Celebrating the voices of today’s women artists is the current exhibition “Global Feminisms” at the new Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art at the Brooklyn Museum. A seminal multi-plex of exhibitions inaugurated the center’s opening in March and it is considered the first of its kind in the country that’s devoted exclusively to women’s art.
Art by women for the last 30 years has been intricately entwined with the feminist movement. Women artists transformed art by personalizing the political into social statements about gender identity, sexual preference and social inequalities
The stalwart of contemporary western women’s art, Judy Chicago’s “The Dinner Party” (1974-79), is the center’s anchor and is a permanent exhibition in a dedicated space designed by architect Susan Rodriguez.
“The Dinner Party,” was a huge collaborative project. It is a massive equilateral triangular table ‘hosting’ 39 celebrative and controversial women spanning the millennia. The exquisite, highly complex place settings of china-painted porcelain plates on embroidered runners with gold chalices and large white utensils seeks to revalue arts and crafts, traditionally associated with women.
Reinterpreting the Last Supper from the woman’s point of view, each plate offers a vulviform lushly unique to each woman’s persona. Celebrating woman and body, this gynocentric bent of feminist based chronology is one that escaped the history books for centuries.
From matriarchal prehistory through antiquity one table starts with the Primordial Goddess and ends with Hypatia (c.370-415), a Roman mathematician and philosopher from Alexandria, , who was brutally murdered for challenging the Christian Church. Christianity to the Reformation is the second table starting with Marcella, (c. 325-410) the Roman founder of the first Christian convent as a safe haven for religious women who was later declared a saint, and ends with Anna van Schurman (1607-1678), a Dutch artist who advocated women’s education to be on par with men’s.
Lastly, the table of 17th century to the 20th century women starts with Ann Hutchinson (1591-1643), a colonist associated with the American Revolution who challenged puritanical doctrine and was excommunicated for her beliefs. The table ends with place settings for Virgina Woolf and Georgia O’Keefe, the distinctly strong voices for women of the 20th century.
It is mind boggling to imagine Sojourner Truth conversing with Eleanor of Aquitaine or Sappho collaborating with Emily Dickinson. Chicago’s brilliance is the gutsy, symmetrically directed vulvar integrated in the unique design of each plate. The center of the plate for Sojourner Truth, (1797-1883) former slave turned abolitionist, is a black and white geometric African mask motif surrounded by two Negro faces, eyes closed, joined at the neck except parting for a small opening, both turning to opposite edges of the plate. One is shedding a giant white tear, the other raises a hand. Sojourner’s name is embroidered in gold on a runner lined with the same black and white geometrical motifs on the plate.
The plate for Sappho outlines layers of dahlia-like petals opening out from the central deep red to purples and blues. Hatshepsut, the 15th century (b.c.) woman pharaoh of ancient Egypt reigning during peace and prosperity, would be eating off a plate with blue, slick-lined waves parted in the middle, framing reddish-brown then green paling to white around the final, deep red center.
Most plates are flat and gaudy but some lift the vulviform right off the plate as a bass relief, like the one for American artist Georgia O’Keefe (1887-1986). O’Keefe is known for her almost surreal detailed paintings of flowers. Her plate is a gray and pink “fleshy” anatomical sculpture angled forward, meticulously shaded as are her paintings.
The expansive, triangular shape table is on a white tile floor known as “Heritage Floor” made up of 2300 porcelain tiles inscribed in gold with the names of 999 “support” women.
Support women artists are the more obscure but equally essential voice of feminist art. They are the contemporary featured artists of “Global Feminisms,” an exhibition that rides the high wave of feminism, where women’s art transforms our aesthetic experience to understand the movement’s broad voice, a voice that is sometimes shocking, contemplative, subtly disarming.
This exhibit includes over 100 women artists, many under the age of 40 from some 50 countries such as , , , , , . Many of these women artists have never been seen in New York. Their art is raw, bracing, and yanks us out of our cultural complacency from main stream media’s female image.
Maternal roles are played by punk artists, grandmothers, young men and living primates. In “Self-Portrait /Nursing (2004), a large color photograph by Catherine Opie (U.S.A., b. 1961) defies the traditional patriarchal glorification of Madonna-and-child. Opie is a broad, ruddy complexioned middle aged woman with large dark tattoos scaling one arm and a faint tattoo across her chest that says “Pervert.” She is bare breasted, suckling her one year old blond haired son while bonding in the gaze of each other’s eyes.
Stretching the cultural code of mothering is the photograph “Mothers” (2000), by Margi Geerlink (Netherlands, b. 1970) showing what could easily be someone’s grandmother nursing a tiny infant. The role displacement is borne out of age discrimination. In “Future Plan #2” by Hiroko Okada () two happy, very pregnant Asian men suggests a sexual role-swap and an alternative to women bearing children. Okada’s large photograph offers two young, hairy bellied men in white briefs miraculously (Photoshop?) pregnant, showing off their bellies, smiling into the camera.
