Natalia Arias does not set out to disturb people.
Her photographs may “look kind of aggressive — I’ve been told that they look like that. But as an artist, I don’t see that,” she said by phone from Miami, where she lives. “They weren’t meant to have any kind of shock value.” When the images form in her mind, they seem beautiful, maybe even serene. The fact that viewers have a different reaction “has been surprising” to her throughout her entire career, she says.
D.C.-area art lovers can decide for themselves now that “Femininity Beyond Archetypes,” an exhibit of Arias’s photographs, has opened at the Organization of American States’s Art Museum of the Americas. Consisting of two of the artist’s photographic series, “Taboo” and “Venus,” the exhibit includes meticulously staged shots of women’s bodies in revelatory poses or decked out with theatrical accouterments. In many cases, the images seem to question traditional standards for female beauty and behavior. In a few others, they challenge society’s more prudish and puritan tendencies.
In one photograph, “Life,” a woman huddles over what appears to be a busted-open watermelon on a white sheet: The image evokes the messy process of giving birth and seems to dare the spectator to look away. In another, “Prey,” a pair of blue eyes peers out through an eerie black feathery hawk-like mask, as if asserting women’s right to be threatening rather than docile, and strong rather than weak.
“Taboo” is the earlier series, begun while Arias — born in Britain, raised in Bogota, Colombia — was an undergraduate at the Savannah College of Art and Design. In “Taboo,” she says, she was voicing “the questions I had growing up, and how they were addressed by the limitations of the society that I grew up in, both religiously” — her family was nominally Catholic — “and as a female, and as [a member of] a small community. Because at the end of the day, Colombia is a small community.”
Her drive to question traditional mores — particularly in the context of women’s issues and sexuality — eventually aligned with her interest in mythology. The series “Venus” includes, among other myth-drenched pictures, a shot of a nude figure with a horned goat skull for a head. The title: “Reincarnation of Quetzalcoatl.”
Arias says she gets friends to pose for her photographs, which have been showcased in exhibits in New York, Bogota, Chicago and elsewhere. Neither the edgy iconography nor the frequent nudity deters her pals, she says: Her art turns human forms into theatrical characters, and her friends “are comfortable with that.”
If the comfort level is lower on the far side of the artistic process, that doesn’t bother Arias too much. “Your work will be whatever it wants to be — it has nothing to do with you,” she says philosophically. When viewers find her art transgressive or unnerving, “I like it,” she says. “For me, it’s an anthropological study.”
Like Arias, dancer-choreographers Gloria Benedikt and Mimmo Miccolis are in the business of questioning received wisdom. The terpsichorean duo — who hail from Austria and Italy, respectively — are gearing up to present a world premiere dance-of-ideas at the Kennedy Center’s Millennium Stage. The contemporary duet “Growth,” which the choreographers will perform July 22, responds to our era’s obsession with economic indicators like the GDP.
Set to original music by Italian composer Francesco Germini, the piece includes an approximately 10-minute sequence in which Benedikt and Miccolis execute movements that keep them constantly physically connected — a metaphor for the financial, cultural and social ties that unite the modern world. Coming up with choreography that preserved that physical link for such a long stretch was a challenge, Benedikt says; the movement they ultimately devised “demands a lot of concentration” and “awareness of each other the entire time”—a reminder that in order to survive and thrive, the international community needs to develop a macrocosmic mindfulness, in lieu of a narrow country-by-country perspective.
“We need to collaborate with each other” in order to prosper, Miccolis says.
The dance points to “a new narrative on growth—[a subject that] is very much in debate right now — thinking about how can we share this planet among seven billion in the light of globalization and interconnectedness, and how can we grow together in the future in a sustainable” way, Benedikt says.
In case that weren’t enough socially conscious hoofin’ for one evening, the July 22 program also includes the American premiere of Miccolis’s “Rights(?),” a choreographic meditation on human rights that premiered in London in 2012. Miccolis developed the piece with support from the BBC Performing Arts Fund. It relies on a Germini score, and in its D.C. incarnation, it will feature five dancers.
Benedikt and Miccolis had racked up substantial dance experience in Europe before finding themselves in the Washington area last year. (Their respective significant others had landed jobs here.) Among other credits, Miccolis has danced and choreographed for companies in the United Kingdom and Italy; he currently performs with the D.C. area’s Bowen McCauley Dance. Benedikt has trod the boards with companies in several European countries. She also performed with Massachusetts’s José Mateo Ballet Theatre while she was studying government at Harvard.
Last fall, the two met in a ballet class in Silver Spring, and they soon realized they shared similar creative visions. Dance for dance’s sake is all very well: For their part, Moccolis and Benedikt yearn, in her words, to “make work that is relevant and that wrestles with the issues society is grappling with.”
Wren is a freelance writer.
“Femininity Beyond Archetypes” Through Oct. 5 at the Organization of American States’s Art Museum of the Americas, 201 18th St. NW, Washington. Visit amamuseum.org .
“An Evening for Humanity” including the dances “Growth” and “Rights(?).” July 22 at the Kennedy Center’s Millennium Stage. Visit kennedy-center.org.