The American culture wars have been particularly tumultuous of late, as warring factions engage in ferocious battles over everything from race and religion to masks and vaccines — or even whether a photograph of a mittened and scowling Sen. Bernie Sanders was simply a funny internet meme or a symbol of white privilege.
Some of these fronts are relatively new, while others — like the word “feminism” and what it means to be a feminist — have been at the root of fierce skirmishes for generations.
In the last few weeks, ideas related to feminism crept into debates about whether American troops should have stayed longer in Afghanistan — and even how the United States went to war there in the first place. Meanwhile, a new book by civil rights attorney Rafia Zakaria, Against White Feminism, has stoked the beginnings of a global discussion about whether white western feminist leaders have imposed misguided actions on generations of people, including other feminists.
It is against this backdrop that a seminal new art exhibit at the Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive (BAMPFA), “New Time: Art and Feminisms in the 21st Century,” makes its debut. The show spotlights — through photos, paintings, assemblages, and other art forms — subjects of extreme importance to feminist ideals and realities.
This isn’t a regurgitation of feminist iconography. And it’s not a primer on feminist history. You won’t see a single portrait of Gloria Steinem. Or Audre Lorde. But you will see a small bit of feminist art history in the form of clever, decades-old posters from the Guerrilla Girls, a group of anonymous activists who criticized museum curators for featuring predominantly male artists. (Their best-known poster features a famous nude by Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres with a guerrilla mask and the headline, “Do Women Have To Be Naked To Get Into the Met. Museum?” and then this: “Less than 5% of artists in the Modern Art sections are women, but 85% of the nudes are female.”)
And you will see at BAMPFA — in the very first gallery — images from the late 19th century that show the damning roots of a scurrilous trope that exists today, especially among male arch-Conservatives: Women have hysterical natures. Donald Trump has frequently derided women for their “hysteria,” and “New Time” shows that a French neurologist named Jean-Martin Charcot championed those ideas as he influenced Sigmund Freud and a host of other celebrated figures who embedded them in their practices and ensured that those same ideas would live on in succeeding centuries. Most of that first gallery is devoted to female artists, including Louise Bourgeois’ Arched Figure — a 1993 sculpture of a headless man arching his back, with just a skimpy covering over his genitals, in an implied rebuttal of Charcot’s idea that only hysterical women could distort their bodies like her figure does.
Along with Kara Walker, Bourgeois is one of the exhibit’s best-known artists, but one of the show’s strengths is its multitude of artists, styles, and perspectives. We get quasi-abstractions like Amy Sillman’s U.S. of Alice the Goon, a 2008 work that plays with overlapping shapes and colors but cleverly inserts a surreally skeletal arm with a fist — a reference to the giant, androgynous Popeye character, Alice the Goon, that battled the spinach-eating comic hero and was one of American culture’s first mysteriously sexed cartoon figures.
Then there’s Catherine Wagner‘s Bust Typology (Female), a 2014 frame of six up-close photos of female sculptural busts from Rome’s Capitoline Museum. Unlike male busts from the Rome museum, these busts are devoid of actual names. And the way Wagner has photographed them, we only see the bust’s bunched-up sculptured neck robes — accentuating the figures’ anonymity through the ages. Like Sillman’s U.S. of Alice the Goon, Bust Typology (Female) asks the viewer to do more than glimpse. Glimpsing, which happens in museums the same way it happens anywhere, does a disservice to these artworks. And in that way, the exhibit itself becomes a metaphor for feminist principles: By slowing down and, yes, spending time with the artworks, you start to understand the important layers behind the art. Walking quickly through the many galleries reveals just the artworks’ surfaces.
“The artists examine some of the key socially rooted issues of our time in an attempt to capture how artists working today build on, adapt on, honor, and diverge from feminist works of previous generations,” exhibit curator Apsara DiQuinzio said at the press preview for “New Time.”
DiQuinzio did much more than just curate the exhibit: She founded a consortium called the Feminist Art Coalition, whose members — representing more than 100 museums and art institutions around the United States, including SFMOMA, the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, and such varied others as the Milwaukee Art Museum, the Pulitzer Arts Foundation, and the Tufts University Art Galleries — have committed to art projects that are “informed by feminisms.” The consortium’s emphasis on the word’s plural form reflects its belief that feminist thought and ideals have manifested in multiple feminisms, and that art exhibits should reflect this multiplicity of thought. The coalition has an implicitly activist bent: It tries to kickstart “collaborations between arts institutions that aim to make public their commitment to social justice and structural change.”
But “New Time” is activism without dogmatism, even if the Feminist Art Coalition and “New Time” itself is a reaction to Trump’s 2016 election. DiQuinzio saw the potential of a coalition after the Women’s March that happened the day after Trump’s inauguration. The coalition’s series of exhibits were scheduled to begin in 2020 to coincide with the 2020 U.S. presidential election, but the pandemic and the attendant shutdowns of museums across the United States delayed the exhibits — which is why BAMPFA’s opening of “New Time” was postponed until Aug. 28.
Better late than never, because we get to see a piece like Goshka Macuga‘s Death of Marxism, Women of All Lands Unite from 2013 and and R.H. Quaytman‘s Parthian Shot, Chapter 31 (The Persian Women) from 2017. Death of Marxism, Women of All Lands Unite is a kind of photographic tapestry that incorporates a life-size image of Marx’s gravesite being visited by a series of women, including one who is nude and another who is wearing skimpy clothing. Why did bare-skinned women approach Marx’s London grave? They didn’t. Macuga collaged them from a series of surreptitious photos that the Czech photographer Miroslav Tichý took of unsuspecting women in the mid-20th century. She also added an extension of faux grass and discarded clothing that makes it seem as if we’ve stumbled onto the scene — as if we’re witnessing a day when women are reframing Marx’s call from his Communist Manifesto to “unite.”
Parthian Shot, Chapter 31 (The Persian Women), meanwhile, is Quaytman’s reinterpretation of The Persian Women, a 17th-century painting by Austria’s Otto van Veen that narrates a scene of women who save their village by revealing their nudity en masse to marauding soldiers, who can’t bear to look. In her iteration, Quaytman blurs the scene and almost obfuscates the male soldiers on horseback, reducing van Veen’s microscopic details of things like genitalia into a bigger dreamlike pattern. While Quaytman retains contours of van Veen’s women, they’re less sexualized, and their skin is less the focus of the viewers’ gaze.
It’s no surprise the art in “New Time” addresses the subject of sex, violence against women, and how women are presented and represented in the culture. But there’s so much more to “New Time” than these subjects. Race is addressed in works like Ellen Gallagher’s DeLuxe, a giant, mixed-media wall of photos, oils, cut-outs, and other material that incorporates Black beauty magazines from earlier decades. Body size is addressed in Laura Aguilar‘s Grounded self portraits, where she poses against large rock formations that resemble her nude, voluptuous figure. And gender roles are addressed in works like Chitra Ganesh’s Sultana’s Dream, a shrine of graphic-novel-like linocuts that imagines a time when women lead the world in science and intellectual pursuits.
On it goes, through 140 artworks and 77 artists. What may not be apparent through it all are the conversations that the art and artists are essentially having with each other. They’re in dialogue, asking questions that may not be answerable, and making statements that are entirely debatable. What if, as Ganesh is imagining, women led the world in science and intellectual pursuits? Where are the men in that world? In Sultana’s Dream, which helps end the exhibit, some of the men are where women have historically been: Raising kids and situating themselves away from the bubble of well-paid work. Historic roles have been reversed. It’s not a world where men have disappeared. But it’s a world where men aren’t running most things. And the people in that world certainly look content.