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Issue 105

Feminism: Three Views

From Mexico to Egypt, Senegal to Colombia – examining approaches to feminist art-making

BY Jennifer Doyle, Gilane Tawadros AND N’Goné Fall in Features | 04 MAR 07

Jennifer Doyle 
Author of Sex Objects: Art and the Dialectics of Desire (Minnesota, 2006). She lives in Los Angeles, teaches at the University of California, Riverside, and, with Raquel Guttierez, is curating ‘Aqui No Hay Virgenes: Queer Latina Visibility’ for the Los Angeles Lesbian and Gay Center’s Advocate Gallery.

It’s a gorgeous day in December as I walk through the Plaza de la Conchita in Mexico City with the novelist Sarah Miller, the artist Niña Yhared (1814), and her partner, journalist Jorge Luis Berdeja. We pause before La Malinche’s home to talk about this over-determined figure in Mexican history. She was Hernán Cortés’ translator, the mother of his child and, over the centuries, has evolved into an ambivalent allegory for indigenous Mexico: a woman – a slave or a queen – who collaborated and conspired, infiltrated and undermined, or was raped and victimized, depending on the story one wants to tell. The direction of our conversation mirrors our meandering tour of their neighbourhood, the four of us talking about art and life, about economic pressures and impossible loves. Our stories about crazy affairs that leap across borders of class and country, about rosy years when rent is cheap and anything feels possible, intertwine.

Yhared (1814) – the date marks the death of the Marquis de Sade and is part of her name – runs an alternative, lo-fi performance venue, Casa de la Niña, from her home in the Coyoacán. For three years, she has played host to dozens of artists and their fans. Her performance work is quixotic and bittersweet – she dresses up as a mermaid and frolics in city fountains, she wanders into all-male cantinas and coaxes men to wear lipstick and dance with her. She has won awards for her erotic poetry and for her strange and sexy female nudes. Her work belongs to a particular genre of feminist art – a strain that reconfigures denigrated forms of popular culture (in her case the telenovela, the ballad, the sentimental, the soft-core erotic). Angela Carter once described this approach as ‘putting new wine into old bottles, so that the old bottles will explode’. It is a strategy that conspires, that seduces its audience with the opening lines of stories we know all too well, only to lead us into new territory – to expose and strip us of our expectations.

Listening to her talk, I am high with that feeling you get from meeting a new friend. Even as we stumble over our words (me in my halting and awkward Spanish, she in an alternately elegant and elementary English), we hum with the pleasure of feeling understood. When Yhared (1814) talks about her work organizing Casa de la Niña, her vocabulary is not that of a curator, but of a host. Running Casa de la Niña is, for her, an extension of her hospitality, a radicalization of what it means to be a host, to keep house. There is a difference between curating Feminism, and being a feminist curator, and I wonder if Yhared (1814)’s sensibility draws the line between the two. A museum might put on a big show about feminist art, but that doesn’t necessarily make it a feminist museum, just as a magazine might commission a series of feminist essays without becoming a feminist publication. One can make Feminism the object of one’s work (as a scholar for example), and still not be much of a feminist in the world. The feminist curator, scholar or artist attempts to create a productive context within which we encounter art – a space to which one feels not invited, but welcome, a space to which one needs no invitation, that expands our sense of what art can do, rather than organizes art into discrete categories whose boundaries authorized experts then debate.

I land upon these thoughts as I struggle with the difficulty of writing about Feminism, as a feminist. My overwhelming urge at the start was negative – to tell stories about the eternal forgetting of Feminism – to address my own instinctive suspicion of institutional gestures in Feminism’s direction. Suddenly, when large museums give physical space to feminist art, everybody wants to talk about this thing which has been so much a part of some of our lives since the 1960s, but which, in the bigger picture, huge numbers of people merely tolerate.

While I’m glad the impetus is there for people to want to hear from feminists like me, the honest truth is this: a museum proudly trumpeting itself as the first institution to commit itself to Feminism by way of an exhibition raises more suspicion than excitement. This is why, I think, the opening of ‘WACK!: Art and the Feminist Revolution’ has sparked more cross-programming in Los Angeles than anyone can remember relative to any past exhibition. There are a lot of people who don’t trust LA MOCA, however good its intentions might be, to get things right. This is aggravated by the museum’s publicity stressing that this is the first show of its kind – which it isn’t. It is certainly the largest, and it has its own shape, but ‘WACK!’ is hardly the first survey of the feminist art movement in its variety. Such claims – ‘it’s the first! it’s the best! it’s the biggest!’ – are, of course, integral to the press release as a form, but the demands of that form (the demands of the market) unfortunately replicates the history of the erasure of feminist work by sidestepping over the fact that ten years ago, in 1996, the Hammer Museum – also in Los Angeles – hosted a major exhibit of feminist art, curated by Amelia Jones, called ‘Sexual Politics: Judy Chicago’s Dinner Party in Feminist Art History’, the terrific catalogue for which is all too predictably out of print. Feminists, though, are used to this sort of thing.

