Feliza Bursztyn: Welding Madness is the artist’s first comprehensive retrospective to be mounted outside of Colombia. The exhibition presents sculptures and two-dimensional works from each stage of the artist’s development, showcasing the depth and breadth of Bursztyn’s tragically brief and brilliant career.
In a Sexist Country, pretend to be the Mad One!
Feliza Bursztyn, 1979
In 1979, Feliza Bursztyn was interviewed by Maritza Uribe de Urdinola, the founder of the Museo de Arte Moderno La Tertulia in Cali. Bursztyn reflected on her life, family and work. She also uttered the phrase that encapsulated the strategy that had defined her work for decades: in a patriarchal society, women have no choice but to feign madness.
Born Jewish in a Catholic country, the child of Polish immigrants, and a feminist in a country dominated by the conservatism of the church, Bursztyn was an outsider. It was from this position that she witnessed the rapid industrialization occurring throughout Latin America in the postwar era. An ardent supporter of the Cuban Revolution, Bursztyn was skeptical of the pervasive enthusiasm among political and cultural elites for developmentalism which, in her view, exacerbated extant social and economic divisions. Married at nineteen and divorced with three children at the age of twenty-four, Bursztyn rejected the circumscribed nature of women’s lives in Colombia and intentionally flouted social mores, embracing the mantle of La Loca (the mad one), as she was dubbed by the press. Her political views informed the material and the content of her sculpture and drove her to challenge the social and artistic status quo.
Bursztyn’s art and life were deeply and constantly intertwined. Her parents, Polish Jews, set out in 1933 for South America. When they reached Columbia, they were greeted with the news of Hitler’s victory in Germany’s parliamentary elections and decided to stay. Feliza was born the same year. Her father, trained as a rabbi, established himself as a textile manufacturer and became a leader within the city’s tiny Jewish community. His rapid success afforded his daughter the opportunity to study art in Bogotá and later at the Art Students League in New York, as well as the Académie de la Grande Chaumière, Paris. This position of relative privilege allowed Bursztyn to travel widely, which she would continue to do throughout her life. Thus, she became familiar with contemporary artistic developments and established relationships across the United States, Europe, and Latin America.
Her studio in Bogotá–a converted garage next to her father’s factory–became a meeting point for artists, writers, journalists, musicians, politicians and critics. It was there that she produced her first Chatarras (Junk Sculptures) in 1961. Bronze – the material she was trained to work with in Paris –, was scarce in Columbia so she turned to junkyard scraps – discarded fragments of machines, tires, cables, bolts and other metal bits. She would use these materials throughout her career adding hand-dyed fabrics, motors, light, and sound to produce increasingly complex, room-sized installations. Eventually, Bursztyn produced immersive, experiential spaces: her sculptures clung to walls, hung from ceilings, perched on stages and carried out choreographed dances set to music in dramatically lit and adorned rooms. In multiple ways, her works were calculated to disturb, provoke, push the limits, and reject the status quo. She collaborated with writers, experimental musicians, filmmakers, and theater directors in works that drew inspiration from sources ranging from the natural environment and popular culture to psychoanalysis.
Bursztyn’s political views, extravagant lifestyle and her vociferous support of left-wing thinking and causes resulted in her frequent questioning and occasional detention by the state security forces. Following an arrest and two-day detention in 1981, she fled the country and was granted political asylum in Mexico. She emigrated to Paris the following year where she died suddenly at the age of forty-nine.