Suchitra Mattai, “Shawdow Land” (2019) from the Collages: Identity series (all photos courtesy Pen and Brush)

To a great extent, we are what we say we are — and what others say we are.

The exhibition Women’s Work: Art & Activism in the 21st Century, curated by Grace Aneiza Ali and on view at New York City’s Pen + Brush through August 2, presents a winding exploration of its initial phrase and stimulates ideas about how it is being or could be reclaimed and reinvented.

How “women’s work” is defined, and who’s defining it, are issues important to women — and therefore to everyone. So who are the arbiters, and what are they saying?

While women now make up at least 40% of the workforce in more than 80 countries, the Oxford Dictionary’s definition of “women’s work” remains in the past tense: “Work traditionally and historically undertaken by women, especially tasks of a domestic nature such as cooking, needlework, and child rearing.”

In other media, the phrase appears as the name of Megan K. Stack’s book which analyzes her practice of hiring nannies in her adopted Asian homes so she could continue her writing career. It appears on a website selling women’s garden gloves, and as a category on the sites of several shoe retailers. It appears in a Brooklyn Museum description of The Dinner Party by Judy Chicago: “a multi-media work that consists of ceramics, china painting, sewing … and other mediums traditionally associated with ‘women’s work,’ and, as such, not generally considered ‘high art’ by the art world.”

Installation view of Women’s Work at Pen and Brush gallery

Anecdotally, the phrase comes up from time to time. A friend of mine recently described the biological and psychological work of growing a baby from a zygote, birthing it into autonomy, and manufacturing the food to sustain it through infancy as the three most gendered experiences of her life. If there is any work that is only women’s, mustn’t it be this trinity?

Yet, of course definitions of “women’s work” can and do encompass much more than this, and more than the far-flung references above. In Ali’s exhibition, five female artist/activists from around the world (all coincidentally mothers, who range in age from their 30s to their 70s) approach the phrase and concept with different intentions. As Janice Sands, executive director of Pen + Brush, writes in the show’s catalog, “Women’s Work may be viewed as a progress report, demonstrating the reach, variation, and cultural commentary women bring to their work.”

The dark, oily portraits in Iraqi artist Sama Alshaibi’s photography series Carry Over model strength, burden, depth, precarious balance, and female beauty in a woman (Alshaibi herself) who ably lofts everything but the kitchen sink: a tray of glass bottles, an enormous water jug, a cage-like sheesha, a milkmaid’s yoke. In some cases, she actually wears the object: an albatross of an accessory. While the weight of the world might be on her head and shoulders, Alshaibi’s woman is handling it.

Sama Alshaibi, “Milk Maid” (2018)

According to Ali, Suchitra Mattai was painting the gallery wall with the tiny, innumerable gold dots that surround the pieces in her Collages: Identity series until an hour before the show opened. The Guyanese artist’s bright works on paper could at first be mistaken for simple pop art, until its subjects and backgrounds are seen in full. Scenes from old National Geographics and fragments of rent tapestry populate a score of notebook-paper-sized canvases in which women and girls feature consistently, if not prominently. The effect is reminiscent of carefully kept, though fantastical, travel diaries or scrapbooks — or perhaps of the coded documentation of someone who wants to be heard, but cannot speak aloud.

Several works from Suchitra Mattai’s Collages: Identity series.

In the series Lamba, Miora Rajaonary’s portraits of Malagasy women mix the laser focus of documentary imagery with a sense of maternal warmth and even earthy humor. The photographer’s subjects style their traditional lamba garments (worn by both men and women in Madagascar) in idiosyncratic ways. Some wear a mask of the yellow-white cosmetic Masonjoany. Some recline, some stand tall. Some smile, while others appear shy, regal, or stern. All find your eyes on the other side of the camera.

Miora Rajaonary, “Hanta” (2018) Ramiadana, a Sakalava woman from Antanimalandy in Northwest Madagascar, in her lamba garment in December 2017.

The Pyramids of Giza rise like ghosts in the background of Detroit-born Ming Smith’s “Womb” (1992) and “Masque” (1992), large black and white prints that center, and juxtapose, images of family life. In “Womb,” Smith’s sons practice martial arts, their bodies partially enveloped by a layer of white gossamer. The double exposure adds an even more cosmic quality to an already mystical scene — but rotate the photo 90 degrees and the gossamer is revealed as Smith herself, wrapped in light-colored fabric, gazing straight ahead. While Smith says the superimposition was a glitch, it stands in the image with gravitas, the opposite of a random shimmer. In “Masque,” Smith sits snugly with her younger son, bringing out a different facet of his personality. Her face is both marked and made anonymous by a flower in a wisp of lace. Another turn of the photo, and we see another double portrait of a female figure in a dress; the lace is part of her frock. We are reminded that even women who are at first or periodically unseen — women from the past, women far away, women undermined — can figure largely in our lives.

Ming Smith, “Womb” (1992)

In “Angel’s Trumpets, Devil’s Bells” (2019), Cuban artist María Magdalena Campos-Pons adorns—and besets—a colossal female nude with pressed campana bouquets: the medicinal Caribbean flowers form a crown for her gathered, upswept dreadlocks. They seem to sprout from the green veins of her elongated arms. The soles of the woman’s feet glow orange, highlighting her retreating gait and suggesting frequent use, possibly inflammation. Rough banners, some made from TSA tape, hang around her: an aura of travels past while she stays in motion.

Installation view of Women’s Work at Pen and Brush gallery

Even as dictionaries and other meaning-makers may lag behind, Ali writes that this exhibition “is a provocation for us all to reclaim the term and to make space for its reinventions and future possibilities.” The artist/activists it features are re-rooting the definition of women’s work in strength, communication, presence, adaptability, and the powers of motherhood. To Ali, women’s work includes seeking justice, engendering healing, and fomenting resistance. “To bear witness, to document, to be of service, to show up and … to be counted in lands near and distant,” she says, “is women’s work.”

Women’s Work: Art & Activism in the 21st Century is on view through August 2 at  Pen + Brush (29 East 22nd Street, Murray Hill, Manhattan). The exhibition is curated by Grace Aneiza Ali.

April Greene is a full-time freelance writer specializing in editorial services for nonprofit organizations. She lives in Brooklyn, where she bikes, eats vegetarian food, and serves on the board of a community...