The mixed feelings provoked by ‘WACK!’ are likely to be true of any major public event around the subject. The women’s movement in the US and the feminist art movement itself have an intertwined and fraught history of exclusion – of racism, classism, homophobia. From many perspectives, large-scale interest in the feminist art movement is made possible by the whiteness of the women’s movement, the whiteness of much feminist art and even the whiteness of much feminist art history. The Feminism that wends its way up the food chain is usually pretty washed out – middle-class ‘corporate’ Feminism, ivy league Feminism, the Feminism of Naomi Wolf – consciousness-raising as self-empowerment – and not the Feminism of, say, Audre Lorde – who called for a Feminism grounded in noticing who’s been invited to the table, and who hasn’t; a Feminism of intervention, interruption; a Feminism of conspiracy – a revolutionary Feminism that works in collaboration with diverse revolutionary projects.

Events about Feminism are not often where we find the most interesting expressions of Feminism. My favourite feminist curator is probably the film-programmer Shari Frilot. In 2001 and 2002, Frilot coaxed the notoriously mainstream Los Angeles Gay and Lesbian Film Festival, Outfest, into hosting a parallel program of experimental film and video, capped off by an 18-hour durational performance art event. Frilot drafted Ron Athey and Vaginal Davis to curate the latter. ‘Platinum Oasis’, as it was called, married the wacky ethos of a happening to the lazy sensuality of a bathhouse. Badass punk goddesses Kembra Pfhaler and Ann Magnuson headlined. People like Frilot inhabit institutional structures like Trojan horses, sneaking small armies of rebels into the city walls in the hope that they might wreak good havoc from within. (Another warrior: Lia Gangitano at Participant Inc. in New York.) People like this work everywhere – out of their houses, in the back of bars, and even with high profile museums (see, for example, Lois Keidan, Daniel Brine and Adrian Heathfield’s work on live art in the UK). They work like guerilla warriors – their productions are usually highly focused, lo-fi and mobile.

These are the feminists who, once they get a foot in the door, are likely to force it open and then hold it open so that others get through. They want to pull that door off its hinges. And then tear down the house. Radical hospitality in action.

Gilane Tawadros
An independent curator and writer. She was the founding Director of the Institute of International Visual Arts (inIVA) in London. Last year, she curated the Brighton Photo Biennial 2006 and co-curated Alien Nation (ICA, London). She is the author of several books including Changing States: Contemporary Art and Ideas in an Era of Globalisation (inIVA, 2004). She lives and works in London.

‘I am an artist first and Indian second.’ These were the words of a celebrated British artist, quoted by a national newspaper some years ago. Whether or not the artist was quoted accurately, the article set out to distinguish between those artists for whom personal identity was paramount and those who privileged their professional identity as artists over any considerations of race, nationality or gender. It highlighted the dilemma faced by artists who resist having their work viewed, written about and contextualized purely in terms of their ethnic, national or sexual identity (or, in some instances, all three). The Faustian pact seemed to be: either deny that your identity informs your work in any way, or let your work be categorized uniquely in terms of your identity. For women artists, and particularly for those from non-Western or culturally diverse backgrounds, the urge to ‘fix’ their practice and view it through one particular lens has meant that their work is sometimes seen as being specific rather than universal, political as opposed to poetic. In reality, very few artists (if any) can separate their artistic practice from their identity – by which I mean their experiences, perceptions and values. The idea that an individual’s identity can be unravelled into a number of separate strands that can then be organized into a hierarchy of sub-identities is far removed from actual experience. Does Damien Hirst wake up in the morning, look in the mirror and decide that he is first of all male, secondly white and thirdly an artist?

In conversation with a British art critic, the artist Doris Salcedo was invited to identify the essential Colombian characteristics of her works. How could her works be ascribed to specific events in Colombia that she had witnessed? Which specific experiences had inspired particular pieces? The artist, as eloquent and economic with her words as she is with her sculptures, shifted uncomfortably in her seat and politely refused to confine discussion of her work to a particular geographical location or national experience. Had her interlocutor not been a woman, one could easily imagine her being asked to describe the essential feminine qualities of her practice. In 1996 Salcedo was invited to make a new piece of work as part of the exhibition ‘The Visible and the Invisible’ in St Pancras’ Church, London, curated by Zoe Shearman and Tom Trevor.1 While Louise Bourgeois populated the belfry with disturbing, decapitated bodies suspended from the ceiling, Salcedo selected a number of unassuming small alcoves, in which she placed a variety of single, discarded shoes, each one isolated in its space and veiled behind a screen of animal skin, stretched across the opening and stitched roughly around the aperture. The starting-point for Salcedo’s disturbing yet poetic installation may have been the countless individuals ‘disappeared’ in Colombia’s unofficial civil war, but the work movingly invoked the difficult and painful experience of bereavement and loss – at once personal and unique yet also anonymous and everyday.

