Contemporary Feminism: Art Practice, Theory, and Activism—An Intergenerational Perspective
Although in our time a generation seems to be the measure of the life span of a mosquito, it was—a generation ago—agreed upon as the thirty-year span of time during which a person could grow from birth to parenthood. So perhaps it is fitting that, thirty years after the inception of the Women’s Liberation Movement and the Feminist Art Movement, a number of panels, forums, and symposia have focused on the history, relevance, and fate of feminism. At events such as the panel “Between the Acts,” moderated by Faith Wilding for Art in General in New York in October 1997; the series of four panel discussions held at A.I.R. Gallery in New York in 1997–98 to celebrate its twenty-fifth anniversary as one of the first women artists’ cooperative galleries (including “Realities of Feminism and/or Activist Practice,” which I moderated and which inspired this forum in Art Journal); the symposium “The F-Word: Contemporary Feminisms and the Legacy of the Los Angeles Feminist Art Movement” at the California Institute of the Arts in Valencia in September–October 1998; and the panel discussion “The Body Politic: Whatever Happened to the Women’s Artist’s Movement?” at the New Museum of Contemporary Art in New York in December 1998, vanguard feminist artists and younger women artists have considered many of the questions I asked the following women artists and art historians from three generations of feminism to address:
How would you place your own work within a historical continuum from 1970s feminism to the present? Has the influence of feminist theory affected your practice as an artist, teacher, critic, or historian, and has that changed in the last [five, ten, fifteen, twenty] years? What is your experience of an intergenerational dialogue around feminist ideas and histories? What do you find is the relationship between the theoretical assertions, aims, and positions articulated within feminism and the realities of your lived experience and actual practice? How would you characterize the exchange between men and women around feminist issues? Can feminist ideals be perpetuated without writing about or representing women, gendered practice, or gendered identity? How have the critical reformulations by which feminism challenged art historical and critical discussions twenty or so years ago been integrated into current curricula, institutional politics, and individual working methods?
My work changed drastically in 1968, a year after I arrived in New York City to live and work after graduating from Yale University’s MFA program. It was subtly tugged into further changes as I became influenced by other experiences, including dialogues and personal awakenings as a result of the Black Power and feminist movements. I stopped using the stretcher, nailing free-flowing canvas to the wall as a result of visiting Africa and seeing African textiles, as well as work by women artists who did not use the stretcher—namely, women who were members with me of A.I.R. Gallery, the first women artists’ cooperative gallery in New York. As a result of feminism, I felt more free to use materials such as fragrant powders, perfumes, sequins, and glitter. I also cut and sewed my canvas, and in the late 1970s and early 1980s, I rejected the rectangular format in favor of the circle or oval.
I was a member of an artist/art-related consciousness-raising group but felt disappointed that, as the only black member, my personal experiences were considered “political” by some and therefore not worthy of being addressed. Consequently, I found my personal interactions in the feminist movement of the 1970s problematic, as some European American women would openly state that dealing with racism distracted one’s attention from the issues of feminism. When Graham Modern Gallery in New York represented 50 percent women, very few white people seemed to notice or care that they were 100 percent white. The women would say to me that they were “women”! Apartheid was a perfectly acceptable condition for them. As a result of this, and tokenism in the feminist movement, I gradually withdrew from interacting with white feminist groups, until they began to deal with the racism in their ranks.
My work changed drastically again after I was injured in a car accident on the way to my teaching job in 1979. Being afflicted with a head injury that resulted in memory loss, and becoming newly aware of the suddenness with which a potentially lethal event could occur, led me to deal directly with autobiographical themes, starting with my videotape Free, White and 21 (1980), which dealt in part with my discomfort with racism in the feminist movement. I knew that other women like myself, both here and abroad, referred to the movement as “imperial feminism.” (One of the women’s groups that tried to address a wider range of experience was the Women’s Caucus for Art.)
In the 1980s, my work explored autobiographical themes, women’s issues, racism, child abuse, slavery, and AIDS. In the 1990s, I created a series of memorials. Oddly, when a white male critic reviewed my work in New Art Examiner in the 1970s, he referred to it as a light show and stated that he wanted to have sex under my paintings. In the 1990s, I received a scathing review of my work that dealt with racism, etc., from another white male critic in the New York Times. This review was titled “From Subtlety to Stridency.” During this decade, there was a nostalgia for my non-issue related work of the 1970s, yet during the 1970s, those same voices were silent.
I believe that consciousness raising was an experience that helped me to confront difficult issues. As a result of my experiences in the 1970s, in the late 1990s I started, with another artist, Carolyn Martin, a cross-generational black women artists’ group called Entitled: Black Women Artists. Entitled has a monthly newsletter that lists job, grant, and exhibition opportunities, as well as the accomplishments of its members. We have been exhibited as a group and meet once a month to discuss topics such as income tax and the artist and residency programs. We also organize slide presentations of our work, as well as the work of others. Our membership is international, and our website address is entitled-bwartists.com.
Some books I have found helpful are bell hooks’s Talking Back: Thinking Feminist, Thinking Black and Feminist Theory: From Margin to Center, Chilla Bulbeck’s Re-Orienting Western Feminisms: Women’s Diversity in a Postcolonial World, and Leela Gandhi’s Postcolonial Theory.
Excerpted from “Contemporary Feminism: Art Practice, Theory, and Activism—An Intergenerational Perspective,” Art Journal 58, no. 4 (Winter 1999): 8, 22–23.