Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
December 8, 2017
Marsha Meskimmon and Dorothy C. Rowe, eds. Women, the Arts and Globalization: Eccentric Experience Rethinking Art's Histories MUP. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2016. 320 pp.; 47 b/w ills. Hardcover £ 65.00 (9780719088759)
Marion Arnold and Marsha Meskimmon, eds. Home/Land: Women, Citizenship, Photographies Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2016. 352 pp.; 54 color ills.; 115 b/w ills. Cloth £ 75.00 (9781781382806)
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Women, Geography, Borders in the Age of (Anti)Globalization

The constituency of women is the primary subject of two books co-edited by art historian Marsha Meskimmon; and as represented in the above-listed volumes, the 2013 title was coedited with Dorothy C. Rowe while the 2016 compendium was with first editor Marion Arnold. The two collections of essays contribute to the resurgence of the name of woman in the aftermath of the disavowal of the term following the 1990s gender deconstructions that challenged the heteronormative signifier. As articulated by Arnold and Meskimmon, the name of woman “does not presuppose a singular or universal concept of ‘woman’ (or, indeed, ‘man’)” but is ultimately defined by geography, nation, or place in the context of home/land (5). Similarly, Meskimmon and Rowe explore the “locational terms” for the artistic expression of women, representing their “literal and figurative border crossings, not least ‘transnational’ and ‘diasporic’” experiences that appear outside the norm of citizenship (2). The contributors to both books investigate the artistic impact of various locations of culture, representing the other timely and important subject of focus for both collections. The politics of location, nation, and borders has acquired new significance in the advent of the anti-immigrant, ethno-nationalist movement, confirmed in 2016 by both the passage of Brexit and the election of Donald Trump. This politically conservative return was a primary factor behind the failure to elect the first woman in the United States to receive a party nomination for president. Thus, the renewal of the name of women, as supported by these two UK-based publications, seems particularly appropriate if only to retrench the global advocacy for feminist activism.

Through their focus on “the critical encounter with location” (2013, 4), the two books under review can be read in opposition to the encroaching anti-globalization forces of the “populist-right”—a movement that promotes much more than the rejection of global trade agreements (NAFTA) and seeks to close the Euro-American borders to immigration. In Women, the Arts and Globalization: Eccentric Experience, the assertion of “ec-centric affinities” is a discursive critique of the old norm of nationalism, endemic to the current anti-globalization movement. The book’s sophisticated approach to portraying the encounters of women’s exile, migration, and nomadism includes the recognition of libidinal relationships inherited from historical materialism and global empire. The editors explain that the eleven chapters address “the myriad effects of globalization on visual and material culture at the locus of situated, sexed subjectivity,” as they focus on encounters usually considered to have “negative associations with deviation and abnormality” (1). At first glance, this particular notion of queering appears to conflate “deviant” desire with general nonnormative experiences unrelated to the libidinal economy. In the book’s complex examination of difference, the notion of the “ec-centric” is defined by the old concept of “center and periphery” as the norm of Euro-American domination over cultures located at the margins—the “abnormal” experiences of women in globalization here consist of encounters outside the patriarchal nationalist order. But the nostalgic return to the legitimacy of the old Euro-American domination is central to the current anti-globalization endeavor, which differs vastly from resistances to global capitalism under the ideals of liberal democracy. Those ideals of “respect for the law and dignity of human beings, independent of their origin, skin color, religion, gender, sexual orientation or political beliefs,” were reiterated in a statement by Chancellor Angela Merkel, who reminded then-President-elect Trump that “Germany and America are bound by their values” (http://nyti.ms/2eq24kV).

