Marta Palau, Mexican Sculptor Who Found Empowerment in Textiles, Has Died at 88

Marta Palau, a sculptor whose work took up feminist themes at a time when few others in Mexico were doing so, has died at 88. Mexico’s Instituto Nacional de Bellas Artes y Literatura (INBAL) announced her passing in a statement on Friday.

INBAL said that Palau “made an invaluable contribution to the culture of Mexico and Latin America.”

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While still relatively under-recognized beyond Mexico, Palau’s work is highly respected within the country where she was based for almost the entirety of her life. She began as a painter and, during the ’70s, she began producing the works for which she is best known, sculptures that involve natural materials.

More often than not, these sculptures make prominent use of weaving and textiles, moving a medium that had long been considered women’s work toward a more conceptual end.

Born in Albesa, Spain, in 1934, Palau and her family moved in 1940 to Tijuana after the fall of the Second Spanish Republic. She went on to attend art school in the country, but it was not until she studied textile-making with artist Josep Grau-Garriga in Barcelona in the ’60s that she settled on what would become her medium of choice.

In 1968, Palau became one of 45 artists to found the Salón Independiente, an initiative that sought to show conceptual art that stood in stark opposition to the figuration and abstraction Mexican politicians preferred. In one show organized by the Salón Independiente, Palau and Gilberto Aceves Navarro showed Ambientación alquímica (Alchemical Environment), 1970, a structure formed from wood panels lined with newsprint. Viewers could walk in between the panels and view, at their center, a large yellow triangle that was painted with parts of the word “Tetragrammaton,” a transliterated version of God’s name in Hebrew texts.

The work was destroyed, but a replica has been created. In an interview with La Jornada, Palau described the piece as “a talisman of protection and strength,” alluding to a shamanic quality that appeared in many of her works in the years afterward.

Other pieces by Palau from that era evince an overtly sexual quality. Ilerda V (1973), a jute and cotton sculpture named after the province where Palau was born, features a large slash at its center that causes it to look vaginal. Cascada (Waterfall), 1978, is even more explicitly erotic. It is a large installation formed in which a series of slender arrays of nylon hang down a wall and are allowed to run onto the floor. Palau called it a “river of sperm.”

Later works by Palau would make prominent use of materials sourced locally. Henequen (a plant used to make agave) and corn husks appear frequently in her works of the ’80s; she transformed them into installations that considered the relationship between one’s body and its surrounding landscape. Toward the end of the decade, she merged her spiritual interests with these materials for a series called “Naualli,” which is named for the Nahuatl word for “sorceress” or “witch.”

Palau’s work received acclaim in Mexico, and it appeared in biennials such as the 1986 Havana Biennial, where she won the top prize, and the 1987 Bienal de São Paulo. In 2017, it appeared in the show “Radical Women: Latin American Art, 1960–1985,” which appeared that year at the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles before heading to the Brooklyn Museum.

Members of the Mexican art scene took to social media to mourn Palau. Curator Cuauhtémoc Medina wrote on Twitter that she was the “greatest textile sculptor in Mexico.”


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