Friday, September 28, 2012

Féminismes Électriques

“Sometimes a rose is a rose is a Rrose.”

Although I recently bought my first car, I wasn’t about to drive seven hours to Montreal by myself. To get to a book launch and panel discussion at La Centrale Galerie Powerhouse last Friday night, I had to choose between taking a bus at 2 am or taking two six-hour train rides that connected at Toronto’s Union station. That’s when it hit me that I had really moved to northern Ontario. I opted for the train since it meant breaking up the trip with a night of sleep. It also meant that I got to bid farewell to the Northlander in its penultimate week of operation.

I’ve been spoiled traveling with my husband, not just because he loves driving, but because he is bilingual. As I looked unsuccessfully for a map in a Gare Centrale store, I fretted about what I would say if the clerk didn’t speak English. Simple answer: improvise. (“Je desire de chercher pour les directions dans la grande papier [I want to look for directions on large paper]”). The French translation for ‘map’ came to mind an inconvenient five hours later, which was doubly frustrating since I’d had a teleconference with map librarians earlier in the week in which French terminology was discussed.

I didn’t fare much better at La Centrale, where I could only catch a string of four French words at a time, and only two of the six panelists spoke in English. Here’s the punchline of my visit: the following evening, I was having dinner at the home of a former La Centrale board member when she pointed out that the book is being launched at Art Metropole. In, ahem, Toronto. Alas, I’m glad I attended the standing-room-only event to show my support. And perhaps this post will bring people to the Art Metropole launch, which happens tonight. Therein lies the power of self-publishing in the Internet age. As Chris Kraus argues in said book, Féminismes Électriques (2012), blogs are the new zines.

At the launch, editor Leila Pourtavaf spoke about the desire to give feminism “renewed life” through the book’s essays, interviews, and artist project (the latter by G. B. Jones). In short, this means enhanced inclusivity, encompassing trans and queer artists as well as artists with diverse ethnic backgrounds. Trish Salah provides a compelling account of the risks inherent in pluralistic feminism, such as treating male artists as special or as non-men of sorts. Interestingly, La Centrale, Canada’s first gallery for women, recently programmed its first show for a man, the late Will Munro. This shift is the outcome of the gallery spending six years reworking its mandate through consultation with members and colleagues. The publication is equally thoughtful.

Why would six years of contemplation be necessary? Consider that, according to Bernadette Houde, ‘lesbian’ remains a radical term. Helena Reckitt suggests that gender is equally (and relatedly) radical, provoking genderqueer art that experiments with gender rather than accepting existing anatomically-derived definitions. If feminism in its initial iteration focused on the needs of traditional women, how can its contemporary counterpart advocate for those labeled as Other?  

Féminismes Électriques is a fitting title, because its content reminds us how electrifying feminism is: it is feisty, inspiring, sometimes serious and other times fun. Often, feminist art evokes the familiar, such as Women with Kitchen Appliances, a collective that blends images with audio work created using kitchen appliances. ‘Familiar’ doesn’t mean banal, though, as proven by a video by Palestinian artist Jumana Manna featuring her adult self breastfeeding from her mother. Sometimes feminist art takes the familiar and reworks it to emphasize clichés, like Lesbians on Ecstasy, which does ‘performative sampling’ of lesbian folk music from the Second Wave, to resist the association between women and nature and the disregard for female musicians’ technical skill. Arguably opposite to playing with the familiar is indulging the imagination as Stéphanie Chabot and Dominique Pétrin do, with role-playing involving vampires and cannibals. In an interview with Manon Tounigny, Pétrin emphasized how universal art is but also how open to interpretation it is: in performances involving monsters, she found that children have a literal interpretation, teens are impressed, intellectuals interpret it as subversive, gays think it’s queer, and older people find it exciting. Sometimes a rose is a rose is a Rrose.*

The book concludes with a chapter by Aneessa Hashmi, who writes, “The circulation of knowledge cancels out hierarchy” (p. 191): a fantastic mantra for feminists and librarians alike.  

On the occasion of my 100th post, I would like to thank everyone who has read, commented on, or encouraged my writing.

