Walking through feminisms in Nottingham Contemporary is something like walking around a huge source of energy; hot and cold, bright and dark, uncanny and reassuring, supportive and not always supported … The energy of emotions, bodily movements, words, eyes, hands, smoke, water and stone. Photographs, etchings, drawings, posters, crochet, videos, performances …
‘Still I Rise: Feminisms, Gender, Resistance’ is the first act of an exhibition showing a kind of history of resistance through the means of feminisms and intersectional queer thinking. The curators started to build the exhibition as an idea two years ago. Then, we didn’t have #metoo and #timesup, Trump wasn’t yet the POTUS, women’s marches weren’t so much in the news, Brazil hadn’t elected a president who is now known as a global danger. Still, we had a long and beautiful history of resistance.
The exhibition starts with the Paris Commune of 1871, with mugshots of arrested women protesters and a cast of Louise Michel’s hand who was a key figure in the Commune, and contains a brand new work. The show doesn’t follow a chronological order or narrative. Curators Irene Aristizábal and Rosie Cooper say that this was essential to the approach they took.
“The questions are still unresolved. You see the problems of 19th century France, you see the fight of 1970s women’s liberation movements, eco-feminist movement’s questions haven’t gone away since the 1960s. A part of society’s moved on and a big part of society’s still stuck with the same issues. We decided not to curate the exhibition chronologically, because chronology implies progress. We wanted to set up conversations across time and space.”
From Pat Garrett and Jackie Collins’ board game about the polarisation between working-class and middle-class feminists in northern England to Pamela Singh’s photographs of Chipko Tree Hugger women from the Himalayas, to Ana Mendieta’s absence in her land images, and Amina Ahmed’s installation of the remake of her journal filled with her favourite female singers … the personal, political, of the land, of the body, of the ideas. ‘Still I Rise’ gives a wonderful selection of feminist and queer art and succeeds in giving a sense of both progress and decline. fierce pussy’s poster showing a suffragette asks “1906, this woman was arrested for wanting the right to vote. 1993, how many women will lose their jobs, homes, or kids for being lesbian?”
The curators and the artists present at the opening of the show agree that it feels partly like going backwards, although for different reasons. Glenn Belverio, whose drag queen alter ego, Glennda Orgasm’s TV show in the early 1990s was a NY sensation, is one of the artists shown. ‘Glennda and Friends’, shot in 1993, shows her and the controversial post-feminist thinker/writer Camille Paglia taking to the streets of NYC, visiting the site of the Stonewall Riots and intervening in a feminist anti-porn demonstration. Camille has a lot to say about the anti-porn movement, infamously not supporting second wave feminism; on the other hand Glennda, a 60s inspired very stylish blondie, seems more naïve, less opinionated, but manages to raise provocative questions. She criticises the media’s focus away from drag queens in an attempt to visually ‘normalise’ queer communities. Belverio says that compared to the 1990s it has gone backwards. “Everything is being policed today. You are allowed to have one opinion and if it’s an unpopular one then you’re a right wing Nazi. The grey area is diminished. This is how people deal with the trans issue in the US too. When parents see their children a bit trans-like, they immediately put them on hormones. The categories that are discussed represent an idea of gender and that is a stereotypical representation. There are so many terms that you can’t use anymore.”
Also in the exhibition is work by See Red Women’s Workshop, whose members Pru Stevenson and Ann Roberts, though retired, are now quite busy with exhibitions and talks given renewed interest in their posters. “Not enough has changed since we started. The equal pay act is here but nobody is following it. In terms of personal is political, with the time’s up, sexual harassment, abuse ... the posters have a current protest language and are very much relevant today.” I completely agree, as I know many women asking still ‘YBA Wife?’.
‘Still I Rise’ unavoidably makes the point of a decline, but it is not all depressing on the year of the anniversary of women gaining the right to vote in the UK. The exhibition also gives hope, at places specifically talking about hope and it reminds us of the witch-power of being a woman and being around women. Four parts of ‘Still I Rise’ titled ‘A Spell’, ‘A Call’, ‘A Dance’ and ‘A Rumour’ complete a full circle of this power current. Over 100 works by some 50 artists speak feminist words, teach spells, make a call, and women follow and ‘they rise they rise they rise’.
Through feminist and queer art the exhibition expands the territory of politics and the political discourse, and proves that feminist methodologies are always inspiring. The exhibition showcases different products of various takes on feminist methods of living and protesting, but also practices this method itself. The exhibition feels like it has more of a participatory approach. There isn’t a clear order of the galleries; there are more texts written by the artists themselves than the curators. There are archives, artworks and other cultural products like zines, posters and banners.
The exhibition invites visitors to use the space also as a forum, to use some of the glossary to speak their minds, and encourages thinking about and discussion on their acts of resistance. Words like consciousness-raising, intersectional, non-binary gender, womxn are presented with descriptions, some wonderful feminist practices are therefore offered to some new audiences. Or visitors can simply grab a page of a photocopied spell by Linda Stupart to try at home. It could be “A Spell for Binding All-male Conference Panels” or “A Spell to Bind Straight White Cis Male Artists from Getting Rich off of Appropriating Queer Aesthetics and Feminine Abjection”; whichever is more useful. Being a viewer of this exhibition doesn’t start and end within the galleries of Nottingham Contemporary, and if you feel the energy this body of works creates in this space, it is guaranteed that you’ll take it home and to the streets with you.
Act II will be developed to also include design and architecture and shown in De La Warr Pavilion in Bexhill-on-Sea between 9 February and 27 May 2019.