Chila Burman, Karla Black, Victoria Rance, Mary Fletcher, Barbara Walker, Pamela So Rachel Howfield, Karen Knorr, Grace Ndiritu
Curated by Katy Deepwell
Exploring Axis’s database was both a pleasure and a challenge. Could I select a group of women artists who identified themselves with feminism and, at the same time, potentially represented some new or emergent forms of feminist discourse in the visual arts? Maybe I was just hoping to discover forms of feminist art practice of which I was not aware. I began searching for women artists who identified themselves with feminism in their artists’ statement or mentioned it as a reference or starting point. Feminist art practices are not about the use of a particular medium nor are they a ‘style’ or ‘genre’ of art. Feminist art practices are about an engagement with feminist politics and with social and political issues. My searches quickly became a test of the vocabulary used by artists to describe their own work. The more I searched, the more I familiarised myself with the heavily coded, somewhat veiled language artists tend to use in their statements. As my first search proved rather limited (not all artists who actually used the term arrived in the search results), I tried some more classic women-centred themes in feminist art practices: motherhood, conception, birth, power, body politics, sexual violence, scripto-visual, and critiques of existing forms of femininity. I started to recognise how feminism today appears in more diffuse forms – a kind of everywhere and nowhere - like in the ‘performative’ derived from Judith Butler’s work, notably her book Gender Trouble (1990); or ‘interior’ categories as a means to say something about female subjectivity, domestic or private spaces. My curated selection inevitably is based on some artists who I know or have published work about in n.paradoxa and on some younger artists whose work I encountered for the first time.
Chila Burman Hello Girls 2000
This exuberant multi-media print both parodies and recodes a very sexist advert for the Wonderbra in the 1990s whose memorable slogan was ‘Hello Boys’. Challenging the idea that women dress only for men, Burman’s work indicates the appeal of fabrics and their design as one of the many pleasures enjoyed by women. Each frame of the series echoes how everyday women seem to adopt new forms of identity changing the shape and colour of their clothes. The multiplicity of prints, textures, fabrics are also about the multiplicity of women: all too frequently homogenised as ‘the same’. As the artist writes: ‘The intention is to jar the spectator into considering just what this most feminine of apparel has come to’. (Artist’s statement about work from Axis webpage
). The brassiere became the symbol of women’s confined femininity: and a sign of how women dressed only to please men or to neutralize their ‘dangerous’ sexuality in ways identified with modesty and propriety in the twentieth century. Burning one’s bra was for the Women’s Liberation Movement a symbol of rejecting the ‘trap’ of Western femininity and its constraints on female sexuality. Burman’s work, however, points to how this feminine accessory can indicate multiplicity and difference as well as a female-centred vision of women’s pleasure. This work was shown to great acclaim in the pan-Asian women artist’s exhibition Text and Sub-text
in Lasalle-SIA, Singapore in 2000, curated by Binghui Huangfu.
Karla Black Opportunities For Girls, 2006
By contrast, Victoria Rance’s work takes a different tack and looks at a different set of problems for women. This ornate work is a cage, a screen trapping its subject into a corner. The ambivalence is clear in the way that this structure offers protection and security but it leaves no room to manoeuvre. It’s a ‘freedom’ in security which involves considerable sacrifice. While the artist states the sculpture was made in response to two books, Reading Lolita in Tehran a memoir of time in Iran in 1979 by Azar Nafisi (2003) and Bounty by Caroline Alexander (2003), it demonstrates a much more general concern and identification with fighting the repressive treatment of women. While the former book is set during the Iranian revolution and the second follows the plight of Tahitian women under the British mutineers; the work itself demonstrates the over-protected and highly circumscribed place of women when confined to the home in situations where their honour and security is to be protected by and dependent upon men.