Just as it would be simplistic and facile to attribute masculine characteristics to the heavy, metal sculpture of Anthony Caro, so it would be superficial to describe the work of women artists purely in terms of their feminine qualities. Some artists have, however, invoked the realm of the feminine or the domestic only to subvert their traditional associations: Ghada Amer in her pornographic images drawn and stitched on canvas; Mona Hatoum with her sinister domestic utensils magnified to gigantic proportions, as in La Grande Broyeuse (Mouli-Julienne x 21) (The Large Grinder Mouli-Julienne x 21, 2000), or wired with live electric current, as in Homebound (2000), buzzing and shimmering as the charge ripples through the assemblage of household furniture and objects.

Re-examining the everyday and familiar in order to challenge our conventional understanding of the world has been an integral feature of Hatoum’s artistic practice. The passage through time and space from one location to another is frequently a precarious and dangerous one, whether in Hatoum’s solo performance piece Roadworks (1985), in which the artist walks painfully slowly one step at a time, her Dr. Martens boots tied together with string that impedes her every step, or The Light at the End (1989), an installation in which the viewer enters a darkened space and gropes unaided towards a light source in the distance and then recoils when the light source turns out to be a source of heat and possible danger, or Map (1999), in which a map of the world is laid out on the floor of the gallery space, the contours of each continent and land mass constructed from transparent glass marbles that together make up an unstable and dangerous topography.

The works of Salcedo, Amer and Hatoum are fitting altarpieces for our secular world. They evoke the equivocal and precarious times in which we live, poised delicately between the specific and the universal, the political and the poetic. As the artist Anne Tallentire recently observed, it is increasingly difficult to contemplate art works that make grand, definitive statements in a shifting world where ‘questions about the specifics of history and the present are so problematized… almost unthinkable’.2 Instead, Tallentire’s recent works have focused on the ‘small gestures of everyday life’ evoked so poignantly in ‘Drift: Diagram VII’ (2005), a series of video works filmed in the early hours of the morning in the square mile of London’s financial district and capturing everyday but largely unseen actions or ‘performances’ within the City: a man painting the lines along the kerb of the pavement; a woman polishing a corporate meeting table; a window-cleaner suspended high above the street and moving across the glass face of a building; a piece of paper that blows into the frame of the camera and blows away again. As the artist observes: ‘Incorporated into these small gestures of everyday life are other questions which are to do with what it means to move from one side of a space to another at a particular time, in a particular way, in a particular place. And so the questions about place and about how we navigate our way through the world, and the ethical position that we take […] are really urgent.’3

1 ‘The Visible and the Invisible: Re-presenting the Body in Contemporary Art and Society’ was a large-scale contemporary art project comprising a series of satellite exhibitions, installations and events occurring simultaneously in sites across Euston in central London. It was curated by Zoe Shearman and Tom Trevor and produced by the Institute of International Visual Art (inIVA).
2 Interview with Anne Tallentire (unpublished), July 2006.
3 Ibid.

N’Goné Fall
A Senegalese architect, independent curator and consultant in cultural engineering. She was the editorial director of the Paris-based contemporary African art magazine Revue Noire from 1994 to 2001. Fall lives between Paris and Dakar.

At the fourth Dakar Biennale in Senegal in 2000, Tunisian artist Fatma Charfi and South African artist Berni Searle respectively won the Prize of the President and the Revelation Prize. The fact that two female artists were being rewarded for the first time at the dawn of the third millennium was seen as a sign of progress. But when the Congolese artist Michèle Magema received the Prize of the President with her video installation Oyé Oyé (2002) at the Dakar Biennale four years later, it was clear that times had changed: female artists from Africa were no longer onlookers producing decorative art for the bourgeoisie, but were probing and challenging contemporary society with a wide range of media and viewpoints. By the conceptual and aesthetic charge of their works they are questioning the masculine dominance of the visual arts. The message is clear: the silent African housewife is a myth.

