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Guerrilla Girls: Feminist Art, Then and Now

It seems like a hundred years ago that the question “Why have there been no great women artists?” was posed by Linda Nochlin in her essay of the same name in ARTNews. Indeed it was in another century (1971) the passing of which was marked by much fuss and excitement of greeting the new millennium. Once the frenzy had subsided, the year 2000 sneaked in more like a whimper, until the multiple blasts of Sept. 2001 defined the new century , and resound till today.
To ask the taxing question, “What, or where, is feminist art in 2015?” implies that question and project are both passé. One can find oneself on shaky ground, examining ambivalent and contrary responses. Many would argue that since feminist politics and practices have both moved on, a certain naiveté clings to the query in 2015.
However, the debates raging in the West in the 1970s about the exclusion of women from art history, and the structural sexism of most academic disciplines, might convince one that Peggy Phelan’s view still holds true: “Feminism is the conviction that gender has been, and continues to be, a fundamental category for the organization of culture. Moreover the pattern of that organization usually favors men over women”.[i]
Those years in which feminist art historians like Griselda Pollack, Rozsika Parker, Lucy Lippard among others, were exposing patriarchal ideologies embedded in art history, their theoretical investigations were unknowingly, yet curiously connected to events unfolding in Pakistan.
In 1983, when sixteen women artists in Lahore sat down to draft and sign the Women Artists Manifesto, they were hardly aware of the battles feminist art historians were engaged in. To those Western feminists, the teaching of art history was not simply a matter of “adding” women to art history, but a far more drastic assault on the male Eurocentric view of art canons and the art establishment.
One of the early groups were emerged in the women’s movement in the 70s in the West, was the Women’s Workshop of the Artists Union in London, which summarized their view of the complex issues confronting them thus: “We formed a collective of women artists because of our common situation/condition. We share similar if not identical problems of isolation; both from other women artists and general isolation of artists in a society which is alien to collective creative activity”.[ii]
The isolation from other women artists was because few women situated themselves in the sub-category of ‘women artists’ and fought shy of feminism. They largely adhered to the dominant value system that propped up patriarchal underpinnings of art institutions and protocols. The notion of ‘genius’ continued to be gender specific.
The dissatisfaction with art discourse, the prevalent pedagogy in art schools, gallery and museum policies provoked heated discussions and action by other women artists. The famous (or infamous) ‘gorilla girls’, clad in black gorilla suits turned up at museum soirees, exhibitions, gallery previews and university campuses across the U.S. to create a rumpus at sedate events. The political climate in North America and Europe was no doubt a catalyst. The Civil Rights Movement, anti-Vietnam war demonstrations and student protests of 1968 in Europe, created a time of social unrest, political agitation and violent street activism.
Simone de Beauvoir’s writings, especially the appearance of The Second Sex, percolating across the world since its English translation appeared in 1953, proclaimed a new approach to gender and difference. It announced that difference was ‘constructed’ and not ‘natural’, thus paving the way for upsetting innumerable apple carts. Feminists in Europe, North America and Australia began setting up collectives, organizing exhibitions, exchanging ideas and demanding their share in public spaces.
The first academic program devoted to the making of art by women, incorporating tenets that addressed the feminist agenda was initiated by Judy Chicago at Fresno, California in 1971 and later in collaboration with Mariam Schapiro at Cal Art, California in 1972. Twenty four women refurbished a house in Los Angeles in 1972 to transform it into an exhibition titled ‘Woman House’. This was firstly a comment on a gallery system which was inhospitable to women artists, and secondly, a move to blur boundaries between the domestic and public exhibition space. The Woman House exhibition included work made with cosmetics, underwear and tampons, which shocked and provoked audiences who nevertheless turned up in large numbers to view the work on display. This desire to shock and awe pretty much defined feminist art in the 1970s.
Nancy Spero’s involvement in the anti-Vietnam War movement in the 60s, infused her practice with a wider political activism. She, together with other women artists, was focused on making work, about “things that matter”. Sensitive to “the gendered nature of war”, Spero used hand-printed enlarged fragments of text and reports of Amnesty International on torture of women in South Africa and South America. Many years later, she worked on walls in the conflict ridden streets of Belfast in Northern Ireland. Spero was also instrumental in the founding of WAR (Women Artists in Revolution) and AIR (Artists in Residence) the first women’s gallery in New York.
Much of the imagery and focus in feminist art in the 70s was body-centric. Judy Chicago’s ambitious collaborative installation The Dinner Party (assembled in 1970-1979) drew attention to aesthetics of an emergent canon. This installation, which has travelled the world since then, seen by thousands since its inception, (some say, the largest ever audiences in the world) triggered a storm of controversies. The place settings around a dining table of exquisitely portrayed ceramic plates, embroidered and meticulously rendered vulvas, presented themselves for analysis and critical questioning of content.
‘Feminine’ domestic practices like embroidery, macramé, garment making were now celebrated and elevated. The idea of the ‘core’ image as a universal, constant component in women artist’s work, gained credence, alongside a growing realization that while the act of celebrating women’s identity and life experience was pleasurable, it could stumble into the trap of essentializing womanhood. It was realized that to over-emphasize those aspects of female experience which had been suppressed in a male dominated society, may reduce the female species exclusively to her biological self.