This floor work represents, in the artist’s words, ‘a calendar of 260 unfertilised ovulations over 20 years of wanting to conceive a child. The axes are marked in words as 13 lunar months and 20 years and quartz stones are placed on the dark red felt to mark out the months’. (Artist’s statement about work from Axis webpage). The work has a strong formalist and conceptual edge, as well as simplicity in the arrangement of stones: but it is about the difficulties of thinking of motherhood as a ‘choice’ when sometimes it is clearly not a ‘choice’ for women. While many artists in art school are still fed the myth that somehow motherhood and art are incompatible, the extended education of many women (artists included) has pushed motherhood later and later in their lives. Sex education and methods of birth control have given women more possibilities to curtail their fertility. However, for many the choice, like the calendar, has a physical/material limit. 20% of adult women remain childless in Britain today and in Germany today the figure is 30%; for some of these women, this maybe an active choice; for others, it is the result of individual circumstances. This work is part of a general exploration of involuntary childlessness: ie women who did not have children themselves but for whom this appears to be neither an active choice nor a rejection of the possibility, rather just the result of a combination of events in their lives. Fletcher also produced a very intriguing artist’s book, ‘Women Without-middle pages’ (2005), a book of images of women who did not have children (also on Axis).
Karla Black’s installation was picked by Sarah Lowndes for another curated selection. I was intrigued by how Lowndes’ reading of this work, which was both formal and informative, did not mention the title of the work or what this might mean. The deflated balloon-like shape of this installation and the rents in its surface speak volumes in relation to the title: a world of often crushed expectations. The very media of the work: hair gel and thread allude to the materials through which women seek to keep femininity in ‘repair’. Maybe, it seemed too obvious to mention that girls leave school these days with exceptional grades, often outperforming their male peers, and yet they enter a world of work in which they still earn less than their male peers; are more valued for their bodies and general appearance than their abilities; are subject to a culture where pornographic imagination is the principle lens through which they can identify their sexuality and binge drinking and rowdiness on the streets are presented as worthwhile forms of entertainment. Motherhood and/or marriage both appear like a trap and are endlessly postponed. In rejecting these stereotypes of femininity which dominate the mass media, this piece of work neatly sums up the very difficult choices young women face today.
Victoria Rance Space for a Woman, 2007
Mary Fletcher Misconceptions, 2006
Barbara Walker I can paint a picture with a pin, 2006
Perhaps this work seems rather light in the context of this selection but it too is an exploration of the fragile myths that surround femininity. To stand in front of a mirror and attempt to see yourself as others see you: to remodel yourself so others will only see you at your ‘best’ (whatever that is); or to use this mirror to watch other people watching you are all part of the conceit of the boudoir for women and men. The temporary and ephemeral nature of this exchange of looks is underlined by materials used. What looks like a solid pattern acting to beautify and adorn the table is made out of talc. In an instant, it could be blown away and this fragile version of femininity, like make-up, only exists in its maintenance as the ‘thing to do’.
This work from Barbara Walker’s series ‘Polite Violence’ (2006) are drawn and painted on reproductions of 'stop and search' forms issued by West Midlands police to her son. On these forms, Walker has drawn both her son – young, black and hooded or with a baseball cap and the city streets where he was stopped. The ‘whiting’ out and replacement graphic became a means to deal with the disturbance which these numerous ‘stop and searches’ of her law-abiding son caused in their day-to-day existence. The social expectation that young men, but particularly young black men, are and should be regularly stopped and searched by police as ‘suspects’ is the focus of critique in this work: and the artist/mother’s concern. Young black men are stopped seven times more than their white counterparts and this policing strategy is and has been regarded as provocative in relations between young black men and the police since the 1980s. Political opinion in Britain is divided as to whether this is an effective tool of modern policing or a tactic which unnecessarily alienates sections of Britain’s ethnic minorities. This series of artworks represent a powerful and interesting intervention by an artist and a mother about this issue. (This work was featured in n.paradoxa, Vol 21, Jan 2008, on Violence, pp.44-48).
Pamela So Boudoir, 2007
The silver dress woman doesnt worry or care, 2009
| || |
The silver dress woman doesnt worry or care, 2009
| || |
The silver dress woman doesnt worry or care, 2009
This video projection is the culmination of a series made while working within an ACE artists’ research and development grant. In her blog on the Artist's Newsletter site about the progress of this project: Rachel Howfield asks herself how to put feminist theory at the centre of her concerns: ‘Is it important to try to avoid being labeled or pigeon holed as an artist, or is it impossible to control? If I use the words 'feminist' or 'textile' or 'domestic' am I alienating part of my audience, who might otherwise enjoy the work? Is this thought in itself a prejudiced attitude?’ (Blog statement: 8 July 2009: www.rachelhowfield.net). The blog is an attempt to reflect on problems of being an artist and a mother - someone whose time and attention is constantly required elsewhere: she cites her influences as the Womanhouse project, is intrigued by other women’s networks, Laura Cottingham (who utilized a joke about feminists and lightbulbs for a show), and relies on her network of female friends for support and information. Her negotiations with her partner and her life diary are almost identical to the work of Lea and Pekka Kantonen and her fascination with ‘what the chambermaid saw’ mirrors that of Sophie Calle and Ann Sofi Siden (none of whom she mentions). Nevertheless, for ambition and approach, I am intrigued by the site of this work as a place in which the actions of the woman in the silver dress gain considerable meaning: in the glamour of Scarborough in the 1920s where the rooms are sites for private ‘tragedies’ (aka: Agatha Christie) or rituals and 'public spaces' of the lobby and dining room the site of displays of wealth and opulence. Modern motel-style hotels just don’t have the same appeal!