*Apologies for the inside art joke, but I couldn’t resist.

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Rethinking Professionalism

“Charlotte Schreiber…couldn’t attend [Royal Canadian Academy of Arts] meetings because it would have meant being alone with 39 men.”

Women. Art. Professionalism. Isolated concepts or a natural combination? I’ve been pondering this question for the past three weeks, ever since I started embroidering in the campus parking lot half an hour before starting work to take advantage of the natural light that has waned by the time I extract myself at the end of the day.

The convergence of women, art, and professionalism is also the subject of the book, Rethinking Professionalism: Women and Art in Canada, 1850-1970 (McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2012). To be upfront about bias, I should add that I am a former Queen’s employee and that my former place of work, the Agnes Etherington Art Centre, is mentioned on the opening page of the preface for its contribution to feminist art history.

An outgrowth of the inaugural Canadian Women Artists History Initiative conference, this multi-authored, hefty tome is a very useful addition to academic library collections supporting gender studies or Canadian art history.

While reading Kristina Huneault’s introductory chapter about the ill-fitting concept of professionalism for women artists, my mind kept flitting back to Eunice Lipton’s Alias Olympia: A Woman’s Search for Manet’s Notorious Model and Her Own Desire (1992, Charles Scribner’s Sons). Spurred on by Linda Nochlin, who famously asked why there have been no great women artists, Lipton traveled to Paris to restore dignity to Victorine Meurent, Edouard Manet’s model. Although Meurent was an exhibiting artist and a member of an esteemed professional art society who declared herself an artist twice in the French equivalent of the census, her contemporaries and later art historians dismissed her as an amateur and a prostitute (arguably equally offensive terms). Huneault’s parallel examples from Canada are lower profile but no less gripping. She identifies discrepancies between a census count of female artists compared to the membership in the Ontario Society of artists. And then there’s the case of Charlotte Schreiber, the only female artist accepted into the Royal Canadian Academy of Arts in its first fifty years, who couldn’t attend meetings because it would have meant being alone with thirty-nine men.

If you read this book, the historical references may make you angry, whether it’s the virile description of the Group of Seven or the flipside, emphasis on the feminine stature and fashion of Canada’s first female architect. (Curiously, the impulse to emphasize the gender of artists continues today, as one of the female artists’ techniques in the book is described as loving). At the very least, you’ll probably find yourself annoyed by comments like Group of Seven member A.Y. Jackson calling the arts appreciation show hosted by his former lover Anne Savage “quite a little job” (p. 121).Yet, there’s inspiration to be found in women’s comments; consider Margaret Watkins’ retort about a critic who passionately disliked her photo of dirty dishes: “Evidently the poor duffer knows nothing of Modern art” (p. 170).

Lest you get the impression that art is unique in its gender bias, Jennifer Salahub reminds us that it affects other disciplines too. As a librarian, I found her comment disheartening: “…when I first began to research Canadian needlework in the 1980s, the Library of Congress Catalogue directed me not to needlework, sewing, or even embroidery but to the letter ‘w’—women’s work.” (p. 138). I tend to be angry rather than annoyed when I read such things, but this book helped me slow down and resist a knee-jerk response. Reading the rest of Salahub’s chapter about intriguing artist, Hannah Maynard, I learned that the Victorian artist included textiles in her photos to maintain a lady-like image while pursuing an unconventional career. From a contemporary perspective (read: privileged life—the kind where I am allowed to drive and work and vote), it’s so easy to overlook awesomely experimental work and harp on what’s traditional, like the artist marketing herself as Mrs. Richard Maynard.

The most poignant content for me was Sherry Farrell Racette’s roll call of names of Akwesane artists who practiced basketweaving. Seeing a photo by Mary Kawennatakie Adams, the first artist on the list—of a basket adorned with teeny decorative baskets the size of a thumbnail—had a tip-of-the iceberg effect and served as a strong argument that female Aboriginal artists have been grossly overlooked by the existing model of art history. Add to that other groups like nuns that have historically been heavily engaged in craft and the entire concept of professionalism starts to fall apart.