The subject of the prostitute is one of the most significant ethical issues addressed by Women, the Arts and Globalization: Eccentric Experience, serving as a metaphor for the diminished status of the global constituency of women. The articulation of “sexed subjectivity” in several essays exposes the political contradictions of sex and power. As Angela Dimitrakaki argues in her chapter, the “re-emergence of the signifying power of the (mostly, female) prostitute in art around [the year] 2000” underscores the “heightened connection between a certain gender and a globally expanded capitalist economy” (25). Dimitrakaki’s conception of prostitution as labor within the current conditions for the global slave trade shares affinity with past imperialisms related to the circulation of materialist desires and symbolic exchanges. The artist Lena Simic provides a clarifying example in her chapter as she explains her own symbolic role in the performance-project Magdalena Makeup, presented at different locations between 2003 to 2006. In the 2004 version, Simic staged herself as Mary Magdalene by performing the biblical act of foot anointing on members of the audience in her hometown of Dubrovnik, Croatia—purportedly the same act that Mary Magdalene performed for Jesus. Simic’s embodiment of the biblical figure connects libidinal desire to the pious act by illustrating the symbolic exchanges: “I prostituted myself as Magdalena, as an eroticized and exoticized female, as an artist, as a performer, as a Foreigner, as an alien, as Other, as the named one” (90). The sexual enticement for the Foreigner-Other is the same libidinal-materialist desire behind the global trafficking of women, and thus, the circuit of exchange for money and sex should ultimately be viewed as a transaction of enslaved labor.

The book’s study of “sexed subjectivity” aligns with Jean-François Lyotard’s political philosophy acknowledging the materialist desires that drove the transnational exchange of “African imperialist labour,” an operation within the same libidinal economy that “prepares for the workers’ demands, Whites for coloured people, adults for children, the normal for the mad, ‘men’ for ‘women’” (Lyotard, Libidinal Economy [(Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1993], 50 109 [emphasis in original]). The symbolic substitute functions predominantly as a ruse of capitalist colonialism, a problem examined in Jane Beckett’s chapter, which is an interview with the East African artist Lubaina Himid. Describing her installation Swallow Hard: Lancaster Dinner Service (2007), Himid acknowledges the female servants of the African slave trade by painting their imagined portraits and inscribing their invented names on ceramic dinnerware—plates and tureens she found in shops around England, some dating to the late nineteenth century. The artist constructs a visual narrative of the black experience, one that she suggests is “so very invisible and disregarded in the cultural, historical, political or economic record or history” (194). The aim was to disrupt the slave dynamic in which “White sits at the table. Black serves/waits at the table” (193). Of course, Himid’s Dinner Service references Judy Chicago’s The Dinner Party (1979) and its representation of the shared appetites for eating and sexual desire. But in Himid’s ec-centric version, she emphasizes the perpetual norm of White appetites and desires (not Black ones) fulfilled through the historical relations of slavery.

The globalized subject of women in both books functions overall as a parallel to the intersectional subject under the artistic endeavor to supplant the historical Western norm for the figure of woman. The authors of Home/Land: Women, Citizenship, Photographies dispel the negative stereotypes ascribed to the figure of globalization by portraying the experiences of women who have confronted the “settled, contested and lost” conditions of home and nation (5). Organized under the four themes of Terrain, Dwelling, Migrating, and Locating, the twenty-seven substantive chapters seek “to understand how sexual difference is materialized” through complex and often multiple “patterns of identifications that subjects undergo over time and in specific locations” (5). Home/Land’s focus on “community and belonging,” however, is viewed specifically through “photographies,” inspiring a return to the medium’s testimonial representation of “love, loss and memories associated with homes and homelessness, the lands (and landscapes) where they are dwelt or were relocated, and citizenship conferred or denied to them as women” (2). The sincerity of this documentary approach may appear equivocal given the history of photographic conceptualizations of “woman” and the 1920s precedence of the photographs of the Surrealists, notably Claude Cahun’s self-portraits and Man Ray’s depiction of Duchamp. Artistic constructions have questioned the “truth” of gender by manipulating photography’s capture of evidence. But based on the somber fact that over one hundred million women are currently uprooted from their home country every year, as explored in Danielle Leenaerts’s chapter, the photographic document has become important for bearing witness to political events that pertain to the exile, the refugee, and the asylum seeker. That does not mean that Home/Land should be viewed as a straightforward study of photography’s service of evidence. The book emerged from the Lens of Empowerment project, a highly creative and intellectual initiative consisting of an international research network and conference (2009–12). The project’s engagements of “lens-based power” were inspired by photography’s ubiquity and the artistic potential of passport photos, holiday Polaroids, advertising, and documentary film.

