A.I.R Gallery Considers the State of Feminism Through the Visual by Ikechukwi Onyewuenyi

Feminism and its waves have met their fair share of backlash. Ann Oakley and Juliet Mitchell’s text, Who’s Afraid of Feminism, dealt with the widespread criticism leveled at the second-wave at its wake in the 1990s. If we consider how economic parity between men and women figures in child support, we can see how the criticism of feminism is both outward and inward. Alongside misogynist men’s groups, feminists alike argue that the father as the sole breadwinner of the family is passé—women alone can handle the upkeep of their children. Other social-feminists groups contend that the government should shoulder the financial futures of children. From the looks of it, feminists are both confidant and conspirator. Tack on the hegemonic male figure, and it’s seems second-wave feminism exists in this space of imbroglio, with everyone fearful of its intents. More recent waves haven’t been short of dissensus. In Who’s Afraid of Third Wave Feminism, Jonathan Dean pointedly picks up from Oakley and Mitchell to consider the schism within third-wave feminist thought and praxis (i.e., academics and activists) as instantiated through the wave narrative. On this basis, curator Catherine Morris follows a tradition in revisiting feminism and its naysayers. In the recently closed exhibition, Who’s Afraid of Feminism? at A.I.R. Gallery, Morris considers the embroiled politics of the ‘90s feminism with this more recent questioning of the wave narrative and its applicability. There is a fear inherent in both discourses: one reflects on why feminism is vilified at every turn in the press and public, the other on whether the chronological and ideological developments of feminism, as explicated through the wave narrative, simply introduces (false) dichotomies of division between generations. Read this way, feminism and its wave metaphor are things we should be afraid of—but why? Context might help.

From a historical standpoint, we can’t attribute much fear to the first wave since its suffrage beginnings have met their end. As for the second, third, and fourth waves, strands of each persist today that spawn from the first wave. Building on suffragist intents, second-wave feminism sought for political equality beyond the vote; the politicized terrain extended to the social and personal realities of women. Other key points in the second wave were the civil rights movement, sexuality, and reproductive rights, with the latter two setting the tone for third wave feminist to view the female body as this celebrated, subjective site. Third-wave approaches embraced a postmodern and post-structural ambiguity that welcomed openness, inclusivity, and a queering of femininity as this fixed, hegemonic construct. The Internet further fueled openness to debate and dialogue across waves as well as the ability to experiment with gender boundaries via online platforms. Newer forms of technology, such as Twitter, have ushered in a fourth wave and a brand of feminist activism that isn’t rooted in the academy, but on online communities and forums. As it presents, this temporal grit to feminist epistemes introduces a cohesive continuity and multiplicity to the wave. Perhaps it’s in this hydra-like display that feminism becomes this fearful force?

Adopting the lens of visual culture, Morris answers the unending question in trenchant fashion, turning to the tried and true, women-only model as a retort to this fear. Ever since these gender-based shows emerged in the 1960s, the curatorial model has been met with criticism. Two leading charges are that these shows fail to challenge the status quo and interrupt conversations dictated through the male artist. Morris addressed these critiques—as well as the symbolic wave—through a variety of work in the exhibition. Who’s Afraid of Feminism? captures feminism for what it is: personal, political, and prescient. The voices throughout the exhibition are singular, never a synecdoche of the feminist experience. In toto, we see a feminism that is welcoming, coterminous—space, time, and meaning don’t seem to compete but coalesce. Waves were not easily discernable or harped upon either. And issues from body shaming to the teenage angst around breakup all fell under the purview of feminist discourse.

This welcoming was demonstrated via the exhibition design, not just in the works themselves. The two rooms that comprised the show were not ordered through any overt theme or medium. No preference was shown for artists’ standing either. Budding MFA students rubbed shoulders with artists, like Coco Hall and J.J. L’Heureux, who both came of age in the 1980s. As such, there was an intergenerational feel about the show wherein waves collided. Twenty-six artists work filled the two rooms; another eighty-three were represented online. From soft sculpture and video to textile and photography, the rooms had a breadth to them. The space mimicked a shotgun house except there was a narrow hallway to the right that shuttled viewers between the two rooms.

