Most people know the story by now: Feminism’s first wave came with the suffragettes; the second wave with women’s liberation in the 1970s; and the third wave crashed in with riot grrrls and zinesters. Today, a question is bubbling up of whether or not we’ve reached a new wave, a new era in feminism.
It’s certainly the case that there’s been a popular push across feminist media and arts in the US to spotlight the ongoing and long-overlooked contributions of women of color. And women of color–led efforts are rightly taking center stage of their own accord, in movements such as #BlackLivesMatter and the fight for immigrant rights. We’re also seeing a broader recognition that gender equality goes beyond the male/female binary and requires embracing trans and gender-nonconforming people. Which is to say, there’s a growing understanding at a mass scale that all oppressions are linked.
But even saying the above is tricky if you look at the history. Linear or unifying narratives of progress leave a lot out in the desire to preserve a clear story. While many white feminist leaders of the past had a fairly narrow focus, others, along with womanists, have long been looking at oppressions beyond the patriarchy. In the 1970s, for instance, queer women of color were already articulating an intersectional approach to their political work. In other words, the only new development is that intersectionality has moved into popular discourse. At the same time, the kinds of political battles being fought by women who call themselves feminists in the US today can feel worlds apart — from those fighting for access to CEO positions at Fortune 500 companies or to serve on the front lines in the military to women demanding a higher minimum wage or to be given legal status in their own country. If anything, the feminism of today seems more diffuse, varied, and subject to interpretation (or co-optation) than ever before. And that’s just feminism within the US.
These kinds of complications are precisely why the exhibition Feminism as Politics!, curated by Olga Kopenkina and currently on view at the Pratt Manhattan Gallery, falls short. Comprised of work by 11 artists and collectives, the exhibition is compact, likely a limitation of both the space and the reality of funding feminist-focused projects. Spanning nine countries, the show centers primarily on works by European and Russian artists, but seems to gesture toward a global perspective with works by practitioners in the US, Guatemala, and Argentina. This tiny, scattered taste left me wondering what’s happening in unrepresented countries and why Kopenkina chose the places that she did. Why, for instance, have such a heavy showing from countries that were part of or adjacent to the USSR without focusing exclusively on that region? That might have allowed for a tighter show with a clearer sense of the worlds in which the artists are working.
Kopenkina’s essay doesn’t offer many ways to better understand her choices. She suggests that the artists in the exhibition are all working to “identify possibilities emerging from the ruins of the global status quo” and draws on the work of academics Stefano Harney and Fred Moten to reference an “undercommons,” or an “antipolitics that emerges from the outraged, endangered, indebted population.” But few of the artists seem to be addressing a global status quo or undercommons directly. She also draws on the work of Isabell Lorey and Jack Halbertstam in trying to define the New Feminism that she’s interested in; related conversations can be found in places like Dissent magazine and the Guardian. Yet her writing remains mostly academic and theory-bound, rather than focusing on how these ideas play out in the artwork itself.
All of which gets at the central contradiction of the show. On the one hand, in her essay, Kopenkina seems to argue against the drive to homogenize culture and political movements: “economic and political precarization has become a neoliberal instrument of governance that does not make any absolute separation between center and margin.” On the other hand, she presents this sampler of artworks with few meaningful insights into the unique political climates that gave rise to them, either assuming that the viewer knows this information or will look it up. Whether it’s intentional or not, by not providing context she ends up homogenizing the work to some extent, or at least obscuring its political specificity, which seems to defeat the purpose of the exhibition and clouds a potentially compelling argument about contemporary feminism no longer having a center or cohesive vision.