As such, the different examinations in Home/Land reveal the various ways that lens-based practices function in the “phenomenology of medial sincerity,” defined by Boris Groys as the belief factor within the “economy of suspicion” of “any text, picture, song, or aesthetic object” (Groys, Under Suspicion: A Phenomenology of the Media [New York: Columbia University Press, 2012], viii.). Considering photography’s current indexicality, the medium has crossed a certain threshold for the contradictions of the documentary’s signification. In the era of social media, the truth factor of lens-based expression has been further transformed by online postings of phone videos that bear witness to incidents usually left unseen—especially racially motivated acts of violence. But viewers today must judge the “real” of the video document staged alongside the “unreal” of web advertising and entertainment. Home/Land’s study of lens-based power is therefore predicated on this new climate for artistic constructions that implement the “truth” factor of the eye-witness encounter.

Ciara Zarza’s chapter provides a clear example by exploring Emily Jacir’s process-oriented work Where We Come From/(Im)mobility (2001–3), wherein the artist carries out the requests of Palestinian expatriates who have responded to her query: “If I could do anything for you, anywhere in Palestine, what would it be?” (228) The context for granting this wish is Jacir’s US passport permitting her to travel freely to global destinations. As she sets out to fulfill requests such as “go to Haifa and play soccer with the first Palestinian boy you see on the street,” Jacir captures the act of performing the activity by including some indication of herself—her shadow, her hand—in the frame of the photograph (228). In this way, she documents both the staged performance of the request and her own embodied act bearing witness to the event. Zarza emphasizes the importance of the documentary techniques adopted by Jacir because the photographer’s authorial position no longer takes central focus, ceding it to the multiple subjects in the photograph. The lens-based power of Jacir’s use of medial sincerity to document the “real” event—playing soccer in the specific time/place of Haifa—is in capturing the absence of experiences that only those who are unable to “return home” can fully comprehend.

Perhaps the most poignant example in Home/Land is Leenaerts’s study of the self-portraiture work of the photographer Hélène Amouzou. Like other wives who left their homelands to follow their husbands, Amouzou’s exile from West Africa to Germany ended in the rejection of her asylum application and the repatriation of her husband without her. Subsequently, she lived in the shadows of her illegal immigration status while creating a life in Europe. The photographic capture of her own corporeal existence manifested a form of documentation that reversed her undocumented position, especially as the exhibition of her pictures in the public sphere exposed her status to her European community. Leenaerts suggests that Amouzou’s photographic pursuit is a quest for self-possession, compelled by her role as an individual dispossessed of citizenship, origins, and ties to the past. Amouzou’s self-capture acknowledges the precarious situation of the undocumented refugee, and her photographs represent Groys’s “economy of suspicion” in a very literal way. Through self-documentation, the artist conveys a completely different perspective of medial sincerity, in which the photographic record defies the governmental “real” of Amouzou’s citizenship status. In the Brexit and Trump era of ethno-nationalism and anti-immigration, the expression of narratives such as Amouzou’s functions as an act of resistance. The work of valorizing the refugee, the asylum seeker, and the undocumented worker has become radical work, and to this end, the two books examined in this review have reinvigorated the political name of woman. 

Jane Chin Davidson
Associate Professor, Art History, Department of Art, California State University, San Bernardino

Please send comments about this review to editor.caareviews@collegeart.org.