Photography tended to dominate the wall-mounted pieces, but it never overwhelmed. Television displays also broke things up with four erected on pedestals along the walls or in corners. For example, in the first room, the tongue-in-cheek seriousness of A Wedding Package (2015) by The Shaft felt fitting in light of Kim Davis’ recent antics in Kentucky. The floor was also occupied. Delicate bobby pins scattered on the floor coalesced into a threatening mass. This somewhat discarded display of Amy Cannestra’s 50 of 118lbs (2015) contrasted with the seemingly privileged treatment of Coco Hall’s warm, mohair-covered killing machine in Pretty Predator Drone (2015). Perched up on a plinth, patriarchy stood tall, while teenage heartbreak fell short. As one moved further along the walls, for a moment, Cecilia Rossey had us rummaging through the past, her Homage To Those Who Took A Stand (2015) locating the early threads of feminism in the suffrage movements of the mid-19th century.

PRETTY PREDATOR DRONE (2015), COURTESY OF JACQUELINE FERRANTE  

PRETTY PREDATOR DRONE (2015), COURTESY OF JACQUELINE FERRANTE

 

Although Rossey referenced a specific historical moment, the tactile act of sifting through this suitcase of encaustic mementos felt as though one was courting time. From Emmeline Pankhurst’s arrest at the hands of three men to Mary Winsor’s calling to light the unfair treatment of imprisoned suffragettes, the act of peering through time was equally as engaging as the questions it conjured. Who else took a stand? And how does this bear on voting rights today? No doubt the din of an election cycle resonated with this homage; there was a here-and-now relevance about digging through Rossey’s archive. Interestingly, absent from the wall text was the year the work was made. In fact, minus the artist checklist at the gallery entrance, all the works had no documented date to orient the viewer within a larger feminist history timeline. This temporal blurring injected a degree of openness to the suffrage movement. What place could suffrage efforts have within the diversity and internationalism of newly developing waves of feminism? Morris’ move here rubbed up against the idea of exhibition organization as a repository of education but in doing so she initiated a self-study into the works themselves as well as the possibilities and limitations of feminist thought mediated through the work.

Turning to the works themselves, there were instances where inter-wave dialogue could occur. For instance, in the second room, Tara Booth delivered a witty but sobering performance in Weight (2015). The searching video found Booth hauling about town a whitish-yellow mass. On first thought, it would seem that Booth is weighed down by patriarchy. She frequents a pub alone, holds hands with a lover, is jilted by said lover, and fusses over her figure before a mirror—all instances where patriarchy wields its sword of seduction and subjugation. Yet, there is more to Weight than these sequestered scenes. Booth actually harbors an emotional weight born out of a maternal inheritance of body dysphoria and comfort eating. Yes, patriarchy possibly plays a part, but it isn’t the focus here for Booth. Her health concerns, by and large, plague women and men, young and old, which is a perfect riposte to feminism not speaking to the status quo of things.

Christine Giancola’s photographic work also juxtaposed the latent and manifest to inform how feminist waves might intersect. In I remember (2011) a solitary, aged woman is caught between drags of her cigarette. She is situated to the extreme left of the image, an afterthought almost. Behind her were towering French doors with windowpanes filled with images of scantily clad men and women, some in pairs, others alone. Peep Show (2009) continued the suggestive narrative, as a mother and her young daughter stand idle before an adult toyshop. Giancola’s images are generous with meaning, but the commingling of past and present with progeny in mind is worth noting. Paired, I remember and Peep Show evinced the fragile archetypes of feminism—the aged matron brimming with dated wisdom of memories past, the impressionable infant with sex and its commodified connotations knocking at the door—but also questioned this idea of difference. That is, through Giancola, we saw no common identity attached to term, woman. Instead, individual and collective agitations (re)surfaced; coherence emerged through difference. Considered alongside Booth (and any other artist, for that matter), these visual renderings of the female figure offered up a narrative of continuity and multiplicity in thought that has often escaped the wave metaphor.

