Our Selves: celebrating photographs taken by female artists | Art
AAs the news cycle regularly shows, the simple and decidedly modern act of taking a photograph has now become a predominant means of overthrowing entrenched power. And female artists, often on the fringes of cultural society, have been using their cameras to do just that for over 100 years. This is one of the provocative statements made by Our Selves: Photographs by Women Artists from Helen Kornblum, the Museum of Modern Art’s thought-provoking new exhibition of the work of women photographers over 100 from around the world.
“For me, it was interesting to constantly ask the question of what a feminist image is, because I got so many answers,” exhibition curator Roxana Marcoci told The Guardian. In fact, Our Selves provides 90 answers to this question, ranging from Frances Benjamin Johnston’s 1899 photograph of young students in a calligraphy class to black photographer Carrie Mae Weem’s 1990s “kitchen table” series. The feminist images also resemble the work of queer photographer Catherine Opie, Angela Scheirl, who portrays transgender artist Hans Scheirl years before he transitioned to male, and Native American Cara Romero’s Wakeah, a 2018 depiction of her friend Wakeah Jhane in full tribal attire.
Yet while Our Selves may proudly declare that feminism supports a broad and inclusive idea of femininity, Marcoci is aware that this has not always been the case. “As women have fought for sovereignty, they have not always included all women,” she said. Indeed, this is one of the central questions that this show seeks to address. “When I was designing the exhibit, I was thinking of Ain’t I a Woman?, bell hooks’ scathing critique of first- and second-wave feminism for sidelining women of color. All of this was therefore underlying the exhibition as it was set up.
Our Selves was born from a deep collaboration between Marcoci and psychotherapist Helen Kornblum. For more than 40 years, Kornblum has meticulously built a collection of photographs made by women artists, and a gift to MoMA of several of these photographs forms the core of Our Selves. This donation is the result of a long-standing professional relationship between Marcoci and Kornblum: since 2014, they have served together on the MoMA Photography Committee, developing the representation of women artists at the museum and pushing the museum to rethink the narratives dominant transmitted by patriarchal power. structure. For Marcoci, this connection has been transformative. “When [Kornblum] joined the Photography Committee, we instantly connected with our work on women artists and women’s rights. When I saw her photography collection for myself, I loved the vision she brought to it. It aligned with my own interests and MoMA’s mission to show art that reflects a diversity of races and genders.
Our Selves dates back to the late 19th century and pays homage to the modernist movement that underpinned so many of the latter-day artists it shows. The art here includes modernity greats like Claude Cahun, Tina Modetti and Lotte Jacobi, and it name checks Leonora Carrington and Frida Kahlo. To these standard bearers, Our Selves also adds lesser-known artists like Gertrud Arndt and Alma Levenson, a collaborator of Ansel Adams, Imogen Cunningham and Edward Weston. While these images are powerful on their own, they also act as a foundation, helping to situate and anchor the more contemporary works exhibited throughout the exhibition.
The theme of self-presentation runs strongly throughout Our Selves, with so many of the pieces exhibited here having been developed from intimate relationships between photographer and subject. For example, looking at Romero’s Wakeah – an image of a Native American woman covered head to toe in layers and layers of clothing – the subject offers a sense of vulnerability and display despite her bulky dress. Romero’s subject, a good friend, trusts the photographer not to do as so many other photographers have done before when confronted with Native American clothing and culture. Although his gaze is proud and strong, he lacks the wariness that accompanies helplessness and appropriation, subtly drawing the viewer towards him.
Wakeah’s gaze intersects in an interesting way with the gazes of the photographs of the American war photographer Susan Meiselas, demonstrating the fascinating coherence of the exhibition, the photographs constantly playing on each other. In Meiselas’ aptly named Tentful of Marks, the camera is posed behind the two supple, heeled legs of a carnival stripper, while one of the titular marks stares at her in awe, behind him so many zombified male faces and fixed in the same way. These faces take on added significance when seen in conjunction with Meiselas’ other contributions to the show: Traditional mask used in popular uprising, Monimbo, Nicaragua. This image shows an individual, presumably male, whose entire face and gaze are obscured by a mustachioed male mask staring straight into the camera, the subject’s humanity defined only by a hand resting furtively on a fence barbed wire. While Wakeah shows what is possible when power relations are momentarily sidelined, Meiselas’ photographs focus on deconstructions of power relations in full swing. Together, all three raise questions about gender, bodies and who has the right to watch whom.
Carrie Mae Weems’ photograph, Woman and Daughter with Makeup, captures another moment of deep gaze, when these power relations are seemingly at a distance, but are also quietly operational. The image simply depicts a black woman and her daughter simultaneously applying lipstick; the two exist both together and apart, as they eerily synchronize their movements while intensely focusing on their own mirror reflection, seemingly each in their own world. Marcoci told me that this photo marked her with the way Weems “places black women at the forefront of the consequences of power. It’s such a moment of staged beauty, of synchronized performance, and yet nothing is fetishized in this image. It’s an image of care, of black beauty, of black interiority… there’s so much grace in the way it’s expressed.
Our Selves deserves plaudits for the respect it gives to women of diverse intersectional identities – not only does it celebrate artists like Weems and Romero, but it also offers the transformational photographs of queer life by Catherine Opie, and the show acknowledges her debts to postcolonial and queer theorists. However, all of this makes it disappointing that the show does not feature any work by or by transgender women. Particularly at a time when many who identify as “feminists” attempt to deprive transgender women of their safety, dignity and basic rights – reminiscent of how previous waves of feminism sought to exclude non-white women. and not heterosexual – it would seem logical that an exhibition that prides itself on being inclusive and dedicated to all women’s rights would want to make its voice heard on this subject. It’s the only false note in an otherwise glorious celebration of women and photography.
Just as Our Selves does to advance important conversations and ideas for the future of feminism, Marcoci is aware that this is part of a much larger struggle. “It’s important to remember that the job is never done,” she said. “I know I will continue to bring attention to women artists and their issues for the rest of my professional life. It’s a job of unlearning the stories we were taught in school and considering different narratives , like learning a new language basically.