Recognizing three female artists utilizing art to bridge the idea of radical feminism and the past
Art is an outlet reserved for visual self-expression, but its relationship to women and movements of change is something altogether different. It is as old as human existence and has taken on many forms. Feminism, while thought to be a modern idea, dates back centuries and centuries when women (Joan of Arc) stood up and decided they were capable of doing what men could. The stories unearthed as more and more information makes its way to the surface and exposes that feminism isn’t reduced to a movement of the 1920s or the 1960s. It’s an ongoing movement—both archaic and contemporary—that has yet to be fully realized and implemented in modern society.
To explore its roots leads to more rabbit holes than we can quantify simply because the women in history that have fought for equality, rights and visibility would look to the present day flabbergasted and baffled that we are still in the very same fight.
So while we’d love to share the countless stories of feminism and its influence over so many aspects of everyday life, that would take an entire lifetime. That’s why we’re focusing on a few artists whose work is an act of feminism, asking the viewer to look deeper beneath the surface and ask if art can indeed be an outlet to further the dialogue.
The answer to that is: YES.
In a book written by Marlene LeGates called, In Their Time: A History of Feminism in Western Society, she mentions that her daughter gave her a copy of Ms. Magazine with a lead article titled, “50 Ways to Be a Feminist.” When she opened the pages, one passage, in particular, stood out.
“The beauty of this movement of ours is that it’s so fluid—ever moving, evolving, growing … If we devoted every page of every issue for the next 22 years to describing the many ways you are putting feminism into practice, we still wouldn’t come close to covering it all.”
Anthropologist and Ethnologist Joan Cassell echoed that sentiment. In a scholarly paper she writes, “When a woman’s consciousness is raised, she perceives herself and other women as members of a degraded group and is committed to altering this state.” A leader of the feminist movement, she believed feminism could be separate from a woman’s identity. In contrast to that, LeGates adds that Barbara Emerson, an African American also leading the movement of feminism, responded, “I’m an Africa-American woman, in that order …
Now, I realize full well that lots of women see their gender, or see, feel, think their gender first and then their race. It doesn’t happen to come to me that way.”
So how can art lend to the conversation of exploring race and feminism? Art can be a platform of significant change and in recent years has become precisely that.
HOWARDENA PINDELL: Free, White, and 21
Born in Philadelphia, Howardena Pindell studied painting at Boston University and Yale. Pindell recorded a video self-portrait, “Free, White, and 21” of her experience as an African American woman growing up in the United States. The piece was an interpretation of her life, her childhood, and painful moments in her life. It recounts her childhood experience of being cared for by a white babysitter, her experiences in kindergarten, as a student in high school, in university, receiving a job rejection, and finally being treated badly at a wedding, as the only black woman present.
Artspace discusses the depth behind the piece. “During these accounts a white woman interjects with: ‘you don’t exist until we validate you’: ‘and you know, if you don’t want to do what we tell you then we will find other tokens’; and finally: ‘and you must be really paranoid. I have never had experiences like that. But, of course, I am free, white and twenty-one.’ The work directly criticizes white feminist and racism prevalent within the art world. Pindell worked with the Heresies collective and other feminist groups. This video was first shown in the exhibition ‘Dialectics of Isolation: An Exhibition of Third World Women Artists in the United States’ in September 1980 at AIR Gallery, New York, curated by the artist Ana Mendieta.”
PATTY CARROLL PHOTOGRAPHY: Anonymous Women
Patty Carroll has been known for her use of highly intense, saturated color photographs since the 1970s. Her most recent project, “Anonymous Women,” consists of a 3-part series of studio installations made for the camera, addressing women and their complicated relationships with domesticity. By camouflaging the figure in drapery and/or domestic objects, Carroll creates a dark and humorous game of hide-and-seek between her viewers and the Anonymous Woman. The photographs were published as a monograph, Anonymous Women, officially released in January 2017 by Daylight Books and most recently, Anonymous Women: Domestic Demise published in 2020 by Aint-Bad Books. Publications, Online Galleries & Blogs
The Anonymous Woman series has been exhibited internationally and has won multiple awards including Carroll being acknowledged as one of Photolucida’s “Top 50” in 2104 and 2017. Her work has been featured in prestigious blogs and international magazines such as The Huffington Post, The Cut, Ain’t Bad Magazine, and BJP in Britain. Her work has been shown internationally in many one-person exhibits in China and Europe, as well as the USA (White Box Museum, Beijing, Art Institute of Chicago, Royal Photographic Society, Bath, England, among others). She has participated in over 100 group exhibitions nationally and internationally, and her work is included in many public and private collections. After teaching photography for many years, Carroll has enthusiastically returned to the studio in order to delight viewers with her playful critique of home and excess. She is currently Artist in Residence at Studios Inc. in Kansas City, Missouri.
KARA WALKER: Endless Conundrum, an African American Anonymous Adventuress
Kara Walker is among the most complex and prolific American artists of her generation. She has gained national and international recognition for her cut-paper silhouettes depicting historical narratives haunted by sexuality, violence and subjugation. Walker has also used drawing, painting, text, shadow puppetry, film and sculpture to expose the ongoing psychological injury caused by the tragic legacy of slavery. Her work leads viewers to a critical understanding of the past while also proposing an examination of contemporary racial and gender stereotypes.
In the early 2000s, Walker began making 16mm films and video installations that set her silhouettes in motion. Testimony: Narrative of a Negress Burdened by Good Intentions (2004) is a short, silent 16mm film in a lurid story of masters and slaves is told with shadow puppets and title cards. In the 5-screen video installation …calling to me from the angry surface of some grey and threatening sea, I was transported(2007), Walker set her black shadow puppets against intensely colored backgrounds and added a soundtrack of music by a Southern country band. The work references both the history of slavery in America and contemporary events such as the 2003 genocide in Darfur, Sudan, reminding viewers that images of black bodies in pain continue to be a European/American spectacle.
I think really the whole problem with racism and its continuing legacy in this country is that we simply love it. Who would we be without the “struggle”?
The work sparked controversy, going beyond a clearly positioned critique of historically racist imagery to explore a seductive fascination with repressed and forbidden layers of interpretation. In 1997, at age 28, Walker became one of the youngest-ever recipients to receive a MacArthur Fellowship.