LOUSVILLE, Ky. — It’s hard to describe the surreal feeling of going to see The Future Is Female at 21C Museum and Hotel in Louisville, Kentucky, at this particular moment. While it was planned before the 2016 election, the exhibition opened in its immediate wake, at a time when the idea of a “female future” seemed very far from the sure thing many had dreamed of before November 8. Yet even within the current social and political climate, the exhibition is a far cry from an elegy to feminism past. In many ways, the show is an illustration of the intersectional and interdependent issues that comprise women’s lived experiences, through which it offers hope for a feminist future that is still to come. The female future it proposes is not reserved for the coastal enclaves of New York and California, but has taken root in other parts of the United States — including the South and the Midwest — and within the global system on the whole.
It seems only fitting, then, that such a show exist in a space like 21C Museum and Hotel. Simultaneously a hotel and an art museum, 21C has an expansive contemporary collection that presents thought-provoking art from both local and global artists, challenging viewers to think critically about the nature and function of art, and in many cases, to consider pertinent social and political issues.
This is especially the case with The Future Is Female. The exhibition focuses primarily on the work of women artists who came of age after the Women’s Art Movement. As curator Alice Gray Stites notes, many of the works on display are derived from the interventions pioneered by feminist artists during the Second Wave, “Artists like Judy Chicago, Mira Schor, Martha Rosler, Adrian Piper, Howardena Pindell, and others merged art and activism, elevating everyday materials, methods, and experiences to challenge conventional notions about how and why and where art is created or consumed.”
Emblematic of this legacy, many of the works examine traditionally feminized objects, actions, or materials, presenting them in the contemplative space of the gallery in order to raise public consciousness to the experiences of lived womanhood. The Future Is Female also clearly illustrates a new understanding of feminism and its relationship to women’s artistic production. The works address women’s experiences and identities, to be sure, but they also tie those elements to larger global and social issues.
Indian artist Vibha Galhotra’s film Manthan explores the implications of industrial pollution on water sources and communities. The 10-minute film focuses on the extreme the pollution of the Yamuna River in India by, as the artist notes on her website, invoking “a legend from Hindu mythology in which the gods churn the ocean to obtain the nectar of immortality.” Panning along the river, we see industrial run-off, both as white foam and tar-black slicks of pollution, churning as it flows. The pollution will eventually enter the Ganges River, which is both sacred and vital to the communities along its banks.
Galhotra further dramatizes the extent of this pollution by focusing in on men in scuba suits attempting to cleanse the river by submerging white sheets in it, which results in the blackening of the sheets. Their gesture seems fruitless in relation to the massive pollution that has accumulated in the river. By emphasizing this futility, the artist confronts the viewer with the urgent need for environmental protections, and demonstrates that such efforts are essential not only for the land, but for the wellbeing of the people who inhabit it.
Like Galhotra’s film, Alison Saar’s Hades D.W.P. ties together issues of water conservation and social justice. The work — comprised of five large jars on a shelf, each filled with different levels of murky water, with rusted ladles and cups hanging below them — brings together elements of both Greek mythology and African American history. Curator Alice Gray Stites explains that each jar is labeled for one of “the five rivers of the underworld, which … guide the dead to the afterlife,” and is tagged with lines of poetry. Examining the precariousness of life and death from this mythological referent, each jar is etched with a woman’s figure, whose fate is determined by the water level of the jar. One stands with only her feet submerged, another is directly at eye-level with the water, and three of the figures are in the active process of drowning.
The work refers specifically to the devastation of the Great Mississippi flood of 1927, which was responsible for the displacement of more than 200,000 members of the Black community. At the same time, it evokes the devastation of more recent environmental and ecological disasters; the murkiness of the water alludes to the ways in which poor communities and communities of color are disproportionately impacted by water contamination.
Carrie Mae Weems directly addresses the interconnected issues of race and the environment and their impact on women in particular. In her work from The Hampton Project (2000), Weems aligns the struggles of Native Americans and the Black community. A sepia-toned photograph shows Weems’s silhouetted figure standing before an image of buffalo falling from a cliff. The piece is overlain with text that reads “From a great height I saw you falling/Black and Indian alike/And for you I played/A sorrow song.”
Weems renders herself part of a history that encompasses the decimation of the buffalo and by extension the Indian communities who depended on the animals, as well as the colonial legacy of expansion, slavery, and segregation linking her community and that of American Indians. Yet her role as empathic witness is also gendered in nature, having described the impetus for the project to the curator as a meditation on the notion that “Women are the weepers of history.”
Other works in the exhibition focus more explicitly on gender-based issues, addressing sexual differentiation and women’s labor. In “Umfanekiso wesibuko (Mirror Image),” a cast of her own body, kneeling on all fours in rawhide leather, South African artist Nandipha Mntambo considers the limits of the body in relation to gender differentiation. The form of her body is created in negative space, with the leather standing in for her own skin as an imperfect metonymy. Mntambo’s ambiguous work can be read as an illustration of both the power of womanhood, the quadripedal pose suggesting wild beasts, and the patriarchal view of women as subservient and — particularly in the case of colonized women — subhuman. It reflects the complexity of womanhood, that women’s actions are often met with a double meaning.
The outward portrayal of femininity as something affirmed by enhancing the physical body through cosmetic products is complicated in such works as Michele Pred’s 2015 series Reflections, a series of pink hand mirrors with the handles reshaped to form the Venus symbol and the glass etched with words of empowerment (“Equal,” “Feminist,” and “Powerful”); and Frances Goodman’s “Medusa” (2013-14), a mass of eleven tentacles, whose scaly surface is constructed from acrylic nails. Goodman’s brightly colored tentacles, made of a synthetic material meant to enhance femininity, illustrate how womanhood is and always has been derived from a mythical notion that can only be achieved through the incorporation of nonhuman traits.
Addressing how femininity is outwardly performed or written into appearance, Kiki Smith’s etching “Ballerina (Stretching Left)” (2000) draws on the long legacy of womanhood as portrayed through the dancerly physique, from Degas’ 19th-century ruminations on dancing girls to Eleanor Antin’s complex feminist performances as her alter ego Eleanora Antinova. Smith’s work highlights the delicacy of the feminine body through the materiality of the work, as well as the delicate and highly feminized materials of glitter and tissue paper.
Conversely, Sanell Aggenbach’s “Rumours” (2011) highlights the emotional toll of lived womanhood, particularly in relation to experiences of shame or misunderstanding. A photograph of a white woman looking downward with her face in her hands, her apparent distress is further highlighted by the gold cords that stream down from her hands like free flowing tears. Here we see a woman succumbing to her emotions, and yet her emotions are accompanied by a sense of shame and necessity to hide her reaction.
On the whole, the exhibition — which also includes works by Jenny Holzer, Monica Cook, Gaela Erwin, Nina Katchadourian, Tiffany Carbonneau, Hanna Liden, Naomi Safran-Hon, E.V. Day and Julie Levesque — illustrates the myriad and complicated ways that womanhood is experienced and understood in today’s global world. Drawing on the works of feminism past, the artists envision a female future that involves understanding the intersection of gender with all aspects of daily life, and womanhood as a multifaceted entity. At a politically fraught moment such as this, wherein women’s rights feel consistently imperiled, The Future Is Female serves as a reminder of the current state of feminism, while offering us a vision of a future that could still be.
The Future Is Female continues at 21C Museum Hotel (700 West Main Street, Louisville, Kentucky) through June 4.