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What makes feminist art?

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“What is it?” they ask her wherever she goes. “Yes, what is it?” they say. “Does it have a Size or a shape, a form or a color. How will we know it?” they ask. “Do you know you’re doing it when you do it?” they demand. “What does it feel like to do it?” “Is there such a thing?” Some say yes, some say no, some don’t care.

So wrote iconic American feminist artist Judy Chicago in her essay What Is Feminist Art? Her description would probably resonate well with the organizers of Feminisms {Re}Framed, a daring intervention into the local arts scene that’s unfolding at Gallery 24 in downtown St. John’s this weekend. The show embraces a plurality of themes and mediums, as well as a plurality of feminisms.

“There is no definitive feminist art, but what you’ll see is 38 examples of it,” says Zaren Healey White, one of the organizers.

Her co-organizer, Alexandra Fox, nods emphatically.

“People who walk in are going to see 38 different types of feminism. And there’s hundreds of different types of feminism.”

The response to their call for submissions has been infectious. Dozens of submissions poured in, and hundreds of people expressed interest in the event online. For a show promoted largely through social media, it’s generated a great deal of interest in a short amount of time. From a Facebook discussion in March of this year, a team emerged and had its first organizing meeting in June.

“It’s been a month and a half of actual planning,” laughs Fox.

For White, the rapid and powerful response demonstrates a gap that people were waiting to see filled.

“When you put something like this out there, with the uptake and support that you get, you realize that this really matters…I don’t want to say that the St. John’s arts scene is insular, but I feel that often you might go somewhere because you know a person, and it might not have that broad appeal. But I feel that with this, people are writing us ‘I’ve been waiting for this!’”

Making feminist art

But what is feminist art? The organizers adopted a deliberately and broadly inclusive definition, evidenced by the event description: “For this show, we are proposing an inclusive approach to defining feminist art as any art exploring, navigating, or challenging feminist themes and issues and/or art that is feminist through the means of its creation and production. By this, we mean that we would aim to showcase art by feminists who might not otherwise have the means or access to display or perform their work in traditional gallery or exhibit spaces.”

But each of the organizers—and artists—also has their own understandings of feminist art.

“Both mine and Alex’s pieces deal with mental illness, and embodiment,” explains White. “We both are thinking through our experiences as women and feminists…Other people are dealing with traditional gender roles or violence avoidance or body image. A few people are dealing with eating disorders, so there’s a lot of different stuff there…we didn’t want to limit people.”

White is currently doing graduate work in gender studies at Memorial University, and this is what’s informed her current understanding of feminist art.

“I’ve always been interested in feminism, I’ve always been a hobby artist, but I didn’t really see the overlap before until I was doing this degree, or how rich a potential is there for overlap,” she reflects. “Now that I’m doing more actual academic research on feminist art and performance art as a site of activism and activist potential, I’m starting to see that there’s real value in that…I really love the idea of trying to advance a certain idea or experience or reflection [through art].”

“For me, there’s two points to it,” says Fox. “Any female-identified artists putting their art in the world, I think is feminist as well. The industry of the arts world is typically run by men, and anything that challenges that norm I think is feminist in itself as well. And I think anything that shows an alternate type of lived reality that isn’t the able-bodied white cisgendered male perspective in the world is feminist. I think that having more of those perspectives shown in art in any way is feminist.

“My work is about mental illness, and there’s nothing really particularly feminist about it, but I think it’s all about showing what the lived experience of living through depression is all about. And showing my perspective as a female living through depression, I think is feminist. And just getting that perspective more widely known and just challenging the standard mainstream male-centric perspective [is feminist].”

White eagerly jumps in; the infectious energy of the two organizers feeds off each other.

“I approached a few people whose art I knew about and they said, ‘Oh, I don’t think it’s feminist enough,’ or ‘I don’t think it’s feminist,’ and I went, ‘Well, I don’t know. I think it is. Are you a feminist? Does that inform your art? Does that inform your content?’”

Reconsidering feminism, reconsidering art

For Desiree Baker, one of the exhibiting artists, the show has helped her reconsider her own art through a feminist lens, and she acknowledges the importance of embracing a broad definition of feminist art.

“It could be the content in the artwork itself that could be a political message, or it could be just the act of a woman artist making art. I think that in itself can be feminist,” she says.

“For me, I never really thought of my artwork as feminist necessarily, even though I identify as a feminist…but when I’ve started to look back on the art and see what I was thinking and feeling at those times I was making it, I can really pull out a lot of feminist themes, so I’m really glad that this show came up. It made me really reach into my art, and I’ll keep this in mind for my approach [to art] in the future.”

Baker, an emerging artist whose work focuses on the surreal and linear abstraction, has two pieces in the exhibit, drawings with pen and brush. She hesitates to interpret her work, noting that she “want[s] every viewing to be a creative interpretation between the viewer and the art.”

