Feminist and... showcases multifaceted movement
“Feminism is not just about women and not just about identity politics. It’s a way of thinking, and it affects everything.”
Visitors to the Mattress Factory’s latest exhibition, Feminist and..., will likely be surprised at its content. While all of the pieces are clearly based on an understanding of feminist ideals, they are not overtly about feminist issues. But as curator Hilary Robinson noted above, feminism is a way of thinking, not a set of beliefs. In fact, much of the “feminism” in the exhibit is actually what viewers bring with them when they walk through the door.
The exhibit, which is guest-curated by Robinson — a professor of art theory and criticism at Carnegie Mellon — features work by six female artists from around the world: Ayanah Moor, Julia Cahill, Parastou Forouhar, Carrie Mae Weems, Loraine Leeson, and Betsy Damon. Together, their work shows that feminism is not a single set of political beliefs; rather, it is as diverse as the art world itself: multivocal, multigenerational, and multicultural.
The idea for the exhibit came to Robinson three years ago after she saw a presentation by Weems responding to the election of President Barack Obama. “I thought, here is this woman who I know is a feminist, who has been informed by feminist thinking, responding to a historical moment,” Robinson said.
The idea of women’s responses to historic events — and how their experiences and cultures shape that response — was the basis for the exhibit. Indeed, each of the artists in the exhibit offers a unique perspective, reacting to what she sees as feminism in an individualized way.
The highlight of the exhibit is Forouhar’s “Written Room,” in which she covered the walls and floor of a room with Farsi script. Because the text is incomprehensible to those who can’t read Farsi — the majority of Western viewers — it becomes pure ornament and viewers are forced to either accept that they cannot read it or project meaning onto it.
Surrounded by the patterns on all sides, viewers are completely immersed in the script and are likely to assume that it says something meaningful and exotic — when, in fact, the script is just a jumble of letters and syllables. “The whole point of it is that it’s nonsense.... We can project meaning onto it, but really there’s nothing there. But as Westerners, we really have no idea,” Robinson explained.
In the room behind Forouhar’s piece is Weems’ “Lincoln, Lonnie and Me — A Story in 5 Parts,” an 18-minute video projection project. The video is projected into the black space between bright red theater curtains, creating a ghostly effect. Weems’ work investigates family relationships, gender roles, and the histories of racism, sexism, class, and other political systems. Through its video clips and voice-overs, her piece presents a strong call to action and reminds us that we cannot engage in thoughtful debate when we all have strong preconceived notions of what is right. Through her piece, she encourages viewers to remember what women are fighting for now and what they have been fighting for throughout history.
The youngest of the six artists, Cahill presented the most obvious feminist piece in the exhibit. Cahill, who graduated from Carnegie Mellon with a Bachelor of Fine Arts in May, typically works with performance and video art to present her commentary on pop culture. For her piece for Feminist and..., “Breasts in the Press,” Cahill rewrote the lyrics to “My Humps,” a pop song by the Black Eyed Peas. “I like to look at songs that are sung by female pop stars that are often seen as empowering, but when you actually look at the song lyrics it’s quite the opposite,” she said.
Small videos of Cahill performing her reworded song are projected onto a large statue reminiscent of Venus de Milo — just with much larger breasts.
“I basically just gave her a boob job with plaster,” Cahill said. Explaining her decision to exaggerate the sculpture’s female form, she said, “What I really love to do with my work is get a message across through humor. And it’s a challenge because I don’t want to make it seem like I’m making fun of issues — it’s a very fine line. I want people to laugh a little bit but realize that it’s something very serious.”
On the whole, the exhibit does an excellent job of representing a wide range of perspectives on feminism. While each of the pieces certainly has some feminist undertones, it’s not intimidating to those unfamiliar with feminist theory. The pieces are not overtly about feminism or feminist issues, but the title of the exhibit invites viewers to interpret each of the pieces with their idea of feminism in mind.
While this abstraction makes the exhibit very accesible to a wide audience, it does leave something to be desired. Without paying very close attention or having background knowledge of the artists, it can be unclear what some of the pieces are trying to say. The descriptions provided in the gallery guide give some information, but they are hardly enough to understand the point of the exhibit.
In the end, though, the exhibit is not about what we typically think of as feminism, and leaving it open for interpretation is more realistic of the movement itself. As Robinson put it, “[Feminist and...] says that feminism is not something of the 1970s.... Feminism is important, and it is urgent.”