Art and public spaces weren’t always happy bedfellows. At the height of the last century in America, when graffiti was the sign of a neighborhood ruled by punks, then gangs, and generals still decorated town squares in Latin America, street art was plainly considered vandalism.
Over the course of the last two decades, our collective perspective on street art has shifted, welcoming the beauty of murals and large-scale outdoor art. Urban success stories, such as the Wynwood neighborhood in Miami, where the landscape changed from post-apocalyptic in the late 1990s to now an art gallery in plein air, are ample proof that with some vision one woman’s dilapidated warehouse wall is another woman’s canvas.
On the streets and byways of her native Bogotá, Colombia, the street artist known as LaJaxx is just as likely to spot a sculpture by Botero as a statue of Bolivar these days. As the art scene continues to explode in this vibrant city, she has returned home after 15 years of painting murals and putting up stencils and stickers in the streets of places as diverse as Panamá, Miami, New York, Copenhagen, Tel Aviv, and Tokyo. Her images are visible throughout the city and have also been featured in local and international exhibits.
While street art has been legitimized to the point that Banksy’s work is now being curated into gallery spaces and can fetch upwards of a million dollars even when it shreds itself , there have always been fewer women than men hitting the streets with a spray can in hand. Unlike college classrooms and design school studios, where Jacqueline Brandwayn enjoyed the company of female colleagues, her artistic alter ego had no female role models when she started applying her stencil art to city lamp posts and walls under the cover of night. Instead, she was entering a world notoriously difficult for women to penetrate and to inhabit safely.
Woman as Muse
Not surprisingly, the experience of being a woman is at the heart of Brandwayn’s work. Both beautiful and necessarily political, her images combine a strong adherence to aesthetics with a sly comfort in being the object of the gaze. Her emblematic image — a shapely pair of legs in black-and-white-striped stockings — initially reminds the viewer of the jealous wicked witch, legs shriveling beneath the weight of a house. But something different is at work here, this witch is shrinking away for no one, does not yearn for someone else’s ruby slippers. LaJaxx’s legs stand tall in Louboutins she no doubt bought for herself, less a witch than a self-proclaimed bitch striking a pose.
LaJaxx has been, in her own words “spreading her legs” around the world for over a decade. Her clever wordplay provides the key on how to read this work and her other series. The series turns the very same tropes that been used to oppress women on their head and includes a new set of commandments for the empowered woman, one who takes ownership of her body and personal style, rails against the wage gap and archaic social practices, reserves the right to spread her legs only when and to whom she wants to. (). The series proved to be particularly resonant within Latin cultures.
Her most recent and ongoing project, “Las literales,” merges Brandwayn’s keen aesthetics and her sense of humor. An army of gorgeous bodies dressed in haute couture, set against highly stylized backdrops feature heads that are cliches brought to their illogical conclusion. Playing between Spanish and English, LaJaxx’s menagerie of models are cats, foxes, and bunnies with the finest taste, but no longer euphemisms for “slut.” By reappropriating misogynistic notions of female propriety and sexuality, LaJaxx takes to the streets with her art to bring the power home for women.