Gleaming acrylic fingernails glued into patterned, reptilian forms that emerge from the wall; female anatomy rendered in neon light and boxing gloves; cement seeping through lace and paint; haunting words about the present overlaid on imagery of the past: surface tension abounds in this exploration of contemporary feminist art. The broad range of media and subject matter presented reflects the ongoing influence of the art of the second-wave women’s liberation movement, which engendered unprecedented cultural change, shifting art-making out of the isolated studio and hallowed institutions into both more intimate domestic and broader public spheres. The ensuing transformation ushered in generations of artists addressing identity, the body, and the affirmation of personal experience. As critic Laura Cottingham writes, “[contemporary] art engaged with sexuality, conscious politics, gender roles,…first person video, autobiography, and performance is directly indebted to the space opened up for new media and new content by the feminist art movement in the seventies.”
The use of the self as subject and the prevalence of craft-based practices such as sewing, weaving, embroidery, and appliqué in 21st-century art are central to this legacy. During the 1970s, artists like Judy Chicago, Mira Schor, Martha Rosler, Adrian Piper, Howardena Pindell, Faith Wilding, 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 and consumed. Today, artists like Gina Phillips, Lesley Dill, and Stephanie Hirsch employ and expand decorative or domestic art to reveal intersections between the personal and the political. Phillips’s sewn portraits of friends and neighbors in the Lower Ninth Ward of New Orleans, pieced together from found or discarded fabrics, capture both the vulnerability and presence of her models. Dill and Hirsch express a sense of power and purpose that belies the delicate fabrics and feminine forms of their craft-based work: Dill’s hand sewn image of a veiled woman asserts I See Visions, and Hirsch’s bright, beaded floral canvas declares her Indestructible.
The inventive use of language, whether printed, projected, illuminated, or recorded animates works by Carrie Mae Weems, Jenny Holzer, Betty Tompkins, Kiki Seror, Nina Katchadourian, and Michele Pred, introducing unexpected voices into both art and history that resonate as private and public at once. Weems, Tompkins, Seror, and Holzer use text to interrogate power through self-expression, creating new narratives for cultural and political resistance. Projected as video onto institutional buildings in Berlin, Holzer’s poems about her fears as a parent become the collective concern of all who “fear those in power.” Weems’s inclusion of her own image in her meditation on the parallels between Native and African American history renders her “sorrow song” both personal and universal. Describing the genesis of The Hampton Project, Weems observes, “Women are the weepers of history.” With her back to the viewer, the artist resists being marginalized, claiming center stage to reveal layers of personal, historical, and cultural loss, creating a self-portrait that portrays multitudes.
For her series, Women Words, Tompkins crowdsourced “words about women” and overlaid them on top of images of women from art history by male artists. The text obscures the image, subverting male-centric narratives and revealing the misogynistic and degrading terms often used to describe women. Seror’s lightbox, Not of Her Body, Her Thoughts Can Kill, Dulcinea, is a digitally rendered, hard-to-decipher text derived from the artist’s exchanges with men in online sex chat rooms. This illuminated script of seduction challenges the stereotype that women do not seek or control their own sexual pleasure. By manipulating the physical and psychological properties of language, Seror transforms the viewer into a complicit voyeur of her power and seduction.
Using a scarf, a sweater, and toilet seat covers to create outrageous costumes in homage to David Bowie and Freddie Mercury, Katchadourian and her double sing along to the rock stars’ hit song “Under Pressure” in an airplane bathroom, simultaneously voicing the frustrations of everyday life while inserting her artistic identity into the male-dominated traditions of both portraiture and pop culture. Pred’s hot pink hand mirrors combine the symbol for the female gender with captions that render the viewer “Feminist,” “Equal,” or “Powerful,” offering a passive yet potent transformation of the audience-subject’s self-image.
Mirror images also appear in Nandipha Mntambo’s double self-portrait, Umfanekiso wesibuko (Mirror image), sculpted in cowhide and posed as a hybrid, inhabiting a human and bovine body at once. The artist often uses cowhide as a means to “subvert expected associations with corporeal presence, femininity, sexuality and vulnerability,” and create a new vision of female representation. Her photographic series …everyone carries a shadow explores “how we understand the male/female divide, the animal/human divide, and attraction and repulsion.” The images depict Mntambo in a physical, interactive dance with her male counterpart, blurring the distinction between where one body ends and another begins.
