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At the Art Museum of the Americas, a wide-reaching showcase of Mexican women

‘Women in All Their Diversity’ may not quite live up to the broad title, but this group exhibition is a testament to women’s creativity.

“Woman Walking by a Pink Wall,” by Joy Laville. (Gift of Elena and William Kimberly/Art Museum of the Americas)
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From Joy Laville’s melancholy prints to Marta Palau’s exuberant installation art, “Women in All Their Diversity” covers a lot of territory. Still, the title of the group exhibition at the Art Museum of the Americas is too sweeping. The 18 artists on view represent just one country — Mexico — and span less than a single century. Nearly all the artwork was made since 1940; the most recent piece is from 2010.

Yet even in that limited context, the selection is wide-reaching. Many of the artists are not natives of Mexico, and while some of the emigres stuck with European styles, others embraced their new land and its culture (or cultures). All the pieces are from the permanent collections of the Art Museum of the Americas (part of the Organization of American States) or Washington’s Mexican Cultural Institute, and were chosen by Marco Polo Juárez Cruz, a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Maryland.

The British-born Laville (1923-2018) is represented mostly by lithographs of domestic scenes, rendered in gentle pastels, and often with a serene sea in the background. The stylized images don’t convey contentment, however. Made after her husband died in a plane crash, the prints express isolation and even despair. In one, a woman sits in front of a picture of a couple on the wall behind her, kept company only by memories.

Palau, whose family fled Spain after dictator Francisco Franco took control, arrived in Tijuana as a child in 1940. She ultimately began to make modern-day ritual objects, inspired by Amazonian Indigenous art and Mexico’s pre-Columbian past. Her “Nualli: Círculo de Sal” is a six-foot-high fiber-and-paper sculpture, suggestive of both a tree and an animal. It’s pierced by three arrows and erected on a circular patch of dirt marked by a ring of salt. (In many traditions, salt is associated with purification.) “Naulli” means sorcerer or sorceress in Nahuatl, an Aztec language, and Palau’s installation has an incantatory power.

Teresa Olabuenaga, born in Mexico City in 1958, has also investigated her country’s pre-Hispanic handiwork. Her large piece of Amate paper, made of tree bark, has a lovely range of hues from earthy browns to glimmering, mineral-like golds.

Equally sensuous are the prints and paintings of Olga Dondé (1937-2004), a Mexican native who lived in D.C. in the 1980s. Her renderings of ripe, colorful fruit are both realistic and metaphorical, hinting at human fecundity and carnality. An etching of cactus paddles by Maria E. Figueroa, who was born in 1950, is as voluptuous in form as Olabuenga’s work, but monochromatic, with a composition keyed to a vivid contrast of black and white.

There’s a tropical lushness, but also a residue of European surrealism, in the lithograph by Leonora Carrington (1917-2011), a British-born artist who arrived in Mexico after World War II disrupted her romance with German artist Max Ernst. “Tuesday” depicts a trio of women with such impossible animals as a striped cat with a lizardlike tail. Helen Escobedo (1934-2010) was born in Mexico, but clearly was exposed to European art. Her primary-colored print, one of the show’s few abstractions, is as geometrically musical as one of Mondrian’s boogie-woogie-inspired paintings.

Photographer Graciela Iturbide's ground-level view of modern Mexico

Among the more recent entries are photographs by artists with very different styles: Graciela Iturbide and Daniela Edburg. Iturbide, born in Mexico City in 1942, makes pictures of everyday life, such as this show’s black-and-white images of Mexican American women in East Los Angeles. Edburg, a Texas native born in 1975, poses fictional scenarios that often incorporate knitted and crocheted objects.

That doesn’t mean scarves and sweaters. In Edburg’s large-format 2010 digital photo, “Cerebro,” a woman appears to have paused during a trip through a rocky, mountainous landscape. She sits on a suitcase, next to a smaller piece of luggage that’s topped with a model of a human brain, knitted in pink and light-blue yarn. The scenario is rooted in the landscape yet highlights craft — specifically, a skill usually associated with women. Visually, “Cerebro” doesn’t have much in common with the other pieces in this show, but it is a testament to female creativity.

If you go

Women in All Their Diversity

Art Museum of the Americas, 202 18th St. NW.

Dates: Through March 13.

Admission: Free.