In Nicaraguan artist Ivette Cabrera’s delicate drawings, women real and imagined don elaborate headdresses. The black, white and red crowns transcend fashion trends and sovereign traditions, resembling weightless, geometric diagrams ― part botanical, part architectural ― that allude to the endless, blossoming potential of its wearers. They are material and immaterial, regal and boundless.
Cabrera first began contemplating the series while researching the Sandinista National Liberation Front, the democratic socialist party in Nicaragua that overthrew the country’s president in 1979, establishing a revolutionary government in its place. Women played a vital role in the revolution, serving in government, enacting social programs and joining the ranks of the local guerrilla groups. While delving into the Nicaraguan history that propelled her mother to migrate to the United States, Cabrera discovered a photograph that grabbed her attention.
The photo depicted a Sandinista woman wearing a rifle slung around her shoulder while breastfeeding a child. “The image made me realize,” Cabrera explained to The Huffington Post, “that women are both warriors and creators, fighters and powerful yet fragile enough to care for human life.”
This image and the paradoxical ideas of womanhood it embodied compelled Cabrera to think about the societal standards women have been held to regardless of time, place or tradition. “We are much more capable than the roles society places on us,” she said, “but it takes an awareness of our own personal identity within that societal structure to really grow as a human so we can create a more balanced future for ourselves. Our history of oppression has had cataclysmic effects that has molded the identity of women today, especially to women of color.”
Cabrera’s background is in architecture; she worked in renovations and residential building design for most of her life. She is more inspired by architects like Frank Lloyd Wright, Zaha Hadid and Rennie Mackintosh than fine artists, by movements like Brutalism and Constructivism than those found in art history books. “Some of my work is inspired by artists of the Post-Graffiti and Futurism movements along with some older artists from Art Nouveau such as Victor Horta, Erte, Alphonse Mucha and Gaudi,” Cabrera added. In 2013 she taught herself how to draw portraits, incorporating elements of her architectural design concepts for buildings into visionary headdresses fit for a warrior and a queen.
Before beginning a work, Cabrera scours thrift stores, hunting for old architecture books. She flips through them, looking for certain details she can incorporate into her unorthodox headpieces ― whether a certain use of negative space, line or composition. She works on toned paper with archival ink, marker, graphite and charcoal, sometimes using a magnifying glass to perfect the smaller details. Each drawing takes weeks or even months to complete, and Cabrera will start a piece over if the portraits don’t sufficiently capture the essences of their subjects.
Currently, Cabrera is working on a series titled “Monarch,” focusing on historical icons like Hadid, the iconic Iraqi-born British architect, and Wu Zetian, a 7th-century empress and the only woman to rule China. These sovereign inspirations are crowned with airy and expansive coronets that combine the airiness of butterfly wings with the expansive power of a yawning cathedral.
Through the drawings, Cabrera hopes to highlight the discrepancy between the roles women are often expected to fulfill and the true potential they possess. As the artist explained: “The biggest message that I hope to communicate to my viewers is to honor their inner strength and individuality, not to conform to the societal rules, and to see yourself as powerful and beautiful. Don’t buy into the system that tells you how you should be, act or what you should look like.”