WILLIAMSTOWN – When two members of the art activist group Guerilla Girls came to speak at Williams College in March 1988, they were still very outside asking to come in. The anonymous collective of agitprop – which describes itself as “the conscience of the art world” with their posters and flyers and public appearances wearing iconic gorilla masks – were targeting the men’s club of museums, galleries and galleries. collectors. And they thought the Williams College Museum of Art was not doing well enough.
They claimed that 87 percent of the museum’s recent acquisitions were works of art by white men (which the museum disputed, but at least one curator confirmed), and noted that the sculpture exhibit which had venue at the time featured 15 white men, two women and no artists of color. They also noted the big news in the art world, when the state in Boston approved the first $ 35 million to fund the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art, which gave them a unique opportunity.
âYou guys from Massachusetts have a chance to act now to change history,â one of the activists said through his gorilla mask, according to the Williams Record. “I want to see him show the wonderful diversity that there is in our country.”
Come on 30 years and the Guerilla Girls are no longer making moral arguments from the outside – they are themselves on the walls. A collection of their posters was recently acquired by the museum, including that of a host of gorilla masks, and a call to action. âIf museums don’t showcase art as diverse as the cultures they claim to represent, tell them they’re not showing art history, they are only preserving the history of wealth and to be able to.”
The works are part of a new exhibition this fall at the museum titled “Sweaty Conceptsâ, Which brings together the work that Williams has acquired since the 1960s. It was intended in part to mark the 50th anniversary of the admission of women by Williams and will run until December 19.
It was curated by Lisa Dorin, Curator of Contemporary Art at WCMA, who said it was a way to bring together works that âhave very different concerns but all speak in some way to the intersections that feminism in the broad sense highlights – belonging and identity and making room in the world.
As a well-funded educational museum, WCMA has assembled a remarkable collection of feminist art over time. This includes some big names like Louise Bourgeois, who created Eyes on the Lawn, and has a small sculpture included in this exhibit titled Nature Study No. 3 (1985), a black whorl of curved material with a menacing tip and a hand surprisingly delicate coming out.
But there are also many others from the 1970s and 1980s who may not have gotten the recognition they deserved in their time, and are now getting it posthumously. This includes Ana Mendieta, whose photographic print “Untitled” (1983) depicts an imaginary prehistoric female figure sculpted into the earth, suggesting a transcendence of time and space. A haunting self-portrait of Francesca Woodman, who died at just 22, looks way ahead of its time.
And many period pieces seem to have unfortunately tapped eternal threads.
May Stevens addresses patriarchy in “Big Daddy Paper Doll” (1970), a comic book of a man modeled after his own reactionary father, as a phallic mole-like stain with various cop, Klansman, soldier and butcher costumes. Others in their specific details point to lingering challenges, such as in Patssi Valdez’s ‘Los Angeles’ (1983) in which artist chicana stands in front of a large public art project that had been entrusted to another male minimalist sculptor. .
The title of the show comes from the work of feminist writer Sara Ahmed, describing the particular physical effort in addition to the intellectual effort it takes to claim a space. Dorin described it as “the effort to be in a space when it is not a space for you”.
The fact that this is a permanent and living concern emerges further into the space, where efforts to broaden the lens to bring in more perspectives emerge. This includes black artists, like photographer Carrie Mae Weems with her portrait of a family, “Untitled [Man Reading Newspaper]â(1990), or Muslim artists, such as the photo by Lalla A. Essaydi who reappropriates and affirms the female body by blending in with traditional calligraphy. Or those with disabilities, like Christine Sun Kim, whose “Why I Watch with Closed Captions” (2019) is a pie chart of the ways a hearing impaired person explains themselves in a hearing world (“Good for Rap Battles” , âSee the pie chart ‘Why I’m not lip reading’â).
And while the exhibit imagines a sense of inclusion and security, some of it can be heartbreaking in its austere portrayal of the world. Sue Williams’ ‘Scooter’ (1994), a large, bright yellow canvas covered in a swirl of graffiti scribbled bodies and body parts colliding and merging in an unclear and somewhat disturbing way. Nearby are Kara Walker’s watercolors depicting scenes of slavery and violence, and Zoe Leonard’s typewriter from 1988 imagining what kind of empathetic presence they would like to see in power.
And there is also playfulness. There is the colorful world of âDangerous world, lavaâ¦â (2010) by Indian artist Rina Banerjee, a colorful collision of people and their environment and their interactions. Or the photo âCoyote Tales No. 1â (2020), by Cara Romero, a new take on an Aboriginal tale about the trickster coyote, who frankly seems to have met his partner with two very confident women. Or most strikingly, Kerry Stewart’s statue, “This Girl Bends” (1996), of a woman lying on her back with her knees bent at an impossible angle. A work that is both striking and difficult to define (a sleeper? A businesswoman? Is it a manipulated person, or exercising magical control?).
The exhibition is also an opportunity to bring out larger installations that do not appear often. This includes âI go to schoolsâ¦â by Jenny Holzer (1989), a vertical zip line featuring her characteristic aphorisms, but here also inscribed on a black marble sarcophagus placed on the ground. It contrasts with the ephemeral lightness of the words written in the light, to which is added a heavy permanence by being literally engraved in stone.
There is also “The Library of Sor Juana Inez de la Cruz” by Amalia Mesa-Bains (1994), an installation about a seventeenth-century Mexican nun and polymath and the world she inhabited, which featured in an exhibition in 1994 and has been adapted here with the artist’s advice, as it was originally his own bedroom. Nearby is Dotty Attie’s âStranded in Italyâ (1987), a reuse of images from an Ingres painting, arranged almost like a comic book with textual embellishments that describe a bit of voyeurism that flips the script over. the unashamedly masculine look of the original.
The ideas and the practice are the same. Another exhibit currently at WCMA that perfectly complements the exhibit is âThe Adoration at the Altar of Sureâ by Kameelah Janan Rasheed, an in situ work in the museum’s rotunda, which was once the college library. Playing on that, she draws inspiration from Jorge Luis Borges’ idea of ââthe possibility that a sufficiently large library could include every imaginable text, and scholar Ashon Crowley’s idea of ââblack thought “does not privilege. no notion of centering but constantly erases, revises, undoes. , unspoken and resting on or in fullness, completion. The piece bounces between these two contrasting ideas through fragments of shapes and black and white, with a loop of text around the base pulling it all together (“… sometimes the book wants to eat my imagination and sometimes I let it and sometimes I succumb to the canons whom I cannot banishâ¦ â).
The show has been in the works since spring 2019 and was put on hold when the museum closed due to the pandemic in March 2020, and only started gradually reopening last summer. It was a useful opportunity to ‘frame what we have, how it is used and how often’.
âIt left me optimistic, to a point,â she said. âThere is still a lot we can do. “