Feminist Avant-Garde

‘They changed your way of thinking.’

The Feminist Avant-Garde of the 1970s was the title of an exhibition held in the Kunsthalle, Hamburg in March 2015: a timely show of significant works made in the 1970s by a range of feminist artists. Timely because, increasingly these artists are being recognised in contemporary exhibitions and collections of twentieth-century art and therefore constitute an important historical context but also because more of these artists are dying.

Chantal Ackerman. Source unknown

Chantal Ackerman. Source unknown

The death of the experimental filmmaker Chantal Ackerman in October 2015, is the most recent of artists of this generation who have left an important legacy of innovative work which question issues of representation and gender through generating new forms of formal and material inquiry. Described in one obituary as an ‘extraordinary artist of the everyday’, Ackerman’s work included fiction, documentary and essay films. Contesting and investigating ideas such as relationships between duration and narrative, she is recognized as a ‘cinematic radical’: her 1975 work, Jeanne Dielman used a combination of real time, fixed cameras and shock and is featured in Sight and Sounds’ poll of one of the greatest films of all time. Hotel Monterey (1972) was a 65 minute ride in a lift and in News From Home (1977) images of the New York subway and streets were shot against the soundtrack of Ackerman’s readings from her mother’s letters. A retrospective of her work was held at the ICA in 2014 and an exhibition of her video installation work is due to be held at the University of Westminster this month.

Alexis Hunter. With kind permission Charles Thompson

Alexis Hunter. With kind permission Charles Thomson

Alexis Hunter who died from motor neuron disease in February 2014, was an important artist whose work contested the power relations of patriarchy. Her ongoing series of photographic works, Approach to Fear and Sexual Warfare constituted immaculately bejeweled nail-polished hands holding burning high-heeled shoes, tinkering with car engines, grasping revolvers or wielding axes and were shown at the Hayward Annual of 1978. The Marxist Housewife (Still Does the Housework) (1978) depicts a woman’s hand dusting a framed photograph of Karl Marx where it is unclear if the image is being cleaned or erased. Her works drew on advertising, documentary form and film storyboards, and many were sequenced in mock storylines or explored alternative forms such as slide presentations, colour Xerox, silver bromide printing, hand-coloured photocopy, double exposures, laser copy on archival paper, the use of hand-written text and ‘retro-collage’. A retrospective of her work, Alexis Hunter: Radical Feminism in the 1970s was held at East Gallery, Norwich in 2005.

The feminist art historian Rozsika Parker who died in November 2010, was described in her obituary by Ruthie Petrie as focused on women’s struggle for recognition within the art establishment. In 1973 with Griselda Pollock she formed the feminist art history collective and their books, Old Mistresses: Women, Art and Ideology (1981) and Framing Feminism: Art and the Womens’ Movement 1970-1985 (1987) continue to be key texts in art history and the political contexts of images. Old Mistresses was a re-reading of the historical significance of women artists and their containment by focusing on art history’s values, categories and the nature of its discourses. These books mapped new frameworks for art through demonstrating different approaches to historical processes. The Subversive Stitch (1983), a radical history of embroidery was republished in 2010 and is a unique text in the understanding of relationships between gender and power through the history of material culture.

Rose Finn-Kelcey who died in February 2014, worked in photography, installation, performance and video, experimenting with formal concerns and conceptual approaches. She claimed that continual re-invention is crucial to art which could be made from anything. Her work is impregnated with her  humour: Here is  Gale Warning (1970) was a flag of black bunting and silver tissue text installed in the grounds of Alexandra Palace, London with its ‘message’ visible only when a fierce wind blew; Power for the People (1972) consisted of flags installed on the outside of Battersea Power Station until Chelsea residents opposite complained and had them removed; Divided Self (1974), was a photograph of Finn-Kelcey having a conversation with herself at Speaker’s Corner, Hyde Park. The significance of her performance work has been recently discussed by Eleanor Roberts in ‘Restless Images: The Feminist Performances of Rose Finn-Kelcey’ in Oxford Art Journal.

FAVThe Hamburg exhibition included work by some well-known artists such as Lynda Baylis, Valie Export, Mary Beth Edelson, Ana Mendieta, Cindy Sherman and Carolee Schneemann as well as Alexis Hunter. Featuring over 30 international artists and over 150 works drawn from the Sammlung Verbund collection in Vienna, which focuses on international art from 1970 to the present with a unique emphasis on the feminist avant-garde, it was a valuable living document of a period of art history. The challenge of social norms, contestations of ‘traditional’ images and female sexuality, concepts of identity and violence against women were key issues of the exhibition. Martha Rosler’s Kitchen Diaries is well known, but the exhibition drew attention to other works such as Birgit Jurgenssen’s Hausfrauen-Kuchenschurze in which the artist tied a cooker around her neck like an apron, and the work of Rita Myers and Ewa Partum which addressed culturally constructed ideas on perfection and beauty.

If indeed there is such a thing as post-feminism perhaps it is in the self-assurance of works of artists like Joana Vasconcelos whose martial arts practice informs her approach to her work and who once ran a squad of female karate-trained bouncers at a Lisbon nightclub. Monumental, yet has been described as ‘homespun pop’, her work has drawn on the Valkyrie, the mythical warrior goddesses who give life. Her vast installation at the Palace of Versailles in 2012 was however, censored by the curator when she was refused permission to install her ‘tampon work’, The Bride in the bedroom of Marie Antoinette.

Or Kubra Khademi who in March 2015 gave a ten minute street performance in Kabul, where women are expected to cover every part of their bodies, wearing specially made steel armour which emphasized her breasts and torso. The performance, which consisted of a walk along the main road in her neighbourhood, was ‘aimed at the people who were harassing women every day’ and was a dangerous enterprise. The audience, mainly men, throw stones and insults. At the end of the performance, after jumping into a friend’s waiting car, it was immediately attacked and within minutes, Khademi received online death threats.

Or Durban-based performance artist, Tracey Rose whose work confronts political and social taboos. Drawing on Edelson’s 1972 photo-collage Some Living American Women Artists, her video Ciao Bella was a feminist parody on Da Vinci’s Last Supper in which she plays 12 female apostles including Lolita, Josephine Baker and the water-spirit Mami Wata and shown at the Venice Biennale in 2001. Describing herself as a militant artist she aims to leave a legacy: her art, she says is for the future.

Further reading:  WACK! Art and the Feminist Revolution (MIT Press, 2007); Chantal Ackerman Obituary; The Impossible Document: Photography and Conceptual Art in Britain, 1966-1976 (Camerawork Gallery, 1997); Eleanor Roberts, ‘Restless Images: The Feminist Performances of Rose Finn-Kelcey’, Oxford Art Journal (October 2015: available online), Rose Finn-Kelcey (Ridinghouse, 2012)


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