Sofia Maldonado’s mural on 42nd Street has been getting a lot of attention since it was put up this past March. Her depictions of curvy, dark-skinned, female bodies displaying long and glamorously painted fingernails and doobie hair styles is a bold expression of marginal femininity in a highly public space.
Understanding the meaning of artwork is a tricky business, particularly in public spaces. How to represent the female body begs all kinds of questions about authenticity, voice, power, and agency that hardly come up when an object or a-political scenery is painted on the wall. The female body in public seems to always be a highly politicized site.
Perhaps this is because female bodies are everywhere and nowhere all at once. Walking down the street, staring at the mural, painting the mural, and writing in response to it. Women are everywhere, but the ones put up on walls demanding the world’s attention are the most visible.
Who’s body is on display here? While it is most certainly a work of art created by a certain kind of woman, Sofia’s mural has much broader implications than being just a public mural. As a public mural of multiple female bodies (none of whom are specific women but rather a collective representation of women) this is a work about all women; it is provocative. Whether or not we read the women as “ghetto” or “beautiful” they beg us to respond. The mural makes visible, through its collective representation, the female bodies that pass it by on the streets everyday.
The mural displays all our bodies, exposing us without asking permission. For some viewers it is empowering to demand such attention and stature; a statement of proud Latina identity. For others it is shameful and derogatory image, feeding into stereotypes that feminists (particularly of color) have fought long and hard to change.
Sofia’s mural is striking and bold. It is a fascinating image to speak about representation and voice through. Whether or not the women should be holding briefcases or sporting low-rise jeans, what the mural does reveal is that the body is still very much a contested site, particularly for women of color.