BY Chloe Stead in Opinion | 28 JUN 24

In Athens, Female Artists Have Taken Over the National Museum of Contemporary Art

The all-women programme ‘What if Women Ruled the World’ addresses gaps in the art historical canon

BY Chloe Stead in Opinion | 28 JUN 24

Installed on the North and South facades of The National Museum of Contemporary Art Athens (ΕΜΣΤ), What if Women Ruled the World? – a 2016 neon work by the Berlin-based artist Yael Bartana – is intended as a provocation.We're a public museum,’ Katerina Gregos, the institution’s director, explains to me, ‘and I believe that means we should be putting issues that matter on the table in a very vocal way.’

Yael Bartana, What if Women Ruled the World, 2016, neon light installation. Courtesy: Annet Gelink Gallery, Amsterdam; Sommer Contemporary Art, Tel Aviv; Galleria Raffaella Cortese, Milano; Petzel Gallery, New York and Capitain Petzel, Berlin; photograph: Panos Kokkinias

The inspiration for a four-part cycle of exhibitions dedicated to female-identifying artists, Bartana’s installation has been a guiding light for Gregos during the almost one-year-long cycle, which started in December 2023 and has just entered its final phase. The cycle takes its name from Bartana’s rhetorical question.  ‘To answer that requires a leap of imagination,’ Gregos says. ‘Can we imagine a world where there is a redistribution of power and a different kind of governance, in which women take key positions?

Penny Siopis, She Breathes Water, 2019, video still. Courtesy: © Penny Siopis, Stevenson, Cape Town, Johannesburg and Amsterdam

Although the exhibitions on display don’t directly address Bartana’s thought experiment, they do showcase artists whose names might be unfamiliar to many. Opened in May, an excellent retrospective dedicated to Penny Siopis, left a number of visitors, including myself, wondering why they were unfamiliar with her work despite the fact she was born to Greek parents and many of her contemporaries, including William Kentridge, are household names in Europe.

Penny Siopis, Pinky Pinky: Blue Eyes, 2002, oil and found objects on canvas, 41 × 50 cm. Courtesy: the artist and the private collection of Teresa Lizamore, Johannesburg

Women-only exhibitions have long been used to enlarge the art historical canon, but museums, perhaps unwilling to put their most famous pieces in storage, have been more reluctant to rethink their collections. Since its opening in 1977, it took the Centre Pompidou 40 years to own enough work by women to stage ‘Elle’, a landmark 2009 exhibition of 200 female artists, shown across two floors of the storied institution, which sparked a major debate about female representation in art museums.

‘WOMEN, Together ΕΜΣΤ Collection’, 2024, installation view, works by Paky Vlassopoulou and Despoina Meimaroglou. Courtesy: ΕΜΣΤ Athens; photograph Paris Tavitian

‘Women, together’, which represents the first rehang of ΕΜΣΤ’s collection since 2019, is a continuation of this investment in female artists. Curated by Gregos and Eleni Koukou, it brings together 49 works by 25 women, including 24 works from the D.Daskalopoulos Collection Gift – the largest donation in the museum’s history – and seven new acquisitions. By showcasing the museum’s new focus on acquiring works by artists from territories in the former Ottoman Empire in which Greek speakers were once numerous, the exhibition tells a partial but rich history of women’s art away from traditional artistic centres like New York, Paris and London. 

‘WOMEN, Together ΕΜΣΤ Collection’, 2024, installation view, works by Maria Tsagkari and Hera Büyüktaşcıyan. Courtesy: ΕΜΣΤ Athens; photograph Paris Tavitian

Fourteen years after ‘Elle’, the concept behind ‘Women, together’, is no longer as radical as it once was, but Gregos argues that the museum’s all-female programme still has the power to spark debate in conservative Greece. She points to the passage only in 1983 of the Family Law Reform, which abolished the dowry and allowed no fault divorce, as evidence that mainstream discussion of feminism arrived late to the country. In many cases, more still needs to be done to protect women. The inclusion of an exhibition by documentary photographer Susan Meiselas – whose series ‘A Room of Their Own’ (2015–2017) documents domestic abuse shelters was a direct response to the steady rise in cases of intimate partner abuse in Greece, as well as two high profile and particularly horrific femicides at the beginning of the year, which have increased pressure on the Greek government to make gender-based murder a distinct criminal act.

Susan Meiselas, Shelley's daughter, a refuge in the Black Country, UK, 2016, colour photograph. Courtesy: © Susan Meiselas and Magnum Photos

This is not the first time that Gregos has attempted to spark a feminist discussion in her native Greece. In 2002, she curated the exhibition ‘Fusion Cuisine’, featuring female artists, including Monica Bonvicini and Lee Bul, who were challenging stereotypes and cliches of femininity, at the DESTE Foundation for Contemporary Art. Seen within the prevailing trend of early aughts neoconceptionalism, however, the exhibition fell flat. ‘It didn't generate the kind of debate that I thought it should,’ Gregos admits. ‘People acted like it [feminism] was a done deal. It was absolutely flabbergasted.

This is not a feminist project, FΕΜΣΤ (Vasia Ntoulia & Mare Spanoudaki), 2023, installation view of ‘WOMEN, Together ΕΜΣΤ Collection’. Courtesy: ΕΜΣΤ Athens; photograph: Mar Efstathiadi

Thankfully, the response to ‘What if Women Ruled the World’ has been different. When I spoke to Siopis after her opening she said she had been inundated with Instagram messages from people who had been moved by the experience of visiting the museum. She also told me about meeting a local man in a bookshop who, intrigued by the programme’s title, said that he thought women had been ‘wonderful models’ but hadn’t made much art themselves. It’s responses like these that suggest that, far from being outdated, women-only exhibitions are still a necessary corrective. ‘There's an assumption that things have changed,’ says Siopis. ‘But, until there is radical change, there’s still space for exhibitions devoted specifically to the experiences of women.’

‘WHAT IF WOMEN RULED THE WORLD?’ is on view at EMST until 10 November

Main image: Yael Bartana, What if Women Ruled the World (detail), 2016, neon light installation. Courtesy: Annet Gelink Gallery, Amsterdam; Sommer Contemporary Art, Tel Aviv; Galleria Raffaella Cortese, Milano; Petzel Gallery, New York and Capitain Petzel, Berlin; photograph: Panos Kokkinias

Chloe Stead is assistant editor of frieze. She lives in Berlin, Germany.