Defining the Future of Womanhood

21c’s new 'The Future is Female' art exhibit showcases feminist-­informed work

click to enlarge Zoë Buckman’s  “Champ” - PHOTO: Courtesy of 21c Museum Hotels
PHOTO: Courtesy of 21c Museum Hotels
Zoë Buckman’s “Champ”

An important show, The Future is Female, opens Saturday at the 21c Museum Hotel. It consists of contemporary feminist art from the collection of 21c founders Laura Lee Brown and Steve Wilson. Organized by Chief Curator and Museum Director Alice Gray Stites, the show aims to “illuminate the legacy and persistence of the struggle for gender equality.” 

In advance of the exhibition opening, Stites and participating multi-disciplinary artist/self-identified activist Zoë Buckman (who will both be on hand for the opening reception this weekend) spoke with CityBeat about the work in the show, the current state of feminist art and the implied meaning of the exhibition’s title.

The initial iteration of this traveling show opened at the Louisville 21c within days of last year’s presidential election, though it was conceived several months prior. “The election really affected the context in which the artwork was viewed,” Stites says.

Here, some 72 objects by 45 artists —including those who are well-established like Carrie Mae Weems, Kiki Smith and Alison Saar, as well as more up-and-coming names such as Saya Woolfalk, Vibha Galhotra and Swoon — will survey the various conversations informing feminism on a global scale. A third of those exhibiting artists are women of color and nearly half are from outside the continental United States.

Between the opening of the Louisville and Cincinnati exhibitions, Stites explains she seized upon “an exciting opportunity” to expand this area of the private collection. 21c has a mission of integrating contemporary art into public, everyday life.

“Much of the issues raised today are also timeless questions,” Stites says. “Issues of equality — economic and ecological, in terms of our relationship to resources.” 

In The Future is Female, there is a broad range of media and subject matter explored by the included artists. The use of self as subject, the prevalence of craft-based practices and the inventive use of language are just three of the more obvious threads running through the work.

Stites is especially excited to show a recent addition to the collection — two site-specific wallpaper installations by South African artist and visual activist Zanele Muholi. In two large-scale black-and-white self-portraits, “Bakhambile, Parktown,” and “Ntozabantu VI, Parktown,” the artist photographs herself wearing thick braids and a queenly tiara. She alters the contrast in order to emphasize the darkness of her skin.  

While Modernist giants like Picasso, Matisse and Manet ostensibly used the historical nude as a “neutral vehicle” for their formal artistic experimentations, Muholi too engages with her own nude body in both photos, though you would barely notice she’s wearing little more than hair. 

The resulting photos — like much of Muholi’s oeuvre — are arresting. The artist’s eyes, rimmed in white and contrasted with the dark sumptuousness of her body and the oversize scale of the work, stare out at the viewer hauntingly, practically daring us to meet her gaze.

The work of British-born, New York-based Buckman was acquired by Brown and Wilson during last year’s Art Basel: Miami Beach art fair. The artist explains by phone that Stites also supports the work of many of her artist friends who “form a community” and are likewise making politically charged artwork.  

Three of Buckman’s sculptural pieces are from a recent series entitled Let Her Rave and respond to 19th-century poet John Keats’ “Ode on Melancholy,” in which he writes: “Or if thy mistress some rich anger shows/Imprison her soft hand, and let her rave.”  

One resulting piece, “Champ,” features a neon depiction of a uterus, with boxing gloves substituted for ovaries. It’s a direct response to the recent political attacks on Planned Parenthood and the attempts to curtail women’s reproductive rights. The other two hanging works, “Ding Ding” and “Ode On,” include boxing gloves fashioned from beaded and embellished satin, and lace bridal dresses and veils.

“The work is about the ways in our society that patriarchal constructs keep us controlled,” Buckman says.

Though the artist says she has been making work since art school centered on “the female experience,” Buckman admits that, “It’s quite difficult to make work about being a woman without it being about the patriarchy, because so much of our experience is a result of being in a patriarchal society.”  

For Buckman, The Future is Female means, “We are coming into an era in which women will lead more than they have.”

When asked how she might respond to those who would accuse the title of being gender essentialist, Stites explains: “The future is inclusive. And that has to do with lessening the definitive boundaries around race, gender and sexuality.” 

But if the future is to be truly inclusive, perhaps nuance in language might be our first step toward that goal. The slogan “The Future is Female” has become popular in the past year after social media caught hold of a photograph from the 1970s of radical feminist folk singer Alix Dobkin wearing a shirt depicting that phrase.  

The subsequent discovery that Dobkin co-authored an essay as recently as 2015 claiming that transsexuals have “leaped forward on the civil rights agenda… often to the detriment of Lesbians” raised concerns that her politics didn’t include transgender people and thus were exclusionary. 

The Future is Female reflects the wide spectrum of issues affecting women today around the world: an evolving consciousness about widespread environmental devastation, seemingly ubiquitous violence from men and the unearthing of a flagrant racial and gender-based hatred long thought to be buried, to name just a few. 

It is an important show because contemporary art not only reflects our current state, but also acts as a harbinger of things to come. It asks what are we prioritizing as a society and whose lives matter.

If the future really can be female, it all depends on how we define it. 

The Future is Female opens Saturday at Downtown’s 21c Museum Hotel and runs through September 2018. Admission is free. More info:

click to enlarge Zanele Muholi's "Ntozabantu VI, Parktown" - PHOTO: Courtesy of 21c Museum Hotels
PHOTO: Courtesy of 21c Museum Hotels
Zanele Muholi's "Ntozabantu VI, Parktown"

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