Self-portraiture is a hallmark of painter Gaela Erwin’s practice; she envisions herself in wide range of roles, real and fictional. Portrait of my Mother in her Wedding Dress is a pastel likeness of her mother, whose close resemblance to the artist suggests this could be dual portrait, picturing a potential encounter with age and mortality. A confrontation with past experience inspired Zanele Muholi’s series of self-portraits, Somnyama Ngonyama (“Hail the dark lioness”). “When I was young, I was told that I was ugly, and I had to grow up with that sense of ugliness and shame,” Muholi explains. Self-portraiture allows Muholi to explore multiple elements of their personality as a black, lesbian woman, while undoing the psychological damage of growing up in a society that devalued their appearance and identity. Printed as large-scale wallpaper, these images portray a powerful, regal figure wearing shimmering eyeliner, braided wigs, and a tiara. Their glowing skin is darkened deeper than its natural hue and they stare directly at the viewer, their intense gaze asserting full self-determination. Muholi describes themselves as a visual activist rather than an artist, and their photography as a personal expression of resistance, because, they declare, “we cannot be denied existence. This is about our lives, and if queer history, trans history, if politics of blackness and self-representation are so key in our lives, we just cannot sit down and not document and bring it forth.”
“Sitting in front of a mirror for two years trying to capture my features felt like an ongoing hymn, repeated again and again,” says Hannah McBroom. From 2017 to 2019, the artist painted one self-portrait each month for twenty-four months, cataloguing her physical and emotional states as she used hormone replacement therapy (HRT) to transition from male to female. McBroom gave herself two rules for the project: each painting had to be completed in one month and each must be a forward-facing profile as she saw herself. The resulting portraits that comprise Two Year Hymn range from photorealist to nearly abstract. “Some feel scarred and ghostly, some appear distorted, while others appear to be an exact copy of what I looked like at that moment,” she observes. McBroom’s devotion to her ritual is a personal Hymn, a sacred expression of identity and transformation.
Today the most iconic art-historical precedent for envisioning and honoring the power of the female body remains Judy Chicago’s monumental ceramic sculpture The Dinner Party (1974-1979). With place settings emblazoned with floral designs that reference the female body, The Dinner Party gave Georgia O’Keeffe and 998 other notable women throughout history recognition for their accomplishments. Thirty years later, E.V. Day’s Waterlily enlarges one of O’Keeffe’s signature subjects—the flower—into a lush, far larger-than-life-size vision that evokes the body—a portrait of the floral and the female, showcasing its beauty and its power. Indeed, “the body is a receptacle for knowledge, belief, storytelling,” says Kiki Smith, who has spent the last three decades creating a pantheon of female icons, such as Ballerina (Stretching Left). Archetypes from mythology and fairy tales populate Natalie Frank’s paper pulp paintings of siren-like women who embody and express jealousy or desire, power and knowledge. Woman II with her cascading red locks, confronts the viewer with a looking glass in hand, claiming the gaze and asserting her power.
Female identity and experience is often the subject of Frances Goodman’s multi-media investigations, including Medusa, a many-tentacled wall sculpture titled after the mythological Greek monster with a woman’s form and face, but a head full of writhing snakes in place of hair. Medusa’s weapon was her stare: she turned her victims to stone with one look into their eyes. Goodman’s appropriation of the myth subverts the convention of the “male gaze,” the theory first posited by writer Laura Mulvey in a 1975 essay “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,” that women are represented as objects to be seen in art, while men are assumed to be the viewers or consumers of imagery. Makeup, jewelry, and other forms of self-adornment have long served as women’s weapons to make themselves seen (in competition with others) and as armature under which to hide (masking or protecting the real, vulnerable self). For this three-dimensional investigation into female representation and consumerism, Goodman utilized thousands of the acrylic nails designed for use as bodily decoration after she heard a dropped fake nail described as the ultimate female calling card—a weapon of seduction.
Goodman’s labor-intensive technique and use of inexpensive, commercially produced objects designed for self-adornment, connects her work to that of 1970s feminist artists. As curator Tami Katz-Freiman writes, “Goodman thus joins a respectable lineage of women artists who brought elements previously relegated to the inferior margins of kitsch and decoration center stage….the use of acrylic fingernails—a popular consumer product, a cosmetic prosthetic that blurs the boundaries of the body and presents an illusory substitute for ‘the natural,’ the seemingly innocent ornamental pattern appears as a parable for the web of affinities between flesh, body, nature, culture, ornamentation, beautification, seduction, and consumerism.”