Zimbabwean Berry Bickle belongs to the generation of artists who emerged in the stirring days of the early 1990s, when theoretical discourses about post-colonialism, cross-cultural identities and globalization began to question the western artistic monopoly. In her installations, videos and photographs, Bickle dissects the memory of mobility and how it impacts upon societies. Because of natural disasters, destitution, conquests and wars, the world’s populations have become more mobile than ever, depositing their loves, hates, doubts, fantasies and fears around the globe. As a result, concepts and ideas, received and transferred technologies, socio-cultural traditions and spiritual beliefs are in a constant state of flux. Hybridism, a consequence of migration, is an ongoing process shaping cultures. Technological advances have increased physical and virtual displacement, leading to a radical shift in our perceptions of time and space, thus questioning the borders of territories, where we belong to and who we are. The question implicit in Bickle’s work is whether human beings are a community of nomad aliens, a gathering of small personal stories building history. From the United Kingdom to Mozambique via Zimbabwe and South Africa, Bickle draws on her cultural heritage to transform mobility into a multi-faceted concept interconnecting communities. In Cidadão (Citizens, 2002), for instance, four large panels consisting of 48 photographs of silhouettes and feet in movement evoke an infinitude of physical and mental journeys.

There is a land between alienation and salvation, a silent grey zone where disturbing ghosts hunt down people’s hope and faith. Welcome to a country where corpses do not putrefy under the sun but are devoured by hordes of starving dogs. Welcome to a region long forgotten by tourist guides, a place that pops out of the dark to cynically declare: civil war, dead, genocide, dead, displaced, dead, camp for exiles, dead. The work of Congolese artist Bill Kouelany explores the absurd story of a war without a beginning and without an end, a war where official figures for collateral damages have been so underestimated that it is impossible to account for the human loss. In her paintings and installations, she explores the ruins of an exhausted country where the impact of bullets and houses smashed by shells have turned the capital, Brazzaville, into a sinister theatre. However, although she does not see herself as an activist, Kouelany has decided not to leave the city in order to document the unspeakable atrocities she has witnessed. The artist’s untitled 2005 installation, which was shown at the 2006 Dakar Biennale, reconstitutes the remains of a charred house – a metaphor for a devastated country, a devastated body, a devastated mind. The bricks fall apart like tattered skin and are covered by words that spew out frustration and disarray, denouncing the dramatic impact of personal decisions on a nation; words declaring how individuals are trapped in an uncontrollable mass hysteria. Kouelany clings onto words to avoid sinking into madness. In this regard, she is following in the footsteps of the Congolese writer, Tchicaya U Tam’si, who deconstructed the French language in order to talk about a hallucinated world. From literature to visual arts, a recurring question remains unanswered: who will pay for the countless childhoods immolated in broad daylight? Nobody. But Kouelany’s work and words remain to tell the story.

How do individuals deal with decisions beyond their control that have unpredictable and uncontrollable consequences on their existence? We might not be able to transform the world, but we can attempt to stay away from an insane context. One can be a female artist in a so-called Muslim country without being seen as a victim hugging the walls or hiding behind a veil. In her work, Egyptian artist Amal Kenawy often employs a female body as a vehicle leading to an inner journey, a receptacle that keeps alive memories and dreams. She explores the essence of memory as a guide, a container keeping its own track of experiences of life. In her video animation Tomorrow you will be killed (2006), an image of a female face is gradually covered with notes, drawings (including walls, a mouse, a pig, a hanging) and red ink, to a background accompaniment of electronic music that sounds like a warning. Kenawy probes the territory of time; time as a space preceding, during and following an act of violence. She expresses the feeling of a physical and psychological violence without referring to a specific event, leaving the viewer with the discomfort of a danger hovering overhead. This universe exists as a suspended land in which time has its own rhythm, independent of any external pressure – an unavoidable and uncanny rite of passage.

In Africa, the current generation of female artists is redefining the rules and codes of gender balance by shifting from the margins to the centre of the art scene with art works that do not aim to necessarily please the viewer. Their capacity to subvert our expectations forces the art community at large to rethink the way it looks at art produced by African women. If Bickle, Kouelany and Kenawy do not describe themselves as feminists – a western concept – they are guided by the simple principles of faith, self-confidence and commitment.

Jennifer Doyle is the author of Sex Objects: Art and the Dialectics of Desire (Minnesota, 2006). She lives in Los Angeles, teaches at the University of California, Riverside, and, with Raquel Guttierez, is curating ‘Aqui No Hay Virgenes: Queer Latina Visibility’ for the Los Angeles Lesbian and Gay Center’s Advocate Gallery.

Gilane Tawadros is an independent curator and writer. She was the founding Director of the Institute of International Visual Arts (inIVA) in London. Last year, she curated the Brighton Photo Biennial 2006 and co-curated Alien Nation (ICA, London). She is the author of several books including Changing States: Contemporary Art and Ideas in an Era of Globalisation (inIVA, 2004). She lives and works in London. 

N’Goné Fall is a Senegalese architect, independent curator and consultant in cultural engineering. She was the editorial director of the Paris-based contemporary African art magazine Revue Noire from 1994 to 2001. Fall lives between Paris and Dakar.