Connected \\ February 14, 2018

2018 exhibitions examine women and power

When I think about “Powerful Women,” I think about people who have challenged gender norms and limitations. Figures who work towards dismantling preconceived ideologies about sex and power, a pluralistic category of multiple feminisms that serve to bring forth a collective understanding of the injustices that infiltrate our societies and histories.

To operate in feminist modes is not just advocating for women’s issues, but rather to take on the human issues within social, cultural, economic and political arenas of our lives. To be a feminist is to be human. 

In our current political climate, we’ve seen a plethora of exciting examples of not just women, but men, female-identifying subjectivities and gender non-conforming folks coming together for common causes: to illuminate the contradictions our country is built on, to demand retribution for the crimes committed against our society and to call out the inaccessibility that marginalized communities face when it comes to receiving proper healthcare, education, housing and equal name a few. In the history of art, female/female-identifying artists and subjects faced, and continue to face, significant challenges when it comes to the ability to live as working artists or cultural practitioners. In some cases, access to education, artistic training, models, travel, studio space and gallery representation proved limited for those who were not economically privileged.

Most recently, America has witnessed the Women’s March, the #MeToo campaign, the #BlackLivesMatter movement, the March for Science, #DefendDACA March and many other local and national public displays of the peoples’ power. With so many ongoing critical conversations happening in 2018, we’d like to recognize the importance that art and culture play in the shaping of narratives and understanding. Here at PEM we’re excited to present several special exhibitions that tell unexpected and surprising stories of female artists and subjects. I spoke to several curators about their projects and how these exhibitions can broaden understanding of these women — in their specific art historical and cultural contexts.

©Peabody Essex Museum, Photo by Allison White

On view until April 1, Georgia O'Keeffe: Art, Image, Style was organized by Guest Curator Wanda M. Corn for the Brooklyn Museum and is the first exhibition to explore the art, image and personal style of American modernist Georgia O’Keeffe. Alongside the artist’s paintings and photographs of her are the artist’s clothes, accessories and images of the meticulously designed spaces of her home and studio. 


Austen Barron Bailly, PEM’s George Putnam Curator of American Art points out that the artist, “vociferously rejected being labeled and interpreted as a ‘woman artist’ She refused to take her husband’s name [the photographer and promoter of modern art Alfred Stieglitz] and always remained ‘Miss O’Keeffe.’” In addition to pushing against gender roles and norms, O’Keeffe also upended the traditional “feminine” category of botanical painting by presenting flowers and leaves as extremely flat, dramatically enlarged and nearly abstracted. Keeping within a limited color palette, O’Keeffe continued to play with depth and focus as she depicted the natural world around her. The exhibition reveals connections between O’Keeffe’s Southwestern environment, her use of color, bold lines and forms, and her minimalist clothing choices and home designs. Georgia O'Keeffe: Art, Image, Style makes us aware of how conscious O’Keeffe was of crafting her own position and image not just within the art world, but also within multiple aesthetic arenas, including fashion, architecture and design. 


Angela Washko, Nature, from The Council on Gender Sensitivity and Behavioral Awareness in World of Warcraft, 2012–13, video (1 minute). On loan from the artist.

Opening February 10, PlayTime examines the shifting role of play in contemporary art and culture. Featuring over 30 works by 17 national and international artists, PlayTime includes several projects that investigate the influence of the internet and gaming on artistic practice.

For her installation, Pittsburgh-based artist Angela Washko makes her work within the highest-grossing online multiplayer game space of World of Warcraft. An avid gamer herself, Washko documented a series of performances in the game during which she spoke with other players about issues of identity and gender, particularly focusing on how women are treated in the game space. Often leading to surprising conversations, Performing in Public: Ephemeral Actions in World of Warcraft investigates the opportunities and limitations female, gender-non conforming players and players of color face when participating in this networked social space. Washko’s performative interventions inside World of Warcraft importantly poke at player exchanges within this fantasy landscape and how they work to reflect and reinforce the stereotypical politics of everyday life, instead of perhaps liberating us from them.

Sally Mann, Deep South, Untitled (Scarred Tree), 1998. Gelatin silver print. National Gallery of Art, Alfred H. Moses and Fern M. Schad Fund.

Looking ahead to PEM’s summer exhibitions, Sally Mann: A Thousand Crossings presents the photographer’s first major travelling exhibition. Co-organized by the National Gallery of Art, the exhibition explores themes of family, memory, mortality and home as well as the Southern landscape as repository of personal and collective memory.  With a career that spans more than four decades, Mann’s work has a distinctive ability to transform the personal and intimate into something universal.


On the subject of family, Sarah Kennel, PEM’s Byrne Family Curator of Photography, comments, “In her family pictures, for example, Mann started by documenting her children at play. Over time, the project became more and more complex, as she explored what it means to grow up. Some of the pictures are wistful and beautiful, but many others allude to the complex emotions of childhood as well as the dark fears that haunt parents. She was not content, in other words, to simply picture what she saw. Instead, she