But I press the point, and she explains that for one piece, “my current interpretation is a celebration of love and having the courage to be who you are, and the feeling of goodness you get from that. The second piece is called Goddess and that piece is a celebration of nature. A lot of my themes in my artwork deal with nature and how, over the years and years of patriarchy and dominion over nature, how we’ve tried to master it and how we’ve degraded it. It’s really about celebrating nature as is.”

Pepa Chan is another artist whose work is being showcased at the exhibit. She modestly calls herself an emerging artist, but her work has been showcased and received acclaim both nationally and internationally. Originally from Buenos Aires, Argentina, Chan came to Newfoundland in 2009.

“I love Newfoundland, I love the people and everything here!” she enthuses. “The weather is what I don’t like so much, but the rest of it is great.”

Her contribution to the exhibit speaks to Canada’s darker side, however. Her piece is part of a larger installation she produced last year, involving 80 reconstructed dolls hanging from trees, and it was inspired by missing and murdered aboriginal women.

“When I first came to Canada I wasn’t aware of this, because I’m originally from Argentina, so when I came here Canada was beautiful, pretty, everything was good. But then I started hearing about all these things that were happening, to aboriginal women specifically, and it interested me and I wanted to show my compassion and try to make the community more aware of what was going on and try to support them.”

For Chan, too, the plurality of themes is important in conveying the breadth and power of feminist art. She’s lived and worked in other large cities in Canada and abroad where feminist art has been showcased in different ways, and she’s delighted to see a movement arising in this province as well.

“I mean women have been always oppressed and I feel [feminist art] is about that struggle of looking for equality, to be recognized, in a different way, not just in a traditional way,” she explains.

“A lot of times I felt judged as a woman, and as an immigrant, and I feel that a lot of times because I’m a woman people would just make assumptions and have expectations, and I don’t like that. So that’s also part of my piece, how these dolls look like the porcelain dolls. I was interested in the history of that, because a lot of the dolls are mainly white and a lot of the dolls are wearing these dresses, their hair and their makeup is a certain way, and that interested me—the expectations and the assumptions that people have on women and even little girls. I think my wish is to break that, that kind of expectations and assumptions.”

Feminism: in the city and in the gallery

It may be 2015, but the need for feminism—in all of its forms—is as profound as ever, say the organizers.

“There’s still a lot of misconceptions, there’s still a lot of victim-blaming, there’s still a lot of very negative stuff circulating in St. John’s and in this province,” says White.

She’s referring to the state of gender equality more broadly, but it manifests in the form of inequitable access to the arts world as well. It translates into whose art is validated and put on public display in artistic spaces. White observes that most of the general public would be hard-pressed to list the names of famous women artists, especially local ones.

 [N]ot only was there no shortage of local artists who identified as feminist, but…the public was eager for art that breaks away from the norm and isn’t afraid to push explicitly political issues.

“Male art is unmarked, you know. It is there, and it is accepted, and it is understood, and it is canonized, and we don’t necessarily have to notice it as something that calls attention to itself,” she says.

Feminist art presents itself not only through themes and through the identity of the artists themselves, but in the style and medium of the art as well.

“We have a cross-stitch [in the exhibit], and that’s a cool movement I’ve been seeing in feminist art—reclaiming some of the crafts that have been traditionally [used],” notes Fox, handing over a sample that looks at first glance like it could have emerged from nan’s kitchen.

“That resurgence has been really interesting, seeing women reclaim that as an art form to challenge that mainstream perspective.”

Even the organizers were surprised by the overwhelming response to their call for feminist art, from artists and public alike. It demonstrated to them that not only was there no shortage of local artists who identified as feminist, but that the public was eager for art that breaks away from the norm and isn’t afraid to push explicitly political issues.

“You realize that this really matters,” says White. “I feel like there’s a lot of art going on, and if people are this excited, maybe it means that we need something that is political, and overt. We didn’t want it to be a ‘women’s art show’, we wanted the word feminist in there. We wanted feminism to be there.”

She added that they had been open to submissions from male-identified artists who also identified as feminist, but didn’t receive any.

Challenging mainstream notions of art

For Fox and White, challenging male-centric art norms means challenging conventional standards of what belongs in a gallery, and how those decisions are made. The very fact that the show was put together in a matter of weeks, and combines lesser and unknown artists with more well-recognized artists is all a part of that provocation to mainstream arts norms.

Artwork that will be shown in Feminisms {Re}Framed. Submitted photo.
Artwork that will be shown in Feminisms {Re}Framed. Submitted photo.

“We wanted to explicitly make clear that everyone’s invited [to submit], and that’s part of the feminist act itself,” says White, noting that many galleries shy away from taking chances with unknown artists who are not already commercially successful.

“If we’re using art as a way of putting ideas into [public] space, and if there are already people taking up all the room, then how are we going to find new avenues? Whether it be around the lines of gender and privilege or even establishment. People who are already established are in galleries, but you have to let some other people in too.”