This contradiction feels particularly evident in the film work “Toxic” by the Berlin-based duo Pauline Boudry/Renate Lorenz. In the video, artists Ginger Brooks Takahashi and Werner Hirsch perform dryly as a punk and a drag queen, playing reluctant, even antagonistic, parts for the camera. There are references to the work of queer art figures such as Jean Genet and Catherine Opie, as well as Basquiat, in the fantastical and uneasy mug shots and masks that populate much of the film. Watching it unfold without reading anything about it, you can assume that the work was shot somewhere in Europe (it was indeed shot in Paris) and is intended for those who have experience within Western universities, museums, and galleries. Certainly, that is its own specific context, but it is a liberalized one that aims to be highly transportable and legible to any arts audience. In that context, the terms “feminist” or “queer” become generic statements that don’t articulate the actual values or positions of the people laying claim to them. They become totalizing ambiguities to which viewers can ascribe a great deal of assumed meaning, nodding in presumed agreement, while knowing very little about what the people using the terms actually do in the world to assert their politics. Set within this exhibition,”Toxic” feels vague and, because of that, toothless.
Contrast that with the posters of US artist Melanie Cervantes. Each one seems intended for a very specific audience, though certainly any viewer can understand that the works are aimed at articulating and asserting the rights and dignity of women of color. And while anyone can appreciate their political and aesthetic force, the different context for each poster is very much a part of Cervantes’s subject matter. For instance, a woman arguing for her right to be a full member and decision maker within a revolutionary militant group (in this case, the Ejército Zapatista de Liberación Nacional, EZLN, or Zapatistas), as happens in the poster “EZLN Women’s Revolutionary Law,” is far removed from a US woman arguing for her right to act as an agent of violence at the front lines of the largest and most deadly military force in the world: context matters. “Young Mothers Bill of Rights,” produced with formerly incarcerated women from the Bay Area in mind, incorporates information about how to access support and legal services in order to resist denial of rights. Each of Cervantes’s posters articulates a precise political project and perspective rather than a generic globalism. That seems a harbinger of where feminism rooted in progressive change is moving.
Beyond the show’s contradictions, one particularly interesting thread emerged: artists drawing on feminist influences from elsewhere but creating something highly specific to their circumstances — a political and cultural remixing that is rich and interesting.
One such work comes from Guatemalan artist Regina José Galindo. Titled “¿Quien Peude Borrar Las Huellas? / Who Can Erase the Traces?,” it’s comprised of a video of the artist walking barefoot through Guatemala City. She carries a bowl of human blood into which she regularly dips her feet, leaving a trail of bloody footprints behind. While the piece addresses specific armed conflicts within her country and the presidency of Efraín Ríos Montt, it also seems to be in conversation with the work of artist Ana Mendieta and actions like those of the Damas de Blanco, who began walking the streets of Havana in protest against the imprisonment of political dissidents the same year that Galindo produced “¿Quien Peude Borrar Las Huellas?”
Another work in the same vein is “Unities” by Anna Zvyagintseva. The piece is very simple in construction: A metal pot rests on a high pedestal; inside of it play the sounds of Ukrainian nationalists protesting and rioting. It made me think immediately of the cacerolazos following the economic collapse of Argentina in 2001 — people walking out into the streets to protest by banging on pots and pans. Of course, Zvyagintseva is containing xenophobia and nationalist fervor rather than fomenting a grassroots retaking of power; in her work, the outcry is a kind of tempest in a teapot — a folly, though a dangerous one. And in a feminist context, it’s impossible not to also connect to the tropes of women as cooks, butchering and boiling down, a kind of witchy cannibalism. The sound and image work on many levels, with threads shooting out to worlds beyond Ukraine while still being highly rooted and specific.
Because of the vagueness of both the grouping and the concepts in the essay, it’s hard to know what Kopenkina intended with this exhibition. But I certainly left with plenty to think about. Who needs a New Feminism? Who is it meant for? What purpose does defining it serve? To my mind, we are in an era where it’s no longer possible to impose a unifying or singular feminism or queerness across broad groups and communities — they are too non-specific to be useful at a large scale, having been adopted and co-opted too many times. Which raises a particularly interesting question: how do we allow for difference without attempting or wanting to assimilate it?
Beyond that, what feminism and queerness seem to offer is a historical set of ideas, tools, and strategies that can be adapted or rejected for the future. There’s not a single piece in this exhibition that doesn’t draw on long-standing feminist strategies like sharing oral and personal histories, public performance, group workshops/consciousness-raising, and subverting narratives or objects typically deemed feminine. In the end, the enduring legacy of those tactics may be the one thing that holds all the artworks together.