A six foot tall female baboon made out of silicone, fiberglass, human hair, is suckling a human baby in Patricia Piccinini’s “Big Mother” (2005). Piccinini (Australian b. 1965) created “Big Mother” after reading about a baboon who somehow kidnapped a tiny infant after her own infant died (the child was safely found and returned). The baboon is part human, part Neanderthal, with long flowing hair, human and primate genitalia, with two diaper bags at her feet.
Work exploring sexual identity in this exhibit is confrontational, painful, uncomfortable but fascinating. Pushing the envelope is “Fulcrum” by Jenny Saville (U.K. b. 1970), a sprawling painting of three large, bulbous women horizontally piled on top of each other on a hard surface of crumpled white paper. The women are tied at the torso with a thin white rope suggesting stacked limbs as slabs of meat. Masterly and thickly painted, broad strokes occasion red blotchy blood spots over expanses pink and blue skin. The women blankly stare back at you, dehumanized. This is no languid repose.
A plethora of political activism work has wonderfully resurfaced here using the video format. This medium was used largely by women in the 1970’s - 1980’s because of its immediacy and the then accessible venue of public access television.
In the two minute video “Barbed Hula” (2000) by Sigalit Landau ( b. 1969) the naked waist of a women on a beach swings a hula hoop made of barbed wire. With the sea in the background the slow motion ripping of her skin and resulting cuts and bruises targets the pain of the imposed border on the West Bank separating and Palestine.
Self inflicted pain also shows up in “Binding Ritual, Daily Routine (2004) by Mary Coble ( b. 1978). An 11 minute segment shows a stocky, bare breasted woman with an extreme mohawk hair-do repeatedly applying and ripping off gray duct tape from her breasts slowly (and painfully) brandishing a raw, red stripe in the end. Expressionless, looking straight into the camera, hers is the unemotional face of intolerance to sexual identity.
Iranian artist Parastou Forouhar (b.1962) approaches the horrible torture of women in her country by creating wall paper which at a distance seems decoratively lyrical until you get up close. Against a white background in spatially repeated wallpaper patterns are taupe colored faceless women in burqas being whipped, bound, hung and put in body bags by anonymous torturers. A biographical wall label explains that in 1998 Forouhar’s dissident parents were assassinated by Iranian secret agents in the family home in Tehran
The feminist movement in Asia, particularly in , has been somewhat of a mystery to Americans. Japanese women got the right to vote only after World War II. Today, liberated Japanese women have impacted a declining birthrate and are increasingly marrying later in life. In Miwa Yanagi’s () photograph from her “My Grandmothers” series, “Yuka” is an older Japanese woman whisked away in a motorcycle side bar, her day-glow crimson hair flailing in the wind as she speeds across the Golden Gate Bridge. She epitomizes the liberated Asian woman with her plunging black lace neckline, cigarette in one hand, head thrown back, laughing.
American artist Kara Walker’s (b. 1969) piece from her “Emancipation Approximation” series (1999–2000) is “Scene #26.” It shows one of Walker’s silhouetted images of an Antebellum woman resting her arms on a tree stump with an axe nearby, seemingly weary and impassive to the horror of nine Negroid heads, including one of a child that lay on the ground.
Comic relief with a less weighty message comes in the work of Oreet Ashery ( b. 1966). In “Self-Portrait as Marcus Fisher,” the artist is dressed in drag as an Hasidic rabbi, gently but shockingly pulling her breast out from her shirt and contemplating it. It’s the single frame doppelganger daring the forbidden touching of women by Hasidim, challenging two identities to cohabitate in one person.
In 1985 a group of women artists known as the Guerrilla Girls took names of dead women artists, wore gorilla masks in public and talked to people about feminist issues.
One of their famous posters “The Advantages of Being a Woman Artist,” listed such ‘advantages’ as “working without the pressure of success,” “Not having to be in shows with men,” “knowing your career might pick up after you’re eighty.”
Today, young women artists and artists of color are just beginning to get exposure in major museums and art galleries. When a major institution like the Brooklyn Museum opens its doors to emerging artists, whether it’s under the guise of feminism or any other ‘ism,’ that institution is boldly choosing to believe in, look at and listen to a new generation of art.
“Global Feminisms” is on until July 1, 2007 at the
Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art and Morris A. and Meyer Schapiro Wing, 4th Floor
200 Eastern Parkway, Brooklyn, New York 11238-6052
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Abby Luby is a journalist in New York.
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