Karen Knorr King Fishers, 2007
Karen Knorr’s work has long been an examination of power, its settings and pretensions. In this work, which is part of an extended series, these lush and beautiful photographs of principally eighteenth century palace rooms are strangely repopulated with animals. The animals are nevertheless caught in a drama of some kind, looking, fighting, searching or moving. The incongruity of wild animals in these settings restages the conflict between nature and culture at the heart of enlightenment thinking. In some photographs, it looks as if the animals are stuffed; in others as though they are real and really present within the room. The eighteenth century had a fascination with reclassifying ‘nature’ and separating it from ‘culture’. Knorr’s photographs overturn and challenge these assumptions: animals mirror humans, but not in some cute and cuddly anthropomorphism only in how they momentarily occupy these spaces as sites of power and decadence.
Grace NdirituMy Blood Self: Darfur, 2007
Grace NdirituMy Blood Self: Giving Birth, 2007
The nine different parts of this large work ‘My Blood Self’ (2006-2007), in photography and video, use a reduced and highly charged set of images to speak of bloody struggle, exploitation, war, genocide, global trade in a post-colonial economy and the problems women in developing countries, but especially Africa, face. Each video has a single highly rhythmic soundtrack, blending different forms of African music with these images. In ‘Blood Painting’ (2006-2007), menstrual blood drips between a black woman’s bare toes into the red soil. In ‘Darfur’ (2006-2007), the political resonances of a very similar image refer not only to blood and soil but to the abuse and difficulties of women living in the refugee camps having fled the violence of their homes. The startled and pained expression of the prostrate woman in ‘Giving Birth’ (2006-2007) mirror the posture of victims of genocide (from documentary photography) and this reference serves to emphasise the risks of birth in substandard living conditions as well as to Rwanda. In many ways this work acts like a catalogue of the most pressing geo-political and social problems of our age: but it draws on the legacies of feminist performance since the 1970s in how Ndiritu uses herself to stage a singular re-enactment of self and foreground the situation of African women today.
Did someone say feminism was only part of the 1970s? Or is the reality today that it is ever-present, informing the approach or the subject of women artists’ work?
Katy Deepwell, July 2009
Katy Deepwell is a feminist art critic and Reader in Contemporary Art, Theory and Criticism at University of the Arts, London. She is editor of n.paradoxa: international feminist art journal (www.ktpress.co.uk). Her books include: Dialogues: Women Artists from Ireland. (London: IB Tauris, 2005) and four edited anthologies of essays:- (co-ed. with Mila Bredikhina) The Gender, Art and Theory Anthology, 1960-2000 (Moscow: Rosspen, 2005) published in Russian; Women Artists and Modernism (Manchester University Press, June, 1998); Art Criticism and Africa (Saffron Books 1997) and New Feminist Art Criticism: Critical Strategies (Manchester University Press, 1995) also in Spanish (Universidad de Valencia, 1998).
The Event 09
Mona Casey will present The Space Between, Surrounds Our Desire at The Event 09 (Birmingham, 4 – 8 November) - where the artworks will be presented in the format in which they were originally intended to be viewed. By presenting a second experience of the work, the exhibition seeks to question curatorial choices based on mediated representations of art, in an attempt to explore the problem of the ‘value of the artwork’ as related to the specific medium through which it is shown.
Venue: Mona Casey Projects, 119 Floodgate Street, Digbeth, Birmingham, B5
Dates: 4-8 November, 12-5pm
Artists' CV & artwork pages