of the victims were among the many women who move to northern Mexico to take jobs in U.S. companies with plants there. “If there are so many women looking for work, they become disposable,” she said. “A lot of the murders happen like that, where the women are trying to traverse these dimly lit areas which become hunting grounds.” The crimes have gone unsolved and, because of corruption, largely uninvestigated, she said.

Difficult research

For Tia Wierenga, a 2010 Calvin grad who assisted Cano Villalobos, the most difficult part of putting Voces together was the research: “The images are haunting, and … it’s very hard for me to detach myself. It's so difficult to read about what is happening and to see the results and know that not much is being done about it,” she said. “Sometimes it seems that Mandy is fighting for these women more than the politicians and local police.”

Wierenga said she learned a lot from working on the show: “The process of hand-embroidering a name on a shirt for every victim … takes patience and focus. It's calming and almost allows for a kind of meditation. I think about the girl behind the name and what her story might be. I wish that she could know that someone is fighting for her and trying to give her family and a community in mourning some sense of hope and peace.”

The major funder for Voces is the Calvin Center for Christian Scholarship (CCCS). The exhibition has already traveled or will travel to venues in Virginia, Florida, Georgia, Texas, Alabama, Washington D.C., New York City and Boston.

“It’s an exemplary project,” said CCCS director Susan Felch. “It’s advancing faculty scholarship; it’s involving students. There’s deep and rich and not-clichéd Christian thinking with what Mandy is doing.”

Cano Villalobos hopes that visitors take a positive message away from Voces. “It’s not focusing on the deaths of these women but the lives of these women,” she said. “Ultimately, I hope they take away a sense of compassion for these women who are our equals and our neighbors.”

Voces is also funded by the Calvin Alumni Association, the Calvin departments of art and art history, Spanish, Sociology and Social Work, Gender Studies, and the Pailalen Program, Lutheran Child and Family Service of Michigan. There will be a reception and artist talk for the exhibition at 7 p.m., Friday, Oct. 26, at the Center Art Gallery.

Sewing Circles
Fridays from November 2 through December 7
Sewing circles will meet on Fridays to continue embroidering shirts in honor of those who have died. If interested in participating, contact Megan McCrary (mym3@students.calvin.edu).

Artist Talk and Reception
Friday, October 26 at 7:00 PM
**Special musical performance by Latin folk group, Villalobos

Guest Lecture by Marisela Ortiz
Thursday, November 1 at 3:30 PM
CFAC Recital Hall

Film Screening: Juárez: la ciudad donde las mujeres son desechables/Juárez: the City Where the Women are Disposable
Thursday, November 15 at 3:30 PM
Spoelhof 150

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