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Sylvia Fernández: On the Life of Painting. Part Three.

On fragility, strength and birds.

Contradiction is a life force in the paintings of Sylvia Fernández. Hers is not the contradiction of separation, however, where unbreachable distances are imposed between what are presumed to be irreconcilable opposites; hers is not the way of being that has been deployed as the ideology of “divide and conquer,” the mantra of patriarchy, which has been a most effective strategy of conquest in the patriarchal, white supremacist culture built upon conquering and exploiting their Other. That kind of contradiction requires stasis; it repeats the story of “the way it has always been” where separation is embedded as reality. Fernández’s contradictions are all about overlap, movement, and serve to revolutionize our way of feeling and thinking.

Just after first looking, when oppositions clash within her frames, there isn't necessarily sense. And that’s always OK. Immediate understanding is a product of short-term thinking—a plague of our contemporaneity—along with its empty-headed culture of consumerism that denies any possibility of Art (except when it’s being critiqued, of course). Fernández’s always playful contradictory overlaps deprive us of any instantaneous sense-making and the necessity of stasis such immediacy requires. Be it in the confluence of beauty and horror in Conversación 3 where matted hair oozes luxuriously into elegant swoops of pinks and greys; be it in the play with life and decomposition in Nuevos seres where little-boy-blue insects frolic on a blank human bust; be it the disingenuous birthday cake made of dismembered fingers in Lávate tus dedos or where night is painted by day in conversación nocturna; be it in an internal world where waterfalls become avalanches and back again or, as in the paintings inspired by her grandmother, where pink can be black, too.[1] Cheeky, unruly and beautiful, Fernández’s canvases dance with what should not go together in micro-realities where ‘should’ is a word that is meant to be defied. The paintings ask: “Why not?” And answer: “When they do.”

Sylvia Fernández/ pichon /30 x 25 cm /oil on canvas /2017

“And what about the birds?” I asked her. “I’m very interested in your birds. You told me about the appearance of the birds in your paintings and how their bodies are so fragile. But that they also have this strength, almost a spiritual liberation, and are like superior beings. How does fragility, vulnerability and strength connect to birds in your work? And does this connect to the human experience for you in general?”

Birds … they appear quite a bit in my paintings,” she replied. “They are fragile and vulnerable. When you compare your existence as a human and the way humans feel on the earth, so superior and above every other way of living, the way we behave on the earth, the way we don't care…. But for me, birds, they just come once in a while. They present themselves and I start looking at them differently…. They are so mysterious. I feel that they are so far away from us and in a way are so like us, that they have developed this way of being on earth and we don't have any idea how it really works.” Or we haven’t for a long time. Since “the way it always has been.”

Like with the mysterious re-appearance of the wolf-tiger of Tanzania in Conversación 8 when an extinct creature arrived in the heart of her domestic space, [2] many of Fernández’s birds are also extinct. Or almost. Like the little tiger, the birds present themselves as acts of making themselves present, as a presencing that dislodges the temporal separation and palimpsests the past with its present onto the surface of her canvases.

Sylvia Fernández/ condor extinto/ 50 x 40 cm / oil on canvas/ 2020

In Condor extinto, the near-extinct Condor looks at us with a combination of fear, defiance and disbelief. Emotions are never only one. One of the world’s largest flying birds, the Condor was and continues to be sacred to Native Americans and the Inca and it is believed they can communicate with the world of the gods. In the 1980s, due to poaching, habitat destruction and lead poisoning, the epic birds were virtually extinct in the US. In 2019, it was reported that Andean condors now face a fragile future in South America and are also in danger of extinction due to over-hunting and pesticide poisoning. The same old story. The way it doesn’t always have to be. [3]

The painting greets us as an accusation and a plea. Not quite a specter, the giant bird quavers in its paint, its feathered form having just surfaced through the tawny palette. Energized brush strokes encircle the bird, creating both a halo and a portal through which it has just travelled to greet us, to accuse us. To remind us. Feathers, having been torn from skin, are fused from where they came, narrating the urgency of the return of the painter’s Condor extinto. The grey face and beak looks at us as a fossil, a haunting, a surfaced warning.