Intimate, personal, and worn next to the skin, underwear tells both highly personal stories and reflects prevailing standards of beauty. To create her Every Curve series, Zoë Buckman hand-embroidered rap lyrics about women from songs by Notorious B.I.G. and Tupac Shakur into vintage lingerie ranging from turn of the century corsets, to flowing 1930s nightgowns, to pointy, wired, 1950s-era bras. Buckman, who grew up in a feminist household and has long been a fan of rap, embraces the visual and conceptual tension of combining soft, feminine clothing with the song lyrics that are alternatively violent and misogynistic, yet sometimes loving and empowering. Buckman explains, “You shouldn’t have to shun something that’s complicated and difficult. The fact is, the beats are amazing and the lyrics are really skilled. We shouldn’t have to never listen to Biggie because we’re feminists.”
Deborah Roberts and Stacy Lynn Waddell both resist the reductive representation of black female figures in popular culture. Roberts’s series of collage portraits of young black girls responds to the historical—and persistent—absence of black women and girls featured in advertisements and on television shows. “To me, Black beauty has always been put on the back burner,” the artist explains. Roberts’s polymorphic figures suggest a multiplicity of identities: young girls and women who appear simultaneously defiant and innocent, vibrant and thoughtful, meditative and incendiary. Stacy Lynn Waddell’s shimmering gold portrait Untitled (Graduate), was inspired by her Aunt Gloria Edwina’s 1960s-era graduation photo. Utilizing a material traditionally associated with depictions of divinity, political power, or social status, Waddell transforms a stock black and white photograph into a reverential portrait of female strength and beauty. Acting as her family’s photo archivist, Waddell also keeps a collection of 1960s graduation portraits of anonymous African American women that she believes pose questions about equality, progress, and the evolution of institutional influence and power over the last several decades of civic activism.
Invoking both mythology and grim reality, cultural critique is embedded in works by Alison Saar and Vibha Galhotra. Saar’s Hades D.W.P. presents five glass jars, each filled with water to varying levels, lit and tagged with lines of poetry, their surfaces etched with figures that float between life and death. Labels identify the water sources as the five rivers of the underworld, which according to Greek mythology, guide the dead to the afterlife. Saar first presented this assemblage in “Silt, Soot and Smut,” an exhibit inspired by the Great Mississippi Flood of 1927, which displaced more than 200,000 African Americans. The aged cups, ladles, and spoons that hang from the shelf indicate the water is meant for drinking, though its colors suggest toxicity, alluding to the recent poisoning of drinking water in Flint, Michigan; D.W.P. is a reference to the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, where the artist lives and works. Saar combines familiar, domestic, and personal objects, imagery, and writing to connect past and present adversities resulting from the intersection of environmental destruction and social inequality.
Ecological disaster is addressed through mythic ritual in Galhotra’s multi-media series, ABSUR-CITY-PITY-DITY, which exposes the rapid environmental changes underway in India’s Yamuna River, one of the world’s most contaminated waterways. A hypnotic film, Manthan, invokes a Hindu legend in which the gods churn the ocean to obtain the nectar of immortality. As the camera moves along the banks of the sewage-filled river, performers attempt to cleanse the water. The sprawling city and polluted landscape are reflected in the water’s surface, offering a reminder that the future of humanity is tied to the health of the environment. The fragility of the Yamuna and its communities is evoked in Galhotra’s hanging Map, an overhead view of the riverscape hand-woven in glass and bugle beads and reflected on the wall, creating ephemeral echoes of the topographical patterns receding from view.
Long subject to patriarchal control, the female body knows pain and power. Zoë Buckman invokes this visceral knowledge in Champ, a glowing neon sculpture of the female reproductive organs with boxing gloves in the place of ovaries. The work is a direct response to the recent political attacks on Planned Parenthood and attempts to curtail women’s reproductive rights. Embellished with materials from bridal gowns and veils, Buckman uses boxing gloves as the central element in her series, Let Her Rave. This group of hanging sculptures responds to 19th-century poet John Keats’s expression of male dominance in his “Ode on Melancholy” from 1819: “Or if thy mistress some rich anger shows, / Imprison her soft hand, and let her rave.” Buckman’s sculptures challenge the treatment of women and the representation of the feminine as a series of binary paradoxes: that women are gentle and nurturing, but also weak and hysterical, simultaneously chaste yet seductive. Buckman notes, “The work is about the ways in our society that patriarchal constructs keep us controlled.” Buckman’s combination of traditionally feminine materials with boxing gloves is both an assertion of feminist power and an invitation to join the fight.
