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Illustrating Feminism

tbarryfigu's picture

Tamarinda Barry Figueroa

Critical Feminist Studies

Anne Dalke


Illustrating Feminism


            There is much literature circling critical feminist interpretations of art from eras both past and present. There are many artists who consider themselves feminists. But what does it mean to illustrate feminism: to mold feminism with your hands, to paint feminism, or to weld it from various materials of different color, texture, and shape? How do feminist values manifest themselves through different visual media, namely, paintings and sculpture? How can we define feminism visually without actually defining it (art is, after all, interpreted time and time again)?  

Over the course of the past seven weeks, numerous members of our class have hit the question “what is feminism?” Though some seem comfortable leaving the question unanswered, agreeing to disagree, or accepting most definition for their face value, I, like many others, remain skeptical and in search of answers. I understand that feminism is not simple, nor clear cut, nor perhaps even capable of a verbalized definition. Every feminist stands for something, hopes for another, and demands something else. Every feminist prioritizes. In my mind, the concept of a feminist identity is as multi-faceted as the broken vase, glued together: no vase can be broken into identical parts because each was uniquely constructed in origin. The observed common thread then, is the movement or desire for movement towards equality. However, this concept is accompanied by a slippery slope: equality for whom? Can equality between men and women really exist if equalities between different sexual identities/ethnicities/races/creeds are not first achieved?

These questions are not those which I intend to answer nor pursue. However, there is no doubt that their presence will directly impact the results of my inquiries. My aim is to question the embodiment and visual definition of feminism. Art is often said to come straight from the soul. What then, will be observed when an artist (not necessarily a feminist) is asked to paint/sculpt feminism itself?

I have had the great fortune of living next to noted Asian-American sculpture Carol Chesek for the past ten years of my life. Always directly involved with the goings-on of the art community, she is quite familiar with the works of her fellow female artists. With her help, I intend to request the participation of three others, all of whom will be asked to illustrate feminism through their respective sculpting or painting mediums. I will premise their piece with a simple prompt: “What is feminism?” I, too, will attempt to paint feminism, and will proceed to draw conclusions from each piece through four separate windows of observation: ethnicity, sexuality, politics, and current models of feminist critique.

The first window of observation will be framed by two questions: can feminism be defined without race? Is there a universal feminism? In each work, I will look for illustrations of nationality or ethnicity. If there are human characters present, how are they represented? Will they take the form of the artist? Will color assignments be ignored? The answers will provide me with some incite about the slippery slope mentioned earlier. It can be hypothesized: If the desire for equality between men and women is independent of race or ethnicity concerns, perhaps the definition of feminism is not as complex as I currently believe it to be. 

The second window of observation takes into account the undeniable relationship between the feminist identity and sexuality. Can the female body stand alone as a tribute to feminism? Are our womanly features enough to tell a story of our role in society? Can the depiction of a man tell us something about what it means to be a feminist? Where does sexual identity come into play?

The third window of observation will be used to shape the overlying and interpreted meaning of the work, should there be one to interpret. Using my knowledge of historical feminist occurrences, I will attempt to discern any political messages.

Judy Chicago’s “Dinner Party” was but one of many pieces displayed by the Brooklyn Museum in an effort to divulge the “retrospectives of feminist art.” Though the exhibit featuring her plates is long gone, there is much literature describing them and the type of feminism illustrated by the other works shown within the gallery. The Guerilla Girls, a group of renegade feminist artists, were founded in 1985 with the intention of tackling sexism in the art world. Often appealing to women artists of color, they pursued the comical yet important question: “do women have to be naked to get into the M.E.T. Museum?” Using these, and other related resources, I intend to familiarize myself with current feminist critiques of the art world. By the same means, I will answer the question: “what is feminist art in 2007?”

A recent discussion with my mother prompted some related thoughts that I hope to address throughout my project. Currently, on our living room wall, there is a Puerto Rican silk-screen by a primitive artist in which a woman is standing in a room washing and hanging clothes. My mother expressed that she purchased it because she felt it was a feminist painting. When asked to explain why, she revealed that it depicted women’s experiences, a struggle. Given my predisposition that the patriarchy placed women into the role of the housekeeper, I found it difficult to agree with her opinion. Was the painting really illustrating feminism in its acknowledgement of the roles taken up by women throughout history? Or was it simply a depiction of “the rightful place of a woman?” The silk-screen, after all, was created by a man. After a much longer conversation, I decided that I both understood and agreed with her viewpoint. The fact that the woman’s act was being both recognized and celebrated through artistic interpretation was enough to suggest that the artist himself saw beauty in her work. This reminded me, once again, of the importance of interpretation.

There is no doubt that the five art pieces created for this project will reveal things unthought-of by the artist to the observer. A feminist interpretation of any work may, in turn, make the work feminist (when it was not intended to be). I am reminded of the works of Kara Walker, who utilizes silhouette paintings to document race and sex-related violence among many other things. As an African American woman, her depiction of a lynched figure makes a statement. It speaks of her heritage, of oppression. If, for example, a white woman had painted the same thing, the effect would be completely different. The interpretations it would receive would alter sufficiently. It is for this reason that I will ask each artist to accompany their work with five to ten singular words of description. Their histories or identities will remain unknown. Their works will stand independent of their owner. My intention is then to ask the members of our class to observe these works (whether through photos in class or posted online) and, likewise, come up with five to ten singular words that they feel are expressed in each art piece (i.e. pain, pride, strength, etc.)  These words will be pieced together and a subsequent definition of feminism will be achieved.




Anne Dalke's picture

standing independently

I’m excited about your project; I very much like the way in which you imagine a series of representations—readings, and conversings, then artistic representations, then commentary by the artists, then commentary by your classmates—this is a rich and evolving struture. Several of your classmates are also proposing projects that have a creative dimension; you might be in conversation, in particular, with Emily and Abby.

Your questions about how we can represent feminism without defining it puts me in mind of the quote from Barbara Johnson @ the top of our course homepage: “literature is important for feminism…as the place where impasses can be kept and opened for examination....Literature…is…the work of giving-to-read those impossible contradictions that cannot yet be spoken.” Sounds to me that you’re up to something along these lines…

On the other hand, maybe your project would benefit from a little more reading around in the varieties of definitions of feminism. Your suggesting that the “observed common thread” in all forms of feminism is equality doesn’t acknowledge those who ask for more—for superiority, for specialness—or for otherness--for safety and protection, based on women’s different positions. The language you use—of embodying feminism, making it material—and of talking with others you know, evoking their feminist visions—makes me think that you might also profit from doing some reading in materialist feminism. I’ve been looking recently @ some of the work of Christine Delphy (because she’s worked on Simone de Beauvoir); her work on the material conditions of the oppression of women might be of interest and use to you.

I’m interested in your four interpretive frames, and would ask that you think more about, and maybe figure out how to articulate, the relations among them. It’s not clear to me how politics is separated/separable from race or sexuality; the intersections of race and sexuality are also quite fraught. As far as the frame of feminist art history goes: The Dinner Party is NOT “long gone,” but recently re-established in a permanent exhibit @ the Brooklyn Museum (go see it!). Look also @ Linda Nochlin’s “Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?” Look, too, @ Tillie Olsen’s essay, “I Stand Here Ironing”—then I’d like to talk to you (and your mother!) some more about your “celebration” of the “beauty” of a woman washing and hanging clothes; what of the representation of oppression embedded in that representation?

Finally: Is it really possible for works to “stand independent of their owner?” Even if the viewers don’t know—aren’t the works emergent from life experiences and particular points of view?