‘Zerstörung einer Illusion,’ 1977 © Karin Mack / SAMMLUNG VERBUND.

Feminist Avant-Garde of the 1970s
The Photographers’ Gallery
16 – 18 Ramillies St, London W1F 7LW
October 7, 2016 – January 29, 2017

For women, the last few months have been exhausting. There is now a man in the White House who has not only been accused of sexual assault, but who actually brags about it. And with Trump’s war on women reaching new heights this week with the reinstatement of the Global Gag Rule aka Mexico City policy – which stipulates that family planning funds cannot go to foreign aid groups that discuss abortion – the future seems bleaker than ever.

When it comes to women’s rights, it feels as though we’re rapidly sliding backwards, which is why sometimes it’s good to remind ourselves how far we’ve really come in the last forty years. It also why exhibitions like Feminist Avant-Garde of the 1970s at the Photographers’ Gallery in Soho, London, are so important.

‘S.O.S. Starification Object Series.’ Hannah Wilke Collection & Archive.

The exhibition focuses on ground-breaking art works that helped to shape the feminist movement we know today, and features big names such as Judy Chicago, VALIE EXPORT and Francesca Woodman, as well as a range of lesser known but equally important feminist artists. Focusing primarily on film, photography, performance and collage work (although Judith Bernstein’s phallic drawing One Panel Vertical is in there, as well as Kirsten Justesen’s self-explanatory sculpture of a woman trapped in a box), the show aims to document a time when emancipation, gender equality and civil rights began to seep into the mainstream. The term “feminist avant-garde” was coined by the show’s curator Gabriele Schor to describe the pioneering feats of those featured, as well as a way to link themes such as domesticity, identity and using one’s own body as a motif.

Discussing both the public realm and the personal sphere, the exhibition is divided into four sections. First up is ‘In my Skin: Normative Beauty and the Limits of the Body,’ an investigation of beauty standards in art history and the media. This section includes the work of Teresa Burga, who combines drawing and collage to explore the effect of advertising on body image, and the performance art of Rita Meyers.

‘Some Living American Women Artists / Last Supper,’ 1972 © Mary Beth Edelson

This is followed by ‘Domestic Agenda,’ which addresses prevalent stereotypes about women in the home, and features Martha Rosler’s famous video/performance piece Semiotics of the Kitchen. Next up is the ‘Alter Ego: Masquerade, Parody and Self-Representation,’ which includes the work of famous portrait artists Cindy Sherman and Martha Wilson. Before finishing with ‘The Seductive Body: Sexuality and Objectification,’ a section dedicated to the sexual liberation of women and includes the photographic work of Penny Slinger and Hannah Wilke’s “fascist feminist.”

By the standards of modern feminism, no exhibition on the second-wave can be considered perfect. After all, the movement has long been criticized for its exclusion of women of color and for only focusing on white, middle class females. However, Feminist Avant-Garde of the 1970s does attempt to address this. The show includes Latina artists Leticia Parente, Esther Ferrer and Ana Mendieta, as well as black artist Lorraine O’Grady’s photographic piece Mlle Bourgeoise Noire (Miss Black Middle Class). This is a small number in comparison to the amount of white women featured, but it’s better than nothing.

‘Untitled (Lucy),’ 1975/2001 © Cindy Sherman Courtesy of Metro Pictures

If you’re looking for something to put the fire back in your belly, this is it. For seasoned feminists the works in this show are nothing new, but act as a fierce reminder of what we’ve fighting for and why. For those just developing a feminist conscious, Feminist Avant-Garde of the 1970s is a great introduction to the movement, as well as to several truly revolutionary and inspirational female artists of the last century.

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