Historical and present-day activism collide in Andrea Bowers’s homage to the women who fought for the right to vote, March on Washington, March 3rd, 1913 (Leaflet for the National American Women’s Suffrage Association, illustrated by Alice Paul). Using found cardboard protest signs to create a patchwork background, Bowers recreates the historical drawing from the cover of the program for the women’s suffrage procession on March 3, 1913. The Art Deco-style scene shows a group of women—on foot and on horseback—marching towards the capitol; the woman on horseback blows a horn with a banner demanding votes for women. Bowers reminds viewers that over one hundred years after this march, the fight for equal rights continues. Felix Cid captures the ongoing struggle in his photograph of the 2017 Women’s March in Washington D.C., which followed the inauguration of the 45th president of the United States. From top to bottom, side to side, the frame is filled with people holding signs, wearing pink hats, and manifesting the right to peaceful protest. The figures and heroines of this century-long struggle remain in the collective consciousness and shape conversations about feminism today. Painted in shades of gray, Gavin Nolan’s image of writer, activist, and life-long feminist, Gloria Steinem, speaking at a podium, illuminates both her legacy and her relevance today: the words she spoke in the 1970s still resonate in the fight against patriarchy. The artist depicts Steinem wearing pink and yellow-lensed glasses, and titles the portrait Triscopic, a scientific term used to describe an X-ray imaging system that produces beams from multiple directions. Steinem has been lauded as a feminist icon for decades; Nolan presents her as a visionary who has grasped—and grappled with—the complexity of gender politics and human rights throughout her lifetime.
An ardent activist for human rights, Stacey Kirby creates installation and performance work that invites participants to engage in conversations about identity, citizenship, and human rights. Staged as a bureaucratic office space, participants in CIVIL PRESENCE are led through a multistep process by which they are assigned and physically stamped with a number on their wrist. As their numbers are called, individuals are interviewed, fingerprinted, asked to prove their identity with documentation, measured, and “processed” by the civil presence officer on duty who arbitrarily decides their level of “absence” or “presence” based on their written “Civilian Statement of Presence.” As the artist’s intent is to foster community engagement and participation in socio-political systems, everyone is marked “absent,” asking participants to consider how they can be more engaged and “present” in this moment.
The female population of Saya Woolfalk’s utopian vision transcends binary divisions. Inspired equally by science and science fiction, nature and technology, Woolfalk’s Empathics are hybrid creatures whose DNA combines genetic materials from humans and plants, a cross-species who are highly culturally adaptive and who feel and understand deeply the experiences of others. ChimaCloud Crystal Body B and Chimabot (Iguana) are figurative sculptures covered in a decorative skin of lace appliqué, pearls, felt, sequins, silk butterflies, and symbolic patterns with bejeweled and cloth-wrapped resin bones, a carved iguana, and more. Both the subject matter and materials of these embellished female forms reference feminist art history, though they have clearly emerged from a supernatural realm. Woolfalk explains the origins of these figures, saying “the Empathics have patented a multi-step process with home-use technologies that make interspecies and intersubjective hybridization available to all.” In the utopia Woolfalk describes as evolving from “a post-racial and/or post-gender reality,” the future is female, and female may then apply to all who embrace and embody extreme hybridity—a condition shaped and nurtured by empathy.
Thirty years ago, theorist Judith Butler published her influential book, Gender Trouble, which posits that gender is performative, challenging the binaries long established by the patriarchy: “Precisely because ‘female’ no longer appears to be a stable notion; its meaning is as troubled and unfixed as ‘woman.’” The fluidity of gender and sexual identity is today widely accepted, and yet as the art featured in The Future is Female illuminates, the struggle for equality and inclusion persists: much progress is needed before Woolfalk’s fantasy of the utopian world of the Empathics reflects lived reality.
Alice Gray Stites, Chief Curator, Museum Director
Notes and references:
“The Future is Female” first appeared during the 1970s on a t-shirt designed for the first women’s bookstore in New York City. Over the last two years, the phrase has re-emerged on clothing, social media, and various other platforms.
Judith Butler, Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity. London and New York: Routledge, 1990.
Laura Cottingham, Seeing Through the Seventies: Essays on Feminism and Art. London and New York: Routledge, 2000.
Tami Katz-Freiman, “Frances Goodman Nails Her Colors to the Mast,” in Rapaciously Yours, exhibition catalog, Richard Taittinger Gallery, New York, NY, 2015.
Lucy Lippard, The Pink Glass Swan: Selected Essays on Feminist Art. New York: The New Press, 1995.