The Museum of Modern Art opened its doors to the public for a conversation on the theme “Translating Feminism.” AWT listened in.
The word “feminism” is hard enough to grasp in our own backyard. What happens when you consider it across borders? MoMA brought in three specialists to do just that in “Translating Feminism,” a discussion about feminist art, or, in the words of Chief Curator of Media and Performance Art and event moderator Stuart Comer, “what is inside and outside the frame—what the frame itself is.”
post, an extension of MoMA’s internal research groups focusing on Central and Eastern Europe, Latin America and Asia, is an online platform for researching modern and contemporary art in a global context. The public discussion format is a first for the post team, which decided that the event would be a good platform for connecting with readers. “Since we recognize that there is a great interest in feminism by artists, collectives and other institutions in New York, it just made sense to open up the conversation about the status of feminism vis-a-vis artistic practices, not just in the U.S., but also in other geographic contexts,” Sarah Lookofsky, Assistant Director of the International Program, told AWT.
The museum wants its collection to represent the (often significant) role of female artists in diverse geographical regions, Lookofsky said. “To name just two examples that illustrate this point, many of the most important modern artists in Brazil were women and, in an altogether different regional context, our research relating to Eastern Europe has led us to emphasize the significance of several central female figures, who are now represented in the Museum’s collection.” A good example is Dora Maurer, a Hungarian artist who was featured on post and whose prints are now a part of MoMA’s collection.
On the panel were three scholars, critics and curators of feminist art, all renowned experts in their fields: Gayatri Sinha (from India), Agata Jakubowska (from Poland), and Cecilia Fajardo-Hill (from Venezuela). They showed us that the meaning of “feminism,” just like its place in the public mind, is not to be taken for granted.
“There is no country in the world where the woman’s body has been so fiercely contested as India,” said Gayatri Sinha, a Delhi-based art critic and curator. Since the third century BCE, woman has been the “most constant muse” of Indian art and architecture, acting as the literal foundation of some of India’s most sacred sites.
Sinha pointed out that the domain of men and women in India has been historically divided between the private and public spaces, with women confined to the home, a pure, “Indian” space, and men acting in the public sphere of commerce (as well as the corrupting influence of British imperialism). This longstanding historical precedent has been challenged by the huge number of women artists working in India, Sinha said, who are “appropriating what was consigned to the women as domestic, less important” and repurposing it. Among the many rich themes explored by female Indian artists are the recovery of traditional modes or motifs that faded under British rule (Bharti Kher), the effects of partition (Nalini Malani), the Muslim or minority woman (Rummana Hussain), and the person on cusp of male and female (Tejal Shah).
Agata Jakubowska from Poznań, Poland, shared a particularly interesting story about her first encounter with feminism, shortly after the fall of communism. A university student at the time, a few male professors discovered the pioneering feminist art historian and theorist Griselda Pollock on a research trip. They brought back what they’d learned, and a feminist studies curriculum began. It was only in 1991 that Poland had its first exhibition of Polish women artists, many of whom had been working for decades. Critical, politically invested “feminist” art began to gain more traction, with artists like Natalia LL, Zofia Kulik, Katastyna Kozyra and Maria Pininska Beres exploring female identity, iconography and self-portraiture in a variety of media.
Cecilia Fajardo-Hill, an independent British/Venezuelan art historian, was tasked with discussing feminist art in Latin America. She began by pointing out that there is no unified way of expressing feminism on a whole continent, with artists as diverse as Argentinian photographer and photojournalist Adriana Lestido, Chilean political performance artist Lotty Rosenfeld and Colombian pop artist Beatriz González. The exception, she said, was Mexico, where militancy and art came together within the cadre of the feminist movement.
In Latin America, hostile attitudes towards “the f-word” have come from all sides during the last several decades: those on the the left, who think of feminists as privileged middle-class women who are not fighting to survive; those on the right, for whom religion is a barrier to accepting feminists’ advocacy of reproductive rights; and the media, which has depicted feminists as men-hating extremists. But as Fajardo-Hill pointed out, at its core, feminism belongs to everyone—all sides, all genders.
One thing in common across the continent, she said, is that there are so few women in art history books—a veritable “art-historical vacuum” that resists the presence of women in the art sphere. People don’t ask where the women artists are, she says, but, “the more I ask, the more I find.” The same, it seems, could be said of many other corners of the world.
Photos by Frances F. Denny