The word “Feminisms” ignites a multiplicity of meanings.
It can address body politics, resilience and self-determination . It can express survival in suppression and economic and social equality.
Currently online at 516 ARTS, 516arts.org and in the gallery by appointment, this group exhibition gathers 40 works by contemporary women artists from across the West through Jan. 2. These artists use murals, sculpture, video, pen and ink, painting, textiles, installation, pastel and more in personal interpretations of the word. Organizers developed the show in conjunction with the Feminist Art Coalition, a national effort seeking to inspire a broad variety of exhibitions and programs leading into the 2020 election.
“It’s an exhibition that features artists from varying cultures who use the word feminisms in its most expansive meaning,” curator Andrea Hanley (Navajo) said. Hanley is the chief curator at Santa Fe’s Wheelwright Museum of the American Indian.
“It’s very broad in terms of what these women are talking about,” she continued. “They talk about resilience, they talk about the land. There’s the language of women. They echo in values, human rights and sovereignty. All of these women hold or express power in their communities in different ways.”
Oregon artist Natalie Ball (Modoc/Klamath/Black) created “Wedding,” 2019, an installation of wool, cotton, pine, braiding hair, woven cedar and acrylic paint partially resembling a traditional wedding ring quilt.
“She makes institutions rethink what they think about Indian art,” Hanley said. “It’s talking about issues around blood quantum and feminisms. That piece examines her thoughts about her body as an act of resistance.”
Blood quantum is a highly controversial measurement of the amount of “Indian blood” Native Americans possess. It can affect their identity, their relationships and whether or not they – or their children – may become a citizen of their tribe. It began as a system the federal government placed onto tribes in an effort to limit their citizenship.
Oklahoma’s Elisa Harkins (Muscogee Creek/Cherokee) filmed herself and a fellow dancer in “Honor Beats.”
“It’s talking about how can you as an indigenous artist imprint land with your body,” Hanley said. “It’s a visual honor song.”
Santa Fe installation artist Thais Mather brought “Plutocracy,” 2016, a set of found objects consisting of a pair of golden spiked stilettos and what resembles a pre-Columbian head.
“The piece condenses icons of different eras to observe the ridiculous nature of our own time in contrast with the speculation of ancient history,” Mather wrote in an email.
“The piece postulates about the status of human beauty, class and cultural appropriation,” she added.
“She’s exploring feminist mythology,” Hanley explained. “She’s looking at the objectification of culture through a critique of women’s labor. It talks about women’s power, labor and history and the loss of women’s wisdom in Western culture.”
Farmington’s Rosemary Meza-DesPlas created “Ancestry of Anger,” a 60-by-48 inch series of 20 portraits embroidered with her own hair on fabric. The portraits feature the faceless hairstyles of Sojourner Truth, Margaret Sanger and Simone de Beauvoir, as well as Helen Gurley Brown and Wilma Mankiller, among others.
Meza-DesPlas began stitching with her own hair in 2000. It all started when a friend, after seeing one of her installations, said her lines were as fine as hair.
Untrained as a seamstress, Meza-DesPlas experimented, even gluing the strands onto fabric. Then she resigned herself to learning how to sew.
The series “Ancestry of Anger” emerged after she began reading feminist books. She learned anger could ignite change.
“I was thinking in terms of the Women’s March and the Me Too movement and Black Lives Matter,” Meza-DesPlas said. “These women were moved by their own anger to march.”
She gathered the names of first, second and third-wave feminists and added smaller portraits of women screaming.
“I read Hillary (Clinton’s) book on ‘What Happened,’ ” (Clinton’s 2017 memoir about the 2016 election) she said. “I also read Michelle Obama’s book. I was thinking about our expectations of what women in politics look like and behave.
“Women can’t afford to look angry, even when they’re talking about a subject that’s injustice,” she continued. “It’s about the presentation of your face and how it’s distorted when you’re angry. It can be interpreted as ugly.”
She rendered her portraits faceless, recognizable only by hairstyles.
“Even today I don’t think people could tell you what Susan B. Anthony looks like,” Meza-DesPlas said. “You can tell what the men looked like because they’re in the history books. The hairstyles can convey a time period.”
Portland-based Marie Watt (Seneca Nation) wove a 107-by-99.5 inch dream catcher from reclaimed wool blankets, satin binding and thread.
“She talks about feminism as human rights, not privileges,” Hanley said. “And it’s not female-centric; it takes a community.
“Dream catchers have connections obvious to the Southwest,” she continued. “She uses blankets that tell personal stories, that tell woven tapestries of meaning.”
Albuquerque artist Haley Greenfeather English (Red Lake and Turtle Mountain Ojibwe) splashed a 25-by-30 foot mural onto the entrance hall of 516 ARTS called “Queer Indigenous Feminisms.”
“It’s flooding the wall in a myriad of color,” Hanley said. “It’s a standing solid mountain of a mural. It’s a modern-day embodiment of feminism.”