Sylvia Fernández/ caracara extinta / 30 x 25 cm / oil on canvas/ 2020

Caracara extinta stands fierce in its tumult. The brown/grey of the background speaks of a sandy landscape, bereft of nutrients; the curve of the horizon is barely perceptible with little to no delineation between a grey/brown sky above the brown/grey land. We can feel the vibrations of the assault of the bird as its painted feathers fly from its body while the bird is gradually being taken apart. Nevertheless, the sharp profile with its relentless beak is etched into the chaotic background and Caracara extinto stares dead-ahead, into a world beyond its exterminators, with a gaze of unwavering defiance. The viewer is rejected. The extinct bird is beyond accusation.

By the early 20th century, the Caracara of Isla de la Guadalupe were wiped out. Not all genus of the Caracara family of falcons are extinct, however, but the majority are in decline and all are threatened by the predatory human. The story of the extinction of the Caracara of Isla de la Guadalupe (also, ironically, known as the Mourning Caracara) can be seen as a parable for the millions of creatures who are either extinct or becoming so because of the reality that is built with the ideology of opposition and exploitation.

In the 18th and 19th Centuries, “American and Russian fur hunters were attracted to the island [of Guadalupe] … by the proliferation of the Guadalupe fur seal, which they hunted to near extinction by 1844.” Whalers soon followed and the island was settled by goat farmers in order to feed the rapacious men and “the goats proceeded to eat Isla de Guadalupe down to rocks and dirt.” [4]

Sensationalist accounts 19th century-style demonized the Caracara as the birds fought back in their need to survive. Because the goats had interrupted the food-chain, the kids became a source of food for the Caracara. And, according to the kill-all-the-Caracara ideologues, down the Caracara would rage from on high, going straight for the very anuses of the offspring of their unwitting exterminators and, as if the anus-attacks weren’t enough, to further sanction the slaughter of a species, the rapacious birds would dive for the tongues as the Bovidae babes bleated their distress! Such outrageous tales justified the all-out extermination of the Caracara of the Island of Guadalupe. [5]

But it’s not quite over. There were still a few left. As the Caracara population dwindled, the bird attracted the attention of ornithological collectors. The capitalist law of supply and demand kicked in and, as the bird became increasingly valuable as their supply decreased, all of this genus of falcon was gone by 1906. The Caracara were not the only bird-victims on the island: the Bewick Wren, the Spotted Towhee, the Guadalupe Flicker, the Guadalupe Storm Petrel, and the Guadalupe Ruby-Crowned Kinglet were all collateral damage of the always rapacious sealers and whalers. [6]

Sylvia Fernández/ conversación 12 / 55 x 60 cm / oil on canvas / 2019

Unlike Condor extinto and Caracara extinto, the bird of Conversación 12 is a spectral silhouette. It could be any bird, an ever-present phantom alive in its forest. On the bird’s back and neck, painted in the direction of its always-impending escape, the brush strokes are ridges that glimmer in the illumination of the painting. The raised streaks of paint animate what would otherwise be a flat form fully fused with its abstracted forest. The trees are striations of greens, blues and blacks, the lack of delineation between them creating an impenetrable mysticism, a curtain for the performance of this bird, all birds, as it is simultaneously engraved in the painting and about to take flight. “They are like us and so mysterious at the same time,” Sylvia says. Ever-leaving. Ever-present.

Lechuza blanca is a confrontation. In Mexican and Mexican-American folklore, lechuza is a witch that turns into an owl. The witch is, as per the dictates of patriarchal misogyny, an old woman that inflicts evil on humans. Many accounts report that Lechuza’s face is that of a hideous old woman.

The word, ‘lechuza,’ as a conflation of owl and witch, has existed in Northern Mexico and the Rio Grande since Spanish colonization. In some stories, the owl turns into an eagle [7] and connects the conquistador owl/witch to the North American Native Thunderbird—a huge eagle-like bird that was revered for making thunder, lightning and rain—in order to infiltrate Pre-Hispanic Cultures with that of the colonizer’s. Like the pagan festivals of Europe being appropriated by Christianity in order to impose its reality and dominance upon the pagans and like the Mexican Catholic virgin Guadalupe being a clever Conquistador strategy of transforming the Spanish Virgin Mary into a woman of colour (and thereby able to put the nail in the coffin, so to speak, of colonizing the Pre-Hispanic peoples of Mexico), the Lechuza can also be seen as a disciplinary tactic by the colonizers to impose fear, hatred and the corresponding persecution of women from the misogynist tradition of their European culture.

