BORN AND RAISED IN THE BASQUE COUNTRY, Erlea Maneros Zabala relocated to Los Angeles in 2000. I met her briefly in 2007 through Raymond Pettibon. Though we instantly clicked, our paths didn’t cross again until 2019, when we found ourselves at the same Christmas Eve party. In May, I visited Erlea in her house in the high desert, two hours outside of Los Angeles, where she walked me through a slide presentation of “The Voice of the Valley,” her solo exhibition currently on view at Artium Museoa, Museum of Contemporary Art of the Basque Country through September 18, 2022. The show comprises four installations that are loosely in conversation with one another. I was particularly engaged by Prompt Book, 2016–22, a response to gruesome depictions of women in artworks created during the Franco Regime.
Since my visit to Joshua Tree in early May, Erlea and I have talked on the phone for dozens of hours, open-ended conversations about our personal lives, gossip, politics, history, art. The more we looked at and discussed misogynist art from the Spanish fascist period, the more apparent were its resonances with current attacks on women’s rights. Situated in the same room as Prompt Book is the eponymous The Voice of the Valley, 2017, a video of Erlea’s hands in her Joshua Tree studio doing various art-related tasks such as sanding a frame as she listens to the local right-wing radio station. Watching the four-hour video is an act of endurance, witnessing the epic cultural assault of angry male voices upon Erlea, i.e., the female artist, i.e., women in general. When Roe v. Wade was overturned, I reaffirmed my commitment to spotlight feminist projects such as Erlea’s. So, over Zoom on June 26, she and I discussed her Artium exhibition and its ramifications.
DODIE BELLAMY: When I sat down and read the text of Prompt Book, I was surprised to be so moved by it. At first, its three columns of white words and diagrams on a black background—and obviously I’m just viewing documentation of it on my computer—looked off-putting, sterile even. But then reading the central column—in which you enable these female figures that are being mutilated in fascist artworks to speak—was really intense. The personalities you create for the different figures in the paintings and drawings is so concise, like you captured the bare minimum of what it takes to construct a personality. Some of the figures are pissed that no one’s paying attention to them, some of them are thinking about their oppression, others are troubled by how they look. It’s a jarring meld of the whimsical and the political. Could you talk about the origin of Prompt Book?
ERLEA MANEROS ZABALA: Prompt Book was originally conceived in 2016 in response to an invitation by Beatriz Herráez, now the director of Artium, to create a site specific project at the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía in Madrid. In the site visits that followed, a room containing a selection of works from the museum’s permanent collection really stuck out. It was a small, seemingly inconsequential room tucked away on the museum’s fourth floor that nevertheless had an elaborate and provocative title: Room 403: An Art for the Franco regime: ruin and utopia in the dream of national exaltation. It gathered a few artworks, a couple of magazines, and a film, La Bandera Negra (The Black Flag, 1956). The curatorial text described them as figurative works produced in the first twenty years of Franco’s dictatorship that brought together formal positions close to Surrealism and Italian metaphysical painting. It all sounded harmless.
Until recently, the Spanish public has been unable to address the forty years of the fascist regime they endured. As I saw visitors walk through the room—so small that it felt more of a passage space between larger rooms—I was bewildered by how seldom anyone actually stopped to look at any of it.
But what struck me was the fact that every female figure in these small, cutesy artworks was being subjected to physical violence. The film, projected to fill the whole wall, consisted of a seventy-three minute monologue of a man not only making excuses for his son killing his wife but also blaming another woman for brainwashing the son into doing it.
Observing these brutalized female figures trapped in these artworks ticked me off. As I looked at them, they became animated; they turned into protagonists in a play. I imagined the thoughts and conversations they might be having all taking place in Euskara (my mother tongue) in the spirit of a group of women talking in a coffee shop or a hair salon in my hometown, sharing their grievances.
DB: Was it your intent to leave Prompt Book in Basque?
EMZ: I liked the idea that the text would be written in a language that was illegal in Spain when the artworks were created. Most people who would have seen that version of Prompt Book would not have been able to understand what the women were saying so they would have experienced the text merely as image. Later they would have been able to access the full breadth of the project by reading the translation I would have provided separately.
The original proposal for the exhibition was to pair the text with wall drawings that set the figures free from the compositions in the artworks in Room 403. I requested permission to use the artworks and I received the ok from all of the estates except for José Caballero’s. Because I didn’t receive everyone’s permission, I found myself having to rebuild the project.
DB: So, the institutional and legal obstacles transformed the artwork.
EMZ: I had to find another way of linking my text to the figures in Room 403, other than with my drawings. Someone suggested I read Edwin Abbott Abbott’s Flatland: A Romance in Many Dimensions (1884), a satirical novella about societal hierarchy in Victorian England. In the book, everyone is a geometric shape. Women are simple line segments, and men are polygons. So that gave me the idea of turning the figures in the drawings into geometric shapes.