“There’s all these quotes about how art is about expressing what needs to be expressed when there isn’t space for it in society,” says Fox. “So it’s fairly funny and ironic that the people who are already getting the most space in society are also getting all this space to express what there’s no room for.

“Art is a way that you critique the mainstream, but the people who are critiquing the mainstream are mainstream. The one thing that we have, that’s supposed to be open to everybody to provide their own perspective on the world, is being run by people who already own the world.

“We wanted to challenge standard curation,” she continues. “Who gives a shit about what you should be doing? Who defines that? Rich white dudes.”

From hobby to profession

The desire to break down barriers between what’s considered ‘professional’ art and what is not is one of the goals of the exhibit. White herself identifies as a ‘hobby artist’, and it’s a term she adopts proudly.

“I love to use that term,” she says. “I’m trying to get that term out there more. Instead of amateur. I feel that there’s a connotation of amateur as meaning undeveloped or not professional…but I just love the idea of hobby art. It might not be the defining focus of your life, or your profession, or your job, but it’s the thing that you do for fun.”

I ask her how she defines ‘hobby artist’.

“People that are practicing, whether or not they’re selling and earning money, but they’re really practicing with a routine and a dedication. And it’s the same thing that we see with writers. Like who gets to be a writer, who gets to be a poet? Who gets to achieve this, and who decides? I’ve been drawing and making things my entire life, but I’ve never been comfortable calling myself an artist. And I thought, why is that? Why can’t I call myself an artist? Maybe I’m overthinking it and maybe artist should be something that anyone can use as a term.”

Fox points out that showcasing the work of artists who don’t concentrate on achieving commercial success is another way of reconceptualizing the role of art in society.

“To me, that’s what art is and that’s why it’s so important—anybody who expresses their lived experiences, their perspectives, their ideas. You can be an artist and be a construction worker. You can be an artist in almost anything that you do,” she says.

“For me art is all about expressing my perspectives, my experiences, my background, my reality. Having more non-mainstream examples of that just contributes to a broader understanding of the world.”

The challenge of emerging art

For emerging artists like Baker and Chan, the barriers to working as an artist in a world where artistic success is often defined not only in male-centric but also in commercial terms, can be daunting. Challenging those norms through exhibits like this one is important, says Chan.

“As an emerging artist, you do need that support. It’s hard. I’m not really that interested in commercial work but to get into a gallery you need a body of exhibited work, so for somebody starting it’s cool to have a space to show that creativity that’s not so structured and rigid. I think that’s important. I feel like it will also inspire more people, motivate more people, to make and create without just having to do it at home.”

 For me art is all about expressing my perspectives, my experiences, my background, my reality. Having more non-mainstream examples of that just contributes to a broader understanding of the world. — Alexandra Fox

Baker has also experienced the challenges of emerging as a professional artist, particularly in Newfoundland and Labrador.

“It’s pretty hard. There’s professional artists who are making a living, but…there’s just not many venues happening all the time to show your work, so you have to kind of branch out and look across Canada,” she says.

“I think that in Newfoundland there’s a lot of money that goes toward crafts, and supporting crafts over visual arts.”

Baker also appreciates the challenge to standard curating practices that Feminisms {Re}Framed provokes.

“It’s giving a voice to everybody, that the public wouldn’t otherwise access,” she says. “Everybody has their own unique voice, and even if they don’t want to exhibit all of the time, if they want to exhibit once or twice in their life, they’re going to bring a unique vision that people can learn from. That’s what it’s all about. Art is about sharing.”

Sharing, and inspiring others to make and create, is exactly what the organizers of Feminisms {Re}Framed are hoping the show will inspire. They’re already talking of future shows, and about how to spread this type of movement beyond St. John’s.

“Having it spread across the province would be amazing,” says Fox. “But one of the amazing potential outcomes is just having so many like-minded people who appreciate this stuff in the same room. There’s going to be conversations in the room, ideas and meetups and groups and projects that will come out of the networking that will happen.”

“But it’s also about feminism,” White interjects. The organizers nod emphatically in unison.

They, and their team of volunteers, have a lot of work to do—the show is in less than two days and they’re surrounded by stacks of artwork, bubble-wrap, packing crates and all the other chaos and detritus from which art exhibits are born—but what’s most palpable is the spirit of excitement and change that hovers in the air. They’re not sure whether this is the first feminist art show the city has ever had, but it’s certainly one the city has been waiting for.

“This is a good time for a lot of good things that maybe we haven’t done before, and maybe we need to,” says White.

Feminisms Reframed

Feminisms {Re}Framed runs Saturday, July 18, 4-9 p.m. (opening reception at 6 p.m.) and Sunday, July 19 from, 12-4 p.m. at Gallery 24, 71 Casey Street, St. John’s. Click here for more info.

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