Women’s Photography as a Tool of Resistance

Women’s Photography as a Tool of Resistance

What is a feminist picture? A growing chorus of museums, galleries, and publications have been asking this question for the last couple years and with Our Selves: Photographs by Women Artists from Helen Kornblum, curator Roxana Marcoci at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) is the latest to answer the call. The resulting one-room exhibition — consisting of works donated by the photography collector and women’s health activist Helen Kornblum — spans 100 years with remarkable cohesion. “Feminist photography” is an incredibly broad characterization, and producing an exhibition on that theme is akin to creating an anthology of women writers that includes everything from abstract modernist fiction (as in Claude Cahun’s photo collages) to war correspondence (Susan Meiselas’s work in Nicaragua). And yet, for the most part it all hangs together: the mask-wearing Sandinista woman Meiselas photographed in the 1978 insurrection has more in common with Cahun’s fragmented self-performance than it might seem on the surface.

Importantly, the exhibition is not a “greatest hits” of female photography: you will find no Anna Atkins, Cindy Sherman, or Diane Arbus here. Rather, it fills in significant gaps, acknowledging feminism’s history of exclusion based on race, sexuality, and class. Marcoci advocates for an intersectional approach in the exhibition catalogue, pointing out that “Women artists, including photographers, were operating within these intersectional systems long before they were explicated by theorists.” The book elaborates on certain themes introduced in the exhibition (for example, “Masks and Mirrors,” “Documentary Portraits,” “Indigeneity and Colonial Encounters”), but the show’s overarching thesis seems to be “photography as a tool of resistance.” This resistance plays out on three primary battlefields in the exhibition: within the self, within one’s home and community, and within society.

On the scale of the individual, it is primarily psychological, manifested in expressions of identity. Beginning in the 1920s, modernist photographers used photomontage to disjoint and distort representations of the self; the exhibition’s most notable example is Claude Cahun’s “M.R.M. (Sex)”(c. 1929-30). Written in French at the top of the collage are the cryptic lines, “Here the executioner takes on the air of a victim. But you know what to expect. Claude.” Below, the artist has fragmented and disassembled multiple reproductions of themself, their inverted head resting in their arms or partly masked by a white surface with a vertical Cheshire cat smile. Cahun toys with feminine tropes, particularly the “He loves me, he loves me not” game of removing petals from a flower—made even more suggestive here by the superimposition of lips on each petal, metaphors for female anatomy. As Marcoci notes, the various representations of plant life within the show “anticipated the ecofeminist connection between the exploitation of nature and the oppression of women under a patriarchal system of ownership,” a connection examined in Tatiana Parcero’s “Interior Cartography #35”(1996), which hangs salon-style just above Cahun’s work.

Carrie Mae Weems’s iconic photograph from The Kitchen Table Series, “Untitled (Woman and daughter with makeup)”(1990), brings resistance into the domestic sphere. This intimate portrait of Black motherhood is perhaps the closest that Our Selvescomes to including well-known, pivotal images of photo history. In it, the interior relationship with oneself — looking in the mirror and applying lipstick as a rite of womanhood — is also a communal gender performance. It is inherited, taught, mirrored. The kitchen is a loaded space in the history of feminism, at once the scene of familial intimacy and oppressive confinement. Unlike other images from the same series, no works of art are hanging on the wall behind the table; the Black Woman, poised and elegant with manicured nails, is perhaps the art, the symbol of beauty that the daughter aspires to recreate in herself.

Susan Meiselas’s documentation of the Nicaraguan Revolution shows the power of both photographs by women and photos of women, as tools for political resistance. “A Funeral Procession in Jinotepe for Assassinated Student Leaders. Demonstrators Carry a Photograph of Arlen Siu, an FSLN Guerilla Fighter Killed in the Mountains Three Years Earlier” (1978), contains an image within an image: the black and white photo portrait of Arlen Siu, one of the first people killed in the uprising against Somoza, Nicaragua’s then-president, is shockingly devoid of color against its vibrant backdrop, as the young revolutionary lives on—larger than life—as a symbol of martyrdom against a dictatorial regime. Anticolonial resistance through the reproduction and dissemination of images is also examined in “Vanna Brown, Azteca Style” (1990) by Hulleah J. Tsinhnahjinnie, which depicts the Wheel of Fortunestar on TV in Native dress, highlighting the lack of indigenous self-representation in the United States media.

Our Selves is an unfortunately timely exhibition, as we have witnessed with the recent fall of Roe v. Wade. Questions of women’s health have become more dire than ever, while discussing gender identity has been outlawed in certain schools; right-wing forces are promoting more and more restrictive visions of womanhood, while recent liberal discourse has accused trans rights activists of female “erasure” for their embrace of gender-neutral language. So who gets to be included in these newly constructed histories of “women in photography”? Despite Claude Cahun’s famous assertion that “neuter is the only gender that always suits me” and their adoption of a gender-neutral name, exhibitions frequently position them as a major figure in female photography due to their assignment at birth.

At the same time, Our Selves does not include any work by trans women, although there are certainly such photographers whose work would dovetail nicely with the exhibition — Lorenza Böttner, for instance. Institutions have a historical obligation to give female photographers the recognition that they are due and have been denied because of their gender; at the same time, defining womanhood is fraught. It is a tightrope for an exhibition to walk, and hopefully Our Selvesopens the door to a more nuanced conception of womanhood.

Our Selves: Photographs by Women Artists from Helen Kornblum continues until October 10 at the Museum of Modern Art (11 West 53rd Street, New Y0rk).

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