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As interventions within contemporary art’s ongoing male and Western hegemonies, two recent, groundbreaking shows of global women artists, Global Feminisms and Tiger by the Tail! Women Artists of India Transforming Culture, were timely. After seeing Global Feminisms at the Brooklyn Museum last spring, I was equally thrilled to see it remixed at the Davis Museum in the fall—thrilled because the show is needed, because it is exciting to discover new artistic responses to age-old problems, and because it is still regrettably rare to see feminist concerns addressed overtly in art. The Davis version of the show was truncated, which allowed for greater space and attention to the works it did include, even if it left out some of my favorites, like Lee Bul’s evocative sculpture Ein Hungerkünstler (2004) and Boryana Rossa’s wonderfully funny video of two women screaming in scratched rhythms, Celebrating the Next Twinkling (1999), which appears on the catalogue cover.
The show is groundbreaking as the first major exhibition of its kind—a global spectrum of contemporary artwork (all created since 1990) made by women and thematically related to issues central to feminism, broadly defined (thus the plural of “feminisms” in the title). While not every work achieved the same level of complexity, the show’s greatest asset was the striking work of several young artists previously unfamiliar to me: contemporary art benefits enormously from expanding its discourse to include the work of artists like Pilar Albarracín, Zoulikha Bouabdellah, and Lilibeth Cuenca Rasmussen, in addition to well-known figures like Ghada Amer and Jenny Saville. The exhibition’s strong point was its inclusion of both established and unknown artists working in a variety of traditional and new media, as well as its diversity of perspectives from an exceptionally wide range of religions, continents, regions, cultures, ages, classes, and sexualities. Its weak points included its rather dated approaches to feminism and an overemphasis on the representation of the female body. Although it might have included male artists in order to reinforce the idea that feminism is not automatically the perspective of women artists, I respect the curators’ choice to include only women as a counter to the significant ongoing disparity between male and female exhibition opportunities—a topic art critic Jerry Saltz, for one, has thankfully kept in the public eye of the New York art world, at least. Still, I was glad Vito Acconci made the cut in the Brooklyn Museum version of the show with an hour-long video work co-written with Julia Loktev, because it acknowledged his important work since the 1970s in uncovering the clichés of masculinity, even if this approach was obscured at the time by its seemingly anti-feminist perspective.
The choice to include only women was a powerful statement, and the works made clear that for the curators feminism means no less than a pointed, politically charged perspective. Eschewing the categories of Life Cycles, Identities, Emotions, and Politics featured at the Brooklyn Museum, the Davis exhibition was divided into more literal themes: Motherhood; Sexuality and the Body; Self as Subject/Object; Cultural Encounters; and Power, Violence, and Protest. The Davis installation grouped works together more didactically than the productive cacophony in Brooklyn, where individual pieces related more effectively to each other even though most of them were placed in a much-too-crowded, warren-like space. Overall the works in both venues adhered to a small number of recurrent themes: the representation of non-standard female bodies; the female body as powerful or as victim; the satire of normative gender relations in performance, text, or imagery; textual commentary on cultural ideas of gender and sexuality; the narration of women’s everyday lives; and the investigation of fantasy role models critical of normative feminine ones. In the latter category, Ambreen Butt’s new take on the personal avatar in updated miniature paintings and Kate Benyon’s technicolor pop-sci-fi heroines were notable. With a few exceptions, the works basically extend the dialogue begun in 1970s Second Wave feminism (if we include the non-white, non-heterosexual perspectives of feminist artists less publicized by the limited scope of the mainstream movement). A few works blatantly revisited old themes of female victimization or straightforward celebration of femininity. Works that broke with these more dated perspectives, or operated in more current modes of art-making, stood out: one of the most interesting conceptual/relationalist works was Tanja Ostojic’s Looking for a Husband with EU Passport (2000–2005), an installation of collected documents relating to her personal ad, ultimately fulfilled, to attain EU status by finding a husband.
Despite its avowed intentions, the exhibition seemed a bit limited by its focus on old-school feminist themes of victimization or celebration. For instance, it was unclear what the retake on Ana Mendieta’s iconic Rape/Murder performance (1973), in photographs by Annika von Hausswolff (1992), contributed to contemporary thought (another selection of her important work might have been more illuminating). The Davis Museum wall text claimed that Claudia Reinhardt’s 2004 photo of the artist playing Sylvia Plath, dead with her head in the oven, contributed new insight into the poet’s work; but isolated from the other images of female suicides in the series, I found the opposite to be the case—and the photo in poor taste. The Davis installation also missed an opportunity by opening such a monumental exhibition with the inconsequential photograph Future Plan #2 (2003) by Hiroko Okada, a hackneyed digital image of two men pregnant. I am also skeptical whether one-note works like Sarah Lucas’s The Sperm Thing (2005), a metal ball and bucket facing off in stockings, or Tejal Shah’s Trans- (2004–5), a video of a man and woman transforming through makeup into their counterpart, are able to speak beyond the obvious. But these limitations do not negate the profound contribution of the show as a whole.