Alongside this, the tendency in art practice to celebrate ‘feminine’ skills may also become reductive, if not viewed in the context of the condition of women’s lives and their diverse histories and locations. The scrutiny of this aspect of femininity was inevitable, since it could embody a covert submissiveness instead of its original intent. As posited by Griselda Pollack, “the shifting geographies of feminism must be taken into account in any history of feminist art”.[iii]
Although the focus on the body and the subsequent shifts in content and form were a sign of dynamic development in the theoretical discourses accompanied by art practice, some troubling questions remained. The entry of women of color and artists from the non-Western would, into ongoing debates highlighted the tenor of the feminist discourse. In 1980, an exhibition titled ‘Dialectics of Isolation: An Exhibition of Third World Women Artists of the U.S’ at AIR in New York demonstrated what women artists of color had felt all along. The Cuban artist Ana Mendieta noted in the catalogue of the show that “American feminism is basically a white middle class movement”.[iv]
The women artist’s movement in Britain however was closely aligned with trade unions and their political struggle. The late 70s and 80s were years in which all aspects of gender, class, color and access informed the feminist art agenda, breaking barriers and widening the conversations.
In Pakistan, the political struggle of the late 70s and 80s owed a great deal to women’s participation, specifically the Women’s Action Forum, a broad based lobby of women’s groups. Although it would be incorrect to term this a ‘feminist’ struggle in the accepted sense, there were many confluences. The arts and literature in Pakistan fed into the women’s movement in a distinct manner, which embraced feminist positions in a broad, autonomous manner.
This is not to suggest that the debates and divisiveness that polarized feminist theorists, historians and practices in the North would not be mirrored in certain ways, in women’s groups in Pakistan. However, women artists, whose contribution to evolution of imagery, processes and pedagogy matured in the time of General Zia ul Haq, continued to consciously draw upon their radicalism. They understood the struggles deep relevance to their life and work. Among them were Durriya Kazi, Summaya Durrani, Nahid Raza, Mehr Afroze, Lalarukh, Naazish Ata Ullah, Salima Hashmi, Nilofer Akmut and in the following generation Naiza Khan, Aisha Khalid, Laila Rehman, Sabina Gillani, Tazeen Qayum, Shahzia Sikandar, Masooma Syed, Farida Batool, Hamra Abbas and many others.
While in the West, the female body and its representation by men was challenged by feminists, the female body had a different position in the Pakistani context. It was located at the center of the Pakistani state’s political agenda, which claimed ownership of female sexuality as well as its appearance. The Chaador was a symbol of suffocation and oppression, masquerading as protection. Thus dark humor, mockery and defiance, starkly different in nature, to that in the North, was the spirit which inhabited the art of Pakistani women. The cultural context directed its lexicon which was nuanced and often ambiguous. There was a deliberate desire to explore the ‘unmentionable’. There were, and continue to be, subversive undercurrents and covert acts of rebellion in the work of women artists. The body is still the site of rebellion, the covering and uncovering of which is fertile and convoluted. Most women artists are reluctant to label their work ‘feminist’, being more comfortable with describing themselves as “working on women’s issues”. This is unsurprising, considering that feminist art and criticism had moved on, since the 80s. There are more involved debates around popular culture, marginal art practices and collaborations, which have helped to topple comfortable hierarchies of art history and theory.
The exhibition of twenty-five Pakistani women artists, titled ‘An Intelligent Rebellion: Women Artists of Pakistan’ which toured Britain and was also shown in Paris (1994-1996) demonstrated the pluralism of the work of women and its potent self-image. The exhibition ‘Woman scape’ mounted at Alhamra in 1995, to mark a women’s conference and seminar, comprised the work of women artists, artisans and students which meshed together in a deep, meaningful and lively manner. Almost two decades later, the work of women practitioners comprises multifarious aesthetic concerns which address labyrinthine societal pressures as well as more personal investigations into form, medium and meaning.
In the 1980s, women artists like other creative practitioners, found themselves under the umbrella of feminism without naming it. Women adopted these strategies as part of a larger struggle. “Today those ground breaking positions are accepted, because the contemporary world is a very different one” notes Naazish Ataullah, whose own work now incorporates issues to do with ageing and loss. A younger artist, Farida Batool, muses on the fact that women artists have detached themselves from the notion of feminism, but fail to notice that their work continues to be entangled in the complication of being a female in Pakistani society. They may in fact, have ceded the right to speak in their own voice.
While feminist art historians and critics altered the course of art disciplines for all times to come, the label is constrained by its own branding. A circuitous route has to be adopted to re-open the discussion on the torturous space inhabited by women. Their lives may have marginally altered, their aspirations matured and grown stronger, but is it enough? Each day brings news of greater violence, discrimination, and state negligence. It is right here, not very far from us, in Dir in the North of Pakistan, in a recent by-election, of the 47000 registered women voters, not one came out to vote on April 30th 2015. The feminist cause awaits the artist.
Salima Hashmi is an artist and writer and Dean of the School of Visual Arts & Design at the Beaconhouse National University, Lahore,
Notes:
[i] Peggy Phelan, “Survey” in Art and Feminism. Ed Helena Reckitt. Phaidon, London, New York, 2001.
[ii] Spare Rib, July 1974, no: 29.
[iii] Griselda Pollock, Generation and Geographies in the Visual Arts: Feminist Readings. Routledge London, New York, 1996.
[iv] Cited by Peggy Phelan in her essay ‘Survey’ in Art and Feminism’ Ed. Helena Reckitt, Phaidon, London, New York, 2001

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