Homage To Those Who Took A Stand (2015), COURTESY OF JACQUELINE FERRANTE

Homage To Those Who Took A Stand (2015), COURTESY OF JACQUELINE FERRANTE

So where does this leave feminism and this lingering fear? It’s not entirely clear. In truth, the all-women shows can only answer so much. Morris intended for this aesthetic strand of feminist critique to build commitment and collectivities across waves. At the same time, her words framing Who’s Afraid of Feminism? eschewed generalities. We saw disparate works in dialogue with local and multinational matters, all the while maintaining their singular voice—but a voice in conversation with whom exactly? Although we can take an educated guess, in this context, we never really know who the Who is that fears feminism. Is it patriarchal society writ-large or the art world and its skewed market that disenfranchises women? Perhaps a more operational way to explicate and, if need be, recondition the fear around feminism would be to situate these twenty-six artists in direct conversation with these troubled audiences. That has been a shortcoming of the all-women model—self-absorbing, insular, not dialogic. Then again, the titular question, considered through prior literature and the current exhibition, was part rhetoric, part self-searching, and all parts dialogical—it asks, answers, and asks again, with the latter answer coming from the viewer. Morris’ left us to piece together the puzzle and the paranoia (or lack thereof) that has dogged the cultural and politically radical tenets of feminism. And that has been the history of the all-women exhibition, at the edge of feminist social history and mainstream (male-dominated) exhibition practice, never really staking a claim, but encouraging viewers to do so.

Taking a page from the past, Morris didn’t inundate the show with a sophisticated theme or philosophical bent that oriented things. Other than the shared gender of the artists, locating a commonality in the works was not the emphasis here. In its place, Who’s Afraid of Feminism? was quite open, almost nomadic in the way it was conceived and staged: the open curatorial argument with no fixed meaning being read into the surveyed works; the extensive geography of the show as reflected in the online portion (accessible via a screen in the space) that exhibited additional artist beyond the four walls; and the subtle elimination of dates from wall labels. Morris’ move for openness was welcomed in that it acknowledged the flux in feminism but left viewers considering the other side of flux: flow. So yes, feminism is in a flux of sorts, with the painfully awkward tête-à-tête between Roxane Gay and Erica Jong a clear show that race, ethnicity, and class differences need to be advocated for in order to arrive at a more parallel platform. However, on account of this exhibition, there was a continuous flow across the works that was encouraging, even if it was limited to the visual language of art. But the art is coming from somewhere not here, a sentimental place where we can only imagine dialogue is happening. That being said, across Who’s Afraid of Feminism?, self-identified feminist artists embraced a continuity, inclusivity, and multiplicity in their practice; we can only hope these early coterminous workings in the visual translate into dialogues where feminist waves and their social, political, and epistemological strands can be discussed in tandem.

Footnotes:

1 Elizabeth Evans and Prudence Chamberlain, “Critical Waves: Exploring Feminist Identity, Discourse and Praxis in Western Feminism,” Social Movement Studies(2014).

2 Evans and Chamberlain, “Critical Waves,”  

3 Judith Butler, Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity (Oxon: Routledge, 1990), 

4 Jenni Sorkin, “The Feminist Nomad: The All-Women Group Show,” in Wack! Art and the Feminist Revolution (Los Angeles: The Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, 2007), 460-461.

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Ikechukwu Casmir Onyewuenyi is a writer, curator, and psychotherapist based in New York City. Onyewuenyi was one of the founding members of Pop'Africana. He is currently a curatorial fellow at the School of Visual Arts, and maintains an ongoing writing practice, with his work appearing in Cool Hunting, Pop'Africana, Art Base Africa, and HYCIDE. He is deeply interested in how visual and literary forms of expression can mine the subjective and physical dimensions of the body and geography, inscribing it with faculties that are of the mind and rendering it as an intersubjective site for critique and intervention on matters apropos to race, gender, psychic well-being.