A large part of the exhibition was devoted to the celebration of unconventional female or transgendered bodies. This attention took powerful form in works like He Chengyao’s photographic series Testimony (2001–2), depicting three generations of the artist’s family nude from the waist up; Sonia Khurana’s Bird (2000), a black-and-white video of the artist dancing in a private paroxysm in all her full-figured glory; or Melanie Manchot’s With Blue Clouds and Laughter (2003), a photograph of her mother—nude, grey-haired, and exuberant. The show so overemphasized the female body, however, that I missed the eroticization of the male body that is one of feminism’s fundamental contributions. I appreciated the way a video by Aude du Pasquier Grall, Male Cycle #4 (2002–2006), put on display a nude and very uncomfortable male model, but the work’s transgressiveness was mitigated by the erotic but unimaginative cuts of the artist with a camera, posing provocatively as she barked orders at him. In this respect, I found Emily Jacir’s video installation a breath of fresh air. Her Crossing Surda (A Record of Going to and from Work) (2002) presents only a bag’s-eye-view of feet (mostly male) crossing one of the Israeli-patrolled borders that keep Palestinians from being able to fully live their lives, and frequently result in unjust treatment and jail time. The installation was profoundly moving in its disorientation (with one monitor set on the floor, facing up, and a larger projection onscreen) and in its powerful statement about the everyday violence and humiliations enacted on Palestinians in Israeli-controlled territories. Its content had little to do with feminism, but seemed to hold a place for a broader politics in a show otherwise too focused on the female body. Tania Bruguera’s Statistic (1996), a flag made from the hair of Cuban residents and sewn with their help, and Julika Rudelius’s video Tagged (2003), featuring young Turkish men in Germany showing off their expensive clothes and dissing their girlfriends, also took a more sophisticated tack, although only Bruguera’s piece was included at Wellesley.
It was refreshing to see in Global Feminisms a group of artists who treat the family not as a source of unmitigated authoritarianism and reactionary values—the automatic pseudo-avant-gardist position of many young artists in America—but as a source of strength. Works like the poignant video A Walnut by Valérie Mréjen (1997), in which a daughter sings a song for her mother but becomes increasingly angry at her mother’s mimicry and interruptions, depicted family connections as complex and ambivalent, as well as emotionally and conceptually rich. Many works memorializing or dramatizing violence against the female body were strident, jolting viewers out of complacency. Such powerful statements nevertheless treaded thin ice, as they threatened to reinforce stereotypes of feminine victimization. Most effective were those that transformed literal reality with techniques of distortion or abstraction, like Mary Coble’s Binding Ritual, Daily Routine (2004), a video of the artist taping and retaping her breasts, or Parastou Forouhar’s compelling wallpaper Thousand and One Day (2003), a pattern made out of simply drawn female torture victims. Only those works that moved beyond reductive presentation or restaging were able to bring new perspectives to light, or to implicate the viewer in society’s silence.
Khurana’s abovementioned “tragic-comic” video Bird appeared in both exhibitions. The Brandeis University venue for Tiger by the Tail! Women Artists of India Transforming Culture also featured Khurana’s video installation Closet (2002), which could take place in India or anywhere, as it shows the artist trying on outfit after outfit. The installation’s multiple viewpoints, mixed tempos, and alternation of city sounds, music, and silence powerfully portrayed the delirious joy and obsessive trauma inherent in women’s relationships to clothing. As a whole, the exhibition featured work by seventeen artists in painting, sculpture, drawing, photography, video, and installation art, much of it responding directly to ongoing patriarchal aggression and violence against women in specific Indian communities. The work fell into six themes described as “universal” but in fact culturally specific and activist: Transforming the Myth, Subverting the Icon, Performing the Body, Issues of Identity, Memory and Loss, and Healing and Empowerment. More so than Global Feminisms, the exhibition straddled a difficult divide between addressing culturally specific and “universal” concerns, and its best works managed to do both in ways that challenged received ideas of South Asian native traditions and international contemporary art.
