Revolutionary Women: Nahui Olin

Nahui Olin (b. Mexico City, Mexico, 1893; d. Mexico City, 1978), an artist and writer, used her
talent in the 1920s to express her intellect and her sexuality and to break down gender
barriers at a time when Mexican women were severely constrained by law and social custom. A
painter and photographer who organized her own shows, Olin invaded an artistic realm dominated by
men. In allowing herself to be depicted nude by sculptors and photographers, she took charge of her
sexuality and made it possible for other women, like Frida Kahlo, to publicly do the same.

Nahui Olin as “other worldly flame,” “sacred spark,” “woman of the  sun,” “a rose opening to the sun,” “luscious ripened fruit of cactus pear,” “the most beautiful woman in postrevolutionary Mexico.” She was the daughter of General Manuel Mondragón, wife of Manuel Rodríguez Lozano, lover of Dr. Atl, model and muse of Edward Weston, Antonio  Garduño,  Diego Rivera, and Charlot. Through these two gazes, Olin   figures as a great beauty and the intimate of Great Men. 

Unstated in these accolades is their short duration. Originally feted, she was eventually forgotten. Nahui Olin died in 1978 without an obituary. From great heights in the 1920s, Olin fell from grace. Her most recent  biographer traces her trajectory poignantly, writing that “she was in the 1920s the most beautiful woman in Mexico City. And there she  died, in misery, walking  around San Juan de Letrán and selling nude photographs of her youthful beauty at whatever price in order to feed herself and her cats.”

The insults grew ever harsher as she aged, culminating in the 1970s: “the  Powdered  Woman,” “the  Lunatic,” “the Phantom of the Post Office,” “the Cat Lady.” The harshest referred to her alleged nymphomania and accused this woman in her eighties of accosting young men: “the Bitch,” “the Long Arm,” even “the Rapist.” Her contemporaries and biographers concur that she went from center to margin, from beauty to hag. 

Etymologically, the word hag derives originally from “wise” or “holy” woman—whence Hagia Sofia and hagiography. Likewise, Olin has been recently rescued from ignominy and redefined as worthy. Her biographers Tomás Zurian, Adriana Malvido, Elena Poniatowska, and others have, moreover, broadened public appreciation and critical acclaim beyond merely honoring her as muse or beauty. Thanks to their  great dedication and judiciousness, Olin once again wins accolades from the cultural elite.

Scholars and artists now acknowledge Olin as a central figure in the Renacimiento mexicano, the intellectual and artistic “renaissance” emerging in the 1920s after the Mexican Revolution. Gerardo Estrada Rodríguez, the general director of the National Institute of Fine Arts, wrote that an exhibit of her work in 2000 was an homage to “a period and a group of Mexican artists who beyond scandal and particular circumstances left a profound mark on the profile of modern Mexico.” Olin found herself included in a group of notables the likes of Diego Rivera, Tina Modotti, Xavier Guerrero, Edward Weston, and Rodríguez Lozano,  who  are  credited  with  bridging  “the  most  authentic  expressions  of  Mexican  tradition  and  folklore,  the  incipient  urban  popular  culture, and universal culture.” Américo Sánchez Hernández, director of the Museo Mural de Diego Rivera, set an exhibit of her work in the context of the Renacimiento mexicano, broadening  the definition of artistic creativity to include events, declarations, and other projects of that period and underscoring her mural painting as the axis on which an entire interpretive mechanism had been erected.

Olin’s biographers focus on her rather than on her relationships, and in any case they define her relationships beyond the narrow context of 1920s  Mexico  City,  as is evident in the titles of their  biographies: “a woman of her time,” “a woman of modern times,” “Woman of the Sun,” “a Mystery.” Whereas her contemporaries tended to see her fall as her fault (due to her madness or meanness), Olin’s biographers tend to see it as their fault. Whereas her contemporaries link her rise to her intimacy with great men, her biographers champion her work on its own merits. If her contemporaries condemned her, her biographers redeem her, not because she would have cared but because we  should. Her invisibility impoverishes our vision no less than it denies Olin her due.

Piece written by Teresa Van Hoy as excerpted from Revolutionary Women of Texas and Mexico. Teresa Van Hoy is a professor of history at St. Mary’s University where she specializes in the history of Texas, Mexico, and the borderlands. She is the author of A Social History of Mexico’s Railroads: Peons, Prisoners, and Priests and a forthcoming book, tentatively titled Cinco de Mayo and Civil War in the Borderlands.

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