Color commentary: How Cromoactivismo uses the power of hue to challenge invisible systems

Vanessa Bell

An artist-activist collective in Buenos Aires agitates for tolerance by redefining our associations with colors


Pantone, the standard for translating color from design into production for dozens of industries around the world, might seem an ambitious entity for an artist to oppose. But nowhere among the 2,300-color number-coded palette in the Pantone repertoire will one find Scarred Wound Pink, Green That Says Goodbye, or Orgasmic Brown. All three are shades proposed by the Buenos Aires collective Cromoactivismo, led by a group of five Argentine artists – Marina De Caro, Guillermina Mongan, Victoria Musotto, Daiana Rose, and Mariela Scafati – who have made color a political battleground.

‘Color is highly sensitive; we react to color emotionally, either positively or by experiencing a physical rejection,’ says De Caro, a multimedia artist whose semifigurative paintings and sculptures lean heavily on hue. ‘[For us], that relationship to our bodies is important.’ Pantone, with its virtual monopoly, has in De Caro’s view effected a ‘cultural appropriation of color, given that the industry conditions colors with a specific content and identity.’ She and her fellow Cromoactivists reject the company’s practice of standardizing and commercializing shades for those in creative fields; this, they believe, perpetuates social stereotypes. 

Cromoactivismo partnered with the queer activists Columna Orgullo en Lucha during the 2017 Pride March in Buenos Aires, with signs offering new interpretations of the color brown. Image courtesy of the artists.
Cromoactivismo partnered with the queer activists Columna Orgullo en Lucha during the 2017 Pride March in Buenos Aires, with signs offering new interpretations of the color brown. Image courtesy of the artists.

Much of Cromoactivismo’s activity takes the form of organizing and participating in street demonstrations, for which members hand-mix colors on placards or murals, shunning store-bought paints in favor of an artistic process of experimentation and chance. Their various slogans – Pantone no! tinte político sí! (No to Pantone! yes to political shades!) and El color no es inocente (Color isn’t innocent) – challenge viewers to reconsider their relationships with color. They propose new names and associations that are both anti-capitalist and feminist to reinject a human sensibility into aesthetic language.

The group’s first major initiative was at the Buenos Aires Gay Pride parade in November 2016, where the artists carried cardboard signs, daubed with pink paint, that offered provocative new names for different shades: Rosa Venganza de Viejas, Rosa Mordida, Rosa Queer Nation, Rosa Concha Espumosa. De Caro explained, ‘We’re renaming these colors based on our [personal] experiences and all sorts of political experiences we’ve lived. Let’s give colors names that take us into account.’

Left: Mariela Scafati painting a sign. Right: Cromoactivismo partnered with the queer activists Columna Orgullo en Lucha during the Pride March in Buenos Aires, 2017. Image courtesy of the artists.
Left: Mariela Scafati painting a sign. Right: Cromoactivismo partnered with the queer activists Columna Orgullo en Lucha during the Pride March in Buenos Aires, 2017. Image courtesy of the artists.

Cromoactivismo taps into a proud tradition of protest in Latin American art that has found specific aesthetic expression in Argentina, where marginalized populations – from the descamisados of the Perón era to women today – have struggled for political visibility. According to art historian Diana Wechsler, who will lead a discussion on gender in contemporary art on April 12 as part of the Semana del Arte in Buenos Aires, ‘The relationship between art and politics has taken many diverse formats over the course of our history, especially at certain periods during the 20th century and in the present day, where these “urgent actions” have emerged from artistic spheres...which via other means would be impossible.’ Since the 1980s, collectives such as CAPaTaCo have been organizing artistic initiatives and workshops in the street. Grupo de Arte Callejero and Arte Arte! during the 1990s produced flyers, placards, and objects that they handed out at protests during the collapse of the Argentine economy in 2001. 

A demonstration in Santa Fe in May 2018 shows the signature green bandannas adopted by the women’s movement nationally. Photo by Ana Clara Nicola, courtesy Wikimedia Commons.
A demonstration in Santa Fe in May 2018 shows the signature green bandannas adopted by the women’s movement nationally. Photo by Ana Clara Nicola, courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

The biggest protests in recent years concern the status of women in Argentina, where color has come to play an important symbolic role. In June 2015, a huge march – the culmination of a campaign spearheaded by journalists, activists, and artists that permeated all walks of life and political parties – protested the statistic that a woman is murdered approximately every 30 hours in Argentina. Since then, denunciations of what detractors describe as a patriarchal state have grown louder. In 2018, bowing to social pressure, the federal government allowed a vote to legalize abortion. Debate polarized the public, with opponents adopting the Argentine flag’s pale blue, with its nationalistic overtones, and supporters displaying their allegiance to the cause with emerald-green scarves and clothing.

