Featured in
Issue 239

The Embroidery Investigations of Mónica Millán

At W-galería, the artist collaborates with Guaraní weavers in a decolonial project of self-representation 

BY Rosario Güiraldes in Exhibition Reviews | 26 SEP 23

A far-right swing is imminent in Argentinian politics, as Javier Milei – a presidential candidate who likens himself to Wolverine from X-Men (1963–ongoing) – is likely to take office this December. Despite the exhausting uncertainty of this situation, however, the country at large – and the city of Buenos Aires, in particular – is brimming with life, with a recent spike in consumption fuelled by the Argentine peso’s rapid depreciation.

Mónica Millán, Eusebia Garcete, 2023, cotton ju lace, 97 × 62 cm. Courtesy: W-galería; photograph: José Luis Morales

Artist Mónica Millán, who came of age in the 1980s at the height of a similar crisis, makes artworks that appear somewhat detached from this reality yet establish a profound and sensible dialogue with art-historical genealogies. Her excellent current solo exhibition at W galería, ‘Barroco Ao po’i’, curated by Carla Barbero, presents works made in collaboration with local women embroiderers from the Paraguayan town of Yataity del Guairá, the birthplace of the delicate Guaraní weaving technique known as ao po’i, which Millán has spent the past two decades studying.

The show features four recent bodies of work, realized in a range of colours and techniques, which are all rooted in the artist’s desire to preserve and honour ao po’i’s unequivocally domestic heritage and way of life. A group of seven pieces made of ju (embroidered cotton mesh) titled ‘Retratos’ (Portraits, all works 2023) depict local weavers among their looms and lush gardens. These placemat-shaped works, installed on a wall of the gallery painted in a pink gradient like a line of fresh linens drying on a sunny patio, prompt a dialogue with the slick modernist architecture of W’s new venue.

‘Mónica Millán: Barroco Ao po’i’, 2023, installation view. Courtesy: W galería; photograph: José Luis Morales

On the opposite wall hangs a large textile piece, shaped like an inverted ziggurat, featuring three hand-embroidered drawings and the phrase from which derives the work’s title, El ao po’i es como un pájaro (Ao po’i is like a bird). Constructed from colourfully patterned scraps of fabric neatly sewn together, the piece emblematizes a visual vocabulary that hinges on oral transmission and is therefore constantly mutating. The series ‘Inventar la piel’ (Inventing Skin) consists of 20 small textiles arranged in the shape of a diamond on an adjacent wall. The images draw from a visual archive of Paraguayan folk attires originally depicted by 19th century European travellers during ethnographic trips to the continent, which are here re-created as embroideries based on sketches by Millán. By inviting the weavers to revisit depictions of Indigenous people idealized by their colonial counterparts, Millán reimagines a genre long identified with exploitative exoticism by returning to their descendants the right to self-representation.

‘Mónica Millán: Barroco Ao po’i’, 2023, exhibition view. Courtesy: W galería; photograph: José Luis Morales

Completing the works on view is Tela Eusebia (Eusebia Fabric), an abstract piece measuring nearly four metres in length and meticulously hand-crafted from natural white, red, green and ruby-coloured cottons grown, harvested and threaded by local weaver Eusebia. The work not only calls into question the false hierarchy between ‘high’ art (painterly abstraction) and ‘low’ craft (embroidery, weaving) but also challenges the illusion of artistic autonomy – the lone ‘creative genius’ – that has perpetuated for more than a century. Through her collaboration with these female Paraguayan weavers, Millán’s sensitive investigation into the handmade, ornamentation and the interplay of form and colour enables each of her works to share its own story.

Mónica Millán: Barroco Ao po’i’ is on view at W Galería, Buenos Aires, until 26 January 2024.

Main Image: ‘Mónica Millán: Barroco Ao po’i’, 2023, exhibition view. Courtesy: W galería; photograph: José Luis Morales

Rosario Güiraldes is Curator of Visual Arts at the Walker Art Center, Minneapolis, US.