Sylvia Fernández/ lechuza blanca ( serie sueño) /32 x 32 cm/ oil on paper/ 2018

There are many legends that report the atrocities committed by Lechuza. She snatches up children because her own child was killed by angry villagers for a crime he did not commit (there is a smidgeon of misplaced justice here). In a variation of this, her child was killed by a drunkard and so now the Lechuza exacts revenge by hanging around bars, waiting until closing time to attack bar patrons who stumble out into the street after hours not knowing the danger from the sky about to rain down on them (Okay, this is pretty funny). Apparently—and, again, humorously especially from an environmentalist perspective—Lechuza particularly likes to swoop down and attack cars at night! She wreaks revenge on adulterous husbands (a definite transgression in a Machismo culture). Some say the best defense is to blast the bird (with a gun I am assuming) and others say that if she doesn’t die, you will die and some say it’s impossible to kill a Lechuza anyway. It has been warned that even if you touch a feather, if she touches you with nary a wing-tip, you will die. And, look out, if she enters your dreams, you will die, too! Not much can be done, it appears, except to demonize women, and owls. [8]

Regardless of the farce one can read into the terror inflicted upon the defenseless—typically male—human, it is telling that all of these myths have the underlying theme of the Lechuza as a creature who was once a woman and is connected to the natural world (I, as a woman, don’t have a problem with this so-called essentialism) who was wronged and is seeking revenge. Lechuza is in the tradition of “the hag, the old woman … [as] a source of primal fear which forms the foundation of a violently misogynistic gendered (self-)formation.”[9] However, Fernandez’s Lechuza blanca hails from the new feminist tradition of the wise woman, the witch, the hag, the shrew, the sorceress of shaming and resistance. [10]

There is no pure evil about Fernández’s Lechuza blanca; the painted contradictions are fully integrated. There is terror and fury; the eyes are filled with unrelenting determination; the brow is an energizing scowl. Feathers fly, merging with the environment and it is uncertain as to which fly up and which return. The beak of the owl, notorious for its ability to snatch and tear, is more of an opening than a protrusion, more of an invitation than a threat. There is a tension in the painting as it blends contradictory states. Lechuza blanca makes me feel joy as the eyes stare out, terrified—and defiant.

Sylvia Fernández/ pajarita /45 x 42 cm/ oil on paper/ 2020

Pajarita is perched upon a hand. A human hand, our hand, is made of wood. Fernández has painted us in absolute overlap with nature to the point where one is the other and the other is the one. As it could be. The human supporting the bird, the human body being a part of its natural environment. The human hand and the bird’s feet are painted in the same striations of earthy brown and exist in a mutuality of existence; the relationship is one of joy and respect. This is still the way it is in the Indigenous cultures of the Amazon, where the relationship between the human, the animal and the land exist in fluidity and harmony and not in a fixed state of opposition and divisiveness.

Sylvia told me a story about going to the jungle with her grandfather:

Sylvia Fernández: I have a relationship with the jungle. I usually go there because my grandfather was from the jungle. Whenever you are in the jungle, birds are the main sound you hear. You hear everything, but the sound of the birds is the sound that you can follow to see if there's a river there and a bird tells you that the river is on the side. The guides in the jungle are the birds. Birds are the ones that tell you that water is near or when it's going to rain. They just know.

Karen Moe: Yeah, just by the way, they talk to you … but you need to have been taught how to hear, how to understand their calls. One has to be taught to listen to where we truly are.

SF: Yes, yes. Yes, yes. Because at first whenever you are there everything sounds the same. But the people in the jungle will tell you. They say, Hey, this is because we're going to find water. It's amazing. So for me, birds are everything in the way. They are like everything you can find in a being all together with wings. So that's why I think in my painting they come to me once in a while to remind me: don’t lose this fragile being in yourself or be aware that you can fly out or look at things from another point of view. Birds are a reminder of another way of living.