The artistic genres ranged widely from modernist approaches in semi-abstract, spiritual, or iconographically driven painting and sculpture to more contemporary works in video, conceptual photography and text, or multimedia installation. For a show that shared the interest of Global Feminisms to dramatize, reenvision, or protest the situation of women in contemporary society, the quality of the works on display was more mixed and the radically different aesthetic approaches, some much more traditional than others, more jarring. As a specialist in contemporary Western art, I was admittedly biased (for better or for worse) toward those works that related to Western avant-garde traditions like the readymade, new media, or site-specificity, such as Shilpa Gupta’s excellent installation There’s No Border Here (2006), a poem-flag laid out on a wall in yellow tape printed with the words of the title. Gupta’s text unfolds a poetic dialogue about dividing the sky that speaks at once to the ongoing struggle over Kashmir and to the politicization of national borders everywhere. The exhibition featured works in a variety of aesthetics, from the cutting-edge to the ethnographic to the decorative. Anita Dube’s stark black-and-white photograph, Sea Creature (2000), which featured four hands covered with the artificial ceramic eyes sold outside Hindu temples to ward off evil, hovered evocatively between a mandala-like mudra hand gesture and a mute evocation of the everyday manifestations of spiritual belief. Rummana Hussein’s Home Nation (1996) was a powerful installation juxtaposing women’s mouths with arched architectural forms and images of fruit, accompanied by texts and fetish-like collections of objects that spoke poignantly of violence against women, while utilizing a conceptual aesthetic. As part of her ongoing exploration of identity constructions in film and photography, Pushpamala N. exhibited color photographs made in 2004 of hilariously artificial scenarios in which she performed female identities ranging from criminals to goddesses in front of a theatrical hand-painted backdrop. Both Sheba Chhachhi’s color portraits of women ascetics from 2005–2007 and Mithu Sen’s incredible 2007 painting on handmade paper of a skeletal tiger with a humorously lifelike penis sprouting impotently from his tail, surrounded by gold-flecked marginalia of roses and skulls, address the specificities of gender and power in India in complex and compelling international aesthetic languages.
A more difficult challenge was presented by works in styles allied with folk or naïve art that threaten to perpetuate the marginalization of an already exoticized culture in Western exhibition contexts. I hesitated at works such as the one used for the catalogue’s cover—a painting of a smiling female nude (a feminist transformation of the goddess Durga) on a tiger titled Hatyogini, Shakti (1999), by Gogi Saroj Pal. The image combines a figure of strength, embodied in the exclusively male teaching of hatyog, with the feminine spiritual figure of the yogini. The faux-naïve style of the smiling figure, which draws on earlier precedents in Indian modernism by artists such as Jamini Roy, is reminiscent of not only popular genres such as religious icons or even sign paintings but also—though the analogy may seem shocking—of Western “Neo-Expressionist” strategies of the 1980s. Similar to those works by artists like Enzo Cucchi, Pal’s paintings have a mythmaking function, but are at once more lighthearted and imbued with a profoundly feminist seriousness rather than Neo-Expressionist irony. With its straightforward style, Hatyogini, Shakti is compelling in its striking composition and colors, and its deliberate harmoniousness suggests a boldly populist fusion of reinterpreted Indian spiritual icons and modernist media as a challenge to the cynical soullessness of “global” contemporary art. Still, to foreground the artists in the show who take this traditionalist/modernist route risks reinscribing contemporary Indian art as provincial, an idea counter to both the show’s aims and the reality of Indian artistic strategies today.
Pondering these problems, I wondered how Pal’s work related to traditional Indian art, Indian modern art, Indian contemporary art, urban art in New Delhi or Mumbai, Indian art by women, Hindu spiritual art, Indian literature—or perhaps only to the artist’s singular female subjectivity. Described as “fiercely independent” by the exhibition’s curators, the artist is from a family of freedom fighters and pioneering women professionals. While a single show cannot answer all these questions, merely raising them not only contributes significant new perspectives on these disparate, intersecting, and always provisional categories but also pushes the boundaries of the often-narcissistic discourse of contemporary art. A diversity of aesthetic perspectives implies the impossibility of developing any sort of universal canon of contemporary art (which is a positive, not a negative situation). Consider, for example, the fact that while it may look traditional to some, Pal’s depiction of the female nude was scandalous even among her avant-garde male colleagues as late as the 1980s. Each of the artists in Tiger by the Tail! took bold and often explicitly political stances toward women’s liberation in their imagery and methods, and in some cases their directness becomes evident only upon recognition of the cultural obstacles they faced. Given the real difficulties of presenting non-Western contemporary art to Western audiences only slowly becoming familiar with specific cultural contexts and approaches, the exhibition broke new ground on several levels. A thought-provoking response to Global Feminisms, it made visible an inspiring transgenerational, multicultural Indian female solidarity—provisional or not—that bravely speaks out against traditional oppressions in an ancient but also rapidly transforming society.
Lecturer, Department of Art and Design, Northeastern University