Thinking of the room as a play, I decided to appropriate the format of a prompt book, which is used by theater producers to direct a play. It includes not only the script, but also drawings of the stage, diagrams of the lighting, the physical movements of the actors and so on.
DB: In Prompt Book, all your observations of Room 403 are tracked on one particular day—March 2, 2016, right?
EMZ: I spent that day in the exhibition taking notes. I wanted to make the script feel as real as possible by weaving in matter-of-fact observations of the space. Because of security protocols, I was unable to be there from 2 a.m. to 6 a.m., so the guard on the night shift noted what took place in my absence.
DB: What kinds of things did you log?
EMZ: Light changes, sounds and human activity. I made drawings tracking every person who went through the room. There was a window facing the courtyard. At that time of the year the morning sun comes directly into the room. It traveled across a wall, passing by the Dalí painting.
DB: As you reconfigured your project, did your relationship to the women in the fascist paintings shift?
EMZ: My first draft of the script was direct and instinctual, and thus I wrote it in first person and in my mother tongue. My reaction was coming out of resentful anger. At the end of the day, these figures were paper and ink, paint and canvas, but I felt compelled to give voice to these drawings that couldn’t speak. My reaction was primitive. I was fine with that at the time.
Knowing that my drawings would not be shown, I was forced to gain distance from the figures, literally. I realized how much each character spoke of my own internal struggle dealing with our misogynist, patriarchal world. Everything the characters are saying are thoughts I have had, positions I have taken. One of them is very cynical. I don’t know if I have ever been as cynical as she is, though I was concerned I was crossing the line, including writing when that’s not what I do.
DB: I teach writing to a lot of artists, and often they come up with more interesting stuff than writing students because, like what you’re doing, it’s very much about the materiality of language, like you see language as a material. So you’re focusing on that rather than this whole narrative arc shit. I like how minimal the script is. Your choice to put the women’s voices in parentheses makes them seem interior and exterior at the same time.
EMZ: When the project turned into Prompt Book I decided that I didn’t want the women to speak in first person. I wanted them to have more autonomy. I wanted to create a space for the viewer to fill in those blanks. I didn’t want to fully own their voices. I didn’t want to control them like the artists had done when they were drawn. I didn’t want to direct them to that level.
DB: Prompt Book is also included in your solo exhibition currently at Artium. How is this iteration different from the 2016 version in Madrid?
EMZ: Since 2016, fascism has been on the rise in the US. When Beatriz asked me to work with her again it felt timely to revisit Prompt Book. I had unfinished business with the figurative drawings from Room 403, and I wanted to incorporate them in this iteration. I reused the metal structure of a vitrine Artium had and reconfigured it into a sculpture that still functions as a mode of display for my preparatory drawings from 2016.
DB: I like how the drawings are kind of blurry and sharp at the same time. It seems they’re simultaneously coming into existence and fading out of existence.
EMZ: The prints and drawings are transparencies and vellum. Within the vitrine’s disjointed structure I layered them over two sheets of plexi, so that each wing of the sculpture formed a sort of frieze.
DB: There’s all these heads and they’re kind of jumbled. I’m sure you placed them carefully, but I get this sense of chaos and overwhelm. I find them beautiful and horrific. The images definitely have an existence outside the paintings they were extracted from. It’s like their originary paintings are their deep past. The precision and fluidity with which you render the images suggest that drawing them gave you pleasure. They seem more at play with the overall conceptual impulse of the installation rather than in tension with it.
EMZ: Why would there be a tension? I am not sure if I would describe drawing them as pleasurable. Reworking them through drawing and painting further increased my intimacy with them. I got to know all the strokes that composed them, and I created new strokes for them. The materiality of drawing them connected me to the figures’ bodies, but it didn’t feel pleasurable. Maybe more like sadness and despair.
DB: I noticed that you included a drawing of the bull from José Caballero’s The Goring of the Woman Bullfighter, 1936.
EMZ: The woman bullfighter’s eyes are white and she’s crying blood, and her legs are spread open, and the bull’s head is between her legs with his tongue out. In 1936, female bullfighters were legalized in Spain. This didn’t last long. When the Spanish Civil War began and everything went to shit, they went back to banning them. In this drawing—which was made right when all this was going down—it’s like the artist is celebrating the demise of women bullfighters.
DB: I’m moved by the way you give agency to these female figures who have absolutely no agency whatsoever. It’s exciting to see political art that’s so nuanced. Focusing on the authoritarian oppression of women’s rights while Roe v. Wade is being overturned puts the fear of god into me.
EMZ: It is disturbing to be working with material that is not that far back in Spanish history and seeing Spanish people’s resistance to and neglect of the subject. Working on it while living in the US, where these narratives are taking hold and becoming the current state of affairs is surreal. Not long ago such narratives would have been historical and anachronistic. So, yes, we should be afraid.