The motion to legalize abortion was passed by Argentina’s lower house but rejected in a tense vote by the upper house months later. Yet the ripple effects have been far-reaching, not least in the contemporary art sphere. Groups like Nosotras Propenemos, composed of women who work in the art field, have taken up the cause alongside the #NiUnaMenos movement, using International Women’s Day on March 8 as a platform to express their message with a long, green fabric braid, held aloft by hundreds of people, that united the attendees.

In May 2017, members of Cromoactivismo banded together with other artists and activists to support mothers of those disappeared during the military junta that ended in 1984. Photo courtesy of the artists.
In May 2017, members of Cromoactivismo banded together with other artists and activists to support mothers of those disappeared during the military junta that ended in 1984. Photo courtesy of the artists.

By incorporating symbols and elements related to feminist, queer, and trans themes, Cromoactivismo has sought to extend the momentum of the women’s movement. In May 2017, the group drew on the emblematic white headscarves worn by the mothers of the disappeared – a potent symbol of the military junta era – when they produced triangular white-painted placards and displayed them during a march. For International Women’s Day, the group marched with placards painted Rojo Bolten in honor of the labor movement activist Virginia Bolten.

Cromoactivismo members stress that their work aligns with a transversal and universal feminism that recognizes lesbians, transgender individuals, transvestites, and others who transcend gender identities. Last September, as part of a show at MUNTREF Museo de la Inmigración, where De Caro and Cromoactivismo exhibited together, the group produced a book under their own publishing imprint called Somos Cromosomos, pairing quotes from anarchists around the world with a color to reflect their stories. ‘We wanted to make anarchic immigration visible, which is part of our rebellious heritage,’ explains Scafati, who showed her color-based sculptures as part of the exhibition ‘Hopscotch (Rayuela)’ during Art Basel Cities Week in September 2018. The first page reads like a manifesto: ‘Cromoactivismo seeks to liberate color… Cromoactivismo gives color a voice… Cromoactivismo is a social dynamic.’ 

As part of Marina De Caro’s exhibition at Museo de la Inmigración in late 2018, Cromoactivismo painted the floor in a new spectrum of shades that overlapped the tiles’ borders. The installation served as a reading room for the group’s first publication. Image courtesy of the artists. Photo courtesy of UNTREF Media.
As part of Marina De Caro’s exhibition at Museo de la Inmigración in late 2018, Cromoactivismo painted the floor in a new spectrum of shades that overlapped the tiles’ borders. The installation served as a reading room for the group’s first publication. Image courtesy of the artists. Photo courtesy of UNTREF Media.

Wechsler, who curated the exhibition, says, ‘The role of art in general should be to deactivate the norm and propose other versions of reality, so as to be able to take a step towards the construction of a situation or a space for thought. Cromoactivismo is a good example of how artists can synthesize various social and political struggles through a symbolic medium like color.’

For Scafati, the group's actions in turn fuel her own artmaking. ‘Our collective and individual practice is a daily condition,’ she says. ‘Our reality precludes us from being alien to this. We galvanize as a group, be it 2 or 40 individuals at a time, [and] we always find a way to continue manifesting. Color is a great ally in these cases. Cromoactivismo has found a climate for reflection, collaborations, exchange, and affection, which we as artists celebrate… It is a helpful reminder of what art means for us.’

For more information on Masterclass II: Gender in Contemporary Art and the Art Basel Cities Talks Program, produced in collaboration with arteBA Fundación during the city's Semana del Arte, April 8–14, 2019, please click here.

Top image: In May 2017, at a historic march opposing a court decision regarding genocides and the 2x1 rule, which could exempt associates of the military junta from prosecution for crimes against humanity, members of Cromoactivismo banded together with other artists and activists to support mothers of those disappeared during that period of rule, which ended in 1984. Photo courtesy of the artists.