Rebelle: Feminism and the Haunting of History

Hendrik Folkerts

Reviews / 21.12.2009
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Feminism is history. Or at the very least, feminism is currently being historicised by scholars, critics and curators in a remarkable wave of exhibitions and publications that attempt to write the narrative of feminist art history, advancing the artistic feminist movement as a historical object in itself.[1] The recent exhibition 'rebelle: Art and Feminism 1969-2009' (2009), at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Arnhem, similarly implies in its title some kind of history, even a feminist art canon of sorts. Framing feminism solidly within art historical discourse clearly signifies an achievement for the movement, but on the other hand aligns feminist art practices with something they have largely been critical and sceptical of - historical narratives themselves. The formation of any kind of historical canon or narrative implies an operation of both inclusion and exclusion. Although mainly addressing the patriarchal and misogynist structures of the canon, feminist critique has also pointed out the prejudicial demarcation that underlies the creation of any kind of historical narrative. The historicising impulse celebrated by these shows justly begs the question of how feminism can create its own history without indulging in the politics it critiqued. And more importantly, what strategies are employed and what choices are made in the formation of such a history?

'rebelle' shows historical and contemporary work of approximately 100 female artists, who each address gender issues in different ways. The exhibition aims to reflect on a broad range of themes that feminist artists have put forward in the past forty years: from the early critique of the exclusionary operations of the art world and of the intrinsically determined - so-called objective yet utterly masculinist - criteria for art in general to more self-reflexive approaches of gender, sexuality, sexual difference, corporality, misogyny, race/racism and stereotypes. Curator Mirjam Westen has conceived of feminism as a relatively broad concept by including work in the exhibition also situated within post-colonial and queer critique - for example, in the photograph Miss D'Vince I (2007) by Zanele Muholi, which shows a vulnerable African man, sitting in a desolate landscape in red stiletto heels. (Muholi, a South African artist, often sets lesbian and transgender identities in relation to ethnicity and taboos)

Although some of the exhibition's rooms are thematically or formally organised, there is no apparent chronology or geographical arrangement of artists. Art from different generations and geographical locations meet in the at times densely packed spaces of the museum. One might say this particular outlook on history, with no imperative or authoritative narrative, adheres to the principles of feminist art and critique. There is space to show the multiformity of feminist art in relation to other art forms or movements. With this approach, 'rebelle' also displays the diversity of feminist artistic practice itself, both on a formal and thematic level. The use of video, film and photography media by feminist artists in the 1970s, as well as the important role that body and performance art has played for the development of feminist art, is clearly illustrated through the works of Marina Abramović, Ulrike Rosenbach, Hannah Wilke, Lydia Schouten and VALIE EXPORT, among others, while the still important contribution of artists who worked in more traditional media is also underlined. Similarly, 'rebelle' emphasises a perspective of diversity of positions of critique, as overtly activist artworks, those revolting against the unequal position of women in society, are exhibited side by side with those that focus more on the meaning of sexual difference for women, the impact of beauty ideals on female corporality or the relation between feminism and minority issues.

Shadi Ghadirian, 'Like Everyday (Domestic Life) 08', 2002, C-print

Unsurprisingly, the aesthetics of individual art objects play an important role in such a kaleidoscopic setting. Westen's strategy of contrasting positions between generations and locations - with history left somewhere in the middle - is in a few cases successful. For example, artists Rosenbach (Germany, b.1943), Parastou Forouhar (Iran, b.1962) and Regina José Galindo (Guatemala, b.1974) each render literally visible the persistent violence against women. Rosenbach's video performance Sorry Mister (1974) stages a confrontation with the viewer, showing a scene of the artist's self-harming (the artist beats herself bare-hand on her thigh, causing severe bruising) that, once noticed, cannot be ignored. Likewise, with Thousand and One Day (2003), Forouhar has created wallpaper inspired by decorative Persian miniatures, whose pattern is made up of scenes showing the ongoing torture and abuse of Muslim women. Galindo carved the word 'perra' ('bitch') in her leg for the performance Perra (2006), a reminder of the scars which abused women are left with. The respective artistic vocabulary with which this violence is visualised are undeniably different, but within the frame of the exhibition - and of feminist art in general - these artworks reveal their shared objective.

However, the absence of chronological, generational and geographical placement in the exhibition is problematic. In neglecting such factors, 'rebelle' eliminates the social, political and cultural backgrounds in which the artworks were made. As the young curator Clare Butcher legitimately points out in her interview with Mirjam Westen in Metropolis M, we may ask ourselves if this method of exhibiting - which champions an aesthetic and maybe even fully 'globalised' approach - can be maintained in the critical context of our contemporary society, in which practices of cultural differentiation persistently contest the concept of (utopian) globalisation.[2] The juxtaposition of a variety of feminist and gender-related work - as a coordinating curatorial strategy - does not in itself bridge the gap between generations, nor does it do justice to the cultural and social differences between artists and the complex development of feminism in art (history). As a consequence, the goal of seeking relations beyond generations, locations and cultures - which is, after all, an attempt to provide some kind of coherence - translates into a lack of critical questioning and assessment of the development of feminist art itself. It is here that the exhibition shows an interesting, yet problematic paradox: it aims to reflect the diversity of feminist art practices, yet it is determined to find the (universalist) relations between them, as is also suggested in the exhibition texts and title. Although there are successes in this curatorial endeavour, the artworks themselves mostly defy such a coercive mould, as if they themselves would not know what it means to be 'a part of' feminism. They suggest a diverse landscape of feminisms, determinedly oppositional to any kind of universalism.

Given the exhibition's ambivalent attitude towards the concept of narrative history, it would be too excessive a statement to claim that 'rebelle' is trying to establish a new canon of feminist art, yet one does wonder on what grounds these artworks were selected. Why are some artists admitted, while others, such as Lynda Benglis, Mary Kelly, Miriam Schapiro and Arahmaiani, are absent? And, lastly: where are the men in the exhibition about feminist art? Men dealing with similar issues as the women, men with a comparably critical view of gender and sexuality, men who do not need be female to qualify for the deserving title of feminist.

In the end, despite the show's problematisation of the chronology of feminist art, one does expect an overview of feminist art from 1969 until 2009. The project appears to be haunted by its own ambitions, or torn between providing a survey based on chronologically, geographically and culturally specific practices and displaying the diversity in the works of female artists. Ironically, it is the title that - in a way - saves the day. In Arnhem, we can see the work of a large amount of artists who elaborately explore feminist and gender critique. These rebelles defy the name 'Feminism and Art 1969-2009', for they show more than that and rise above their predicament. They unveil their specific backgrounds in their practice, instrumentalise their own cultural position in order to demonstrate the issues, questions and strategies which they think are important, in such a way, that the visitor is - thankfully - left with a cardinal question: what does it mean to be a feminist?

Hendrik Folkerts is an art historian and initiator and co-founder of the feminist research platform Troublemakers (www.troublemakers.nl).

Footnotes
  1. 'WACK! Art and the Feminist Revolution' (2007) at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles and PS1, New York, 'Global Feminisms' (2007) at the Brooklyn Museum of Art, New York and 'If I can't dance, I don't want to be part of your revolution: Episode II' (2006/2007) at several locations in the Netherlands and Belgium.

  2. Clare Butcher, 'Saartje, Judy, Lady', Metropolis M, vol.30, no.3. June/July 2009, p.77.