KM: Mm hmm. Mm hmm.


Like in the jungle where the conversation between bird and human bridges the boundary of imposed difference, the birds call to us through Sylvia’s paintings: “Return to what you have been taking from all of us. Even from yourselves.” Unlike a relationship of contradiction and opposition between the human viewer and the painted bird represented in Lechuza, Condor extinto, Caracara extinto and Conversación 12 as they accuse, defy and elude, the painting Pajarita tells the story of conflict no longer: the human hand, painted as grains of wood, is fully connected to the bird. The human has transformed—or returned to or has always been so. The bird is perched joyfully; feathers fall like rain from bird to hand. The bird’s expression and tilt of the head are even a bit coy, as she or he dances upon the human hand that is now a support rather than a detriment. Rather than a killer. Let us end with hope and Fernández’s Pajarita, where both the bird and the human remind us of not only the way it hasn’t always been, but the way it always can be again. When we (re)learn to hear what the birds are telling us. It’s going to rain. Here is water. Here is life.


I told Sylvia a story about Vulnerablity & Sylvia told me a story about a Parrot:


See Part One Sylvia Fernández: On the Life of Painting:


About the Artist:


Artist Statement:

My work consists of a constant dialogue with painting, a relationship that allows me to explore intuitively through the material and arrive at images that come from the most intimate interests to plural/universal-ideas. Permanent associations between images and ideas convey to the spectator their own journey. My recent process has taken me to images that explore abandonment, disappearance, extinction—what is gone and what remains.


Sylvia Fernández studied at Corriente Alterna, an art school in Lima, Peru, where she graduated with honors in 2002. Since then, she has taken part in several group and solo shows both in Lima and abroad. She has also participated in different art contests, where she has been a semifinalist in BP Portrait Award (London, 2017), a finalist in Focus Abengoa Foundation’s award (Spain, 2005) and received the Pasaporte para un Artista award (Lima, 2004), among others. She has participated in fairs such as Arco (Spain) and Art Fair Cologne (Germany) and just recently Salon Acme (Mexico). Her work is part of several local and international art collections. Sylvia Fernández is represented by Galería del Paseo in Lima, Peru.

About the Writer:

Karen Moe is a writer, visual and performance artist and a feminist activist. She has been published in such magazines as Border Crossings, ArtSpace, WhiteHot and Revista 192. She is the editor and founder of the magazine Vigilance: Fierce Feminisms. Karen has exhibited and performed across Canada, in the US and in Mexico. Her first book, Victim A Manifesto, is being published in Fall 2021. Karen lives in British Columbia, Canada and in Mexico City.



[1] See Part One and Part Two of this series in Vigilance: Fierce Feminisms for a discussion of these paintings.

[2] See Part One of this series for a discussion of the wolf-tiger of Tanzania in Conversación 8.



[8]Fearers of the lechuza have taken action against actual owls. In August 2014, a video of Mexican villagers interrogating and burning an owl alive went viral. The villagers said the owl was really a lechuza and its screams as it was being burned were the witch screaming. Some social media users condemned the incident as superstition gone wrong, leading to animal cruelty.

One man told Santos he had heard as a boy about a lechuza being shot. No one could find the dead bird, but the next morning, someone discovered the body of a very unattractive, mature woman hanging across a tree branch. Needless to say, many saw a connection between the killing of the lechuza and the corpse. Who cares about the murdered woman hanging over a tree branch! Let’s focus on the perpetuation of the misogynist myth of woman/owl/demon and further justify the epidemic of femicide in Mexico!;



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2 comentarios

14 may 2021

Loved the bird paintings. I spoke of the caracara in Wrecks of Eden. Especially like the shadow one and the owl. It's a lovely tale of fraternities..... Catherine Owen.

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14 may 2021

I loved this third episode! More amazing paintings and wonderful writing.

I completely relate to what Sylvia is saying here about her little parrot.

Virginia xo

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