May 11th–June 10th 2019
Palazzo Benzon, San Marco 3927 – 30124 Venezia
By Adi Berardini
As I walk up the stairs of the Palazzo Benzon, I am greeted with two large poster works by the Guerilla Girls, the anonymous, feminist art group famous for their furry gorilla masks. Known for using humour as a form of activism, one reads:
“The Advantages of Being a Woman Artist
Working without the pressure of success
Not having to be in shows with men
Having an escape from the art world with your 4 free-lance jobs
Knowing your career might pick up when you’re eighty…”
Sadly, many women artists can relate to this work. I can’t help but wonder if it’s the improvement that the Guerilla Girls hoped for when they first convened in the 1980s. Although there may be more gallery representation of women artists, there still isn’t equal representation (especially for LGBTQ2+ artists and artists of colour). Additionally, many pioneering women artists are just seeing the recognition they rightly deserve now. She Persists, curated by HEIST gallery founder Mashael Al Rushaid and art historian Sona Datta, is an exhibition with an intersectional approach to feminism. Twenty women artists from all over the world are featured, highlighting how western feminism is far from universal. The exhibition has a strong roster of feminist art legends and contemporary talent, addressing everything from displacement and diaspora to motherhood and the environment.
The walls are painted a blood-red and chandeliers hang like crystal stars of the decorated ceiling of the Palazzo. Upon entering, a sculpture by the notable feminist artist Lynda Benglis lies on the floor on a platform. The growing metallic object constructed by spray foam cast in aluminum is similar to a blanket of silver vines. Benglis often involves the body in its relation to the environment when it comes to creating her art, creating poured sculptures from latex, wax, metal, and foam. Yasue Maetake’s, Urethane Flower on Steel Stem Clad with Foam also has an industrial sensibility melding with the organic. Maetake’s work has a sci-fi element that anthropomorphizes a gigantic sunflower and a white horse’s hoof into an unconventional nude. This futuristic, morphed object appears to have a raised fist like it’s about to give a sucker punch. Depictions of female nudes are often depicted as passive in classical paintings, but Maetake’s sculpture has a sense of agency and power. Maetake addresses the Anthropocene and overtaking of nature by humans, commenting on the obsession of altering the natural.
In a room focusing on art and motherhood featured prominently is a tall sculpture Stack 8 (Viridian) by Annie Morris, a stack of turquoise, cobalt blue, crimson and olive-green spheres, similar to gigantic, saturated pompoms. Although the sculpture seems playful like an enlarged craft, it is ultimately serious in nature, like scientific cells joining together through a microscope. The sculpture echoes the narrative happening now of the autonomy of women’s bodies but also addresses the societal stigma around discussing lost pregnancies, miscarriage, and abortions when they are something that significantly affects women’s lives. The sculpture has a sense of wonder with a close and cutting relationship to loss.
Displayed on the far wall of the room are selected lavender prints by Judy Chicago, as part of Birth Project 1980-1985, that feature childbirth in an abstracted and almost psychedelic way. The series initiated since Chicago could not recall any depictions of childbirth in Western art. The project is a collaborative one, since Chicago worked with 150 textile artists, through the mail, and in person, to create variations with different needlework for the designs. Undertaking this project gave her a glimpse of the realities of many women artists within the domestic sphere. Chicago also changed her name to reflect her birthplace rather than her last name, an action releasing her from patriarchal confines of an inherited family name that is ultimately determined by the father’s side.
Parallel to the room, Souvenir by Anna Boggon uses dozens of collected dolls from Mexico, touristic treasures collected specifically for this work. Dozens of figurines hang upside-down from the ceiling, sparse apart and traditionally dressed. However, once you glance down on the mirror placed on the vitrine, the dolls appear right-side up, reminding us how there are multiple ways to approach seeing and experiencing art and culture. Timely, the work is respondent to the blind hate that is directed towards Mexico in the Trump “fake news” era. Boggon captures the enthrallment of travel which can alter misconceptions held out of ignorance.
Walking through the wondrous space, I pass through a room with projected Islamic patterns, an engulfing swirl of lace-like shadows. The installation, Shimmering Mirage, by Anila Quayyum Agha addresses the exclusion from her worship as a Muslim woman, often confined to worshipping at home. Intrigued by the detailed tiling of the exterior mosque, the installation highlights how when she moved to America, there was the opposite effect—she was included as a woman but felt excluded from aspects of American society due to being Muslim. This room creates a sense of wonder since what was tightly confined and detailed becomes elaborate and all-encompassing. Capturing the endless integration of multiple identities due to diaspora, once you get to know someone, their dreams and ideas start to spill over, uncontained. Once you genuinely connect with someone you can see them for their intricate details instead of the labels that society places on people through prejudiced stereotyping.
The exhibition also critically addresses the exoticization of women and the trope of the “submissive” nude within the framework of the East and West. Lalla Essaydi’s Les femmes du Maroc Odalisque (2008) critically addresses Grande Odalisque by Ingres, a painting which depicts a Turkish Odalisque sensually reclined back. Famous for adding in a few vertebrae too many, this historic artwork quite literally unrealistically depicts women. Essaydi uses a photograph with the same composition of the painting and adds Arabic calligraphy using henna, reclaiming and restoring agency within the image. Essaydi is not only critiquing the sexualization of these nudes but how they were exoticized and viewed as consumable through the art historical male gaze.
In Hamra Abbas’s Paradise Bath (2009), displayed as eight large photographs, there’s an uncomfortable politics at play since a woman of colour is explicitly seen serving a nude white woman. Further, the women being catered to is viewed as sexual and carefree, even at times with a smirk on her face as the women worker is working away scrubbing diligently. The washing in the Ottoman bathhouse holds symbolic importance in Islam as regaining purity. These images are unsettling, but it causes one to reflect on how often these politics of exploitation play out in reality. The photos display objectification of women on multiple levels: it deliberately points out the ignorance and self-indulgence of the oppressor who benefits from the labour of women of colour and also critiques women as objects with one main benefit—sex. Critically addressing race and violence, if these images were to return to Abbas’s home country, they would have to be destroyed since they are considered pornographic.
Notably, the exhibition includes the film Indecision IV (2018) directed by Tonia Arapovic starring Rose McGowan, the well-known actress and figure in the Hollywood Me Too movement. In her immerse performance, McGowan responds to ambient sounds in a former Welsh Chapel, paired up with contemporary dancer, James Mulford. The black and blue light casting shadows, McGowan stares vividly with black eyes in a suspenseful and haunting way. She responds with rigid movements to his sounds and dancing, as Mulford grunts and taps, shifting around her. The accompanying acoustics sound like tides rolling in on a beach. The performance is largely inspired by the painting The Allegory of Indecision by artist Maria Kreyn, a painting depicting three dogs leaping up towards a blue heron over a fallen figure. After Mulford’s performance, he lies down silently and McGowan acts in control—she finally can sit down at ease and sing out. The film captures McGowan’s chaotic time while coming forward in the context of the resurgence of Me Too (originally started by activist Tarana Burke) and comments on the resiliency it takes to heal.
Overall, the strength of She Persists is its multiplicity and focus on intersectional feminism. When feminism does not address viewpoints from multiple identities, it cannot achieve what it’s for—equality and space for everyone. With representation from around the globe, She Persists addresses how women of colour are excluded from the art historical canon as a result of Eurocentric patriarchy. The artists in the exhibition possess an unapologetic, feminist approach to their art, challenging the viewer to reconsider their perspectives on topics such as motherhood, the environment, gender, and diaspora. Both women and LGBTQ2+ individuals have been silenced, erased, and spoken over for too long—it’s time to do better. Even though it’s a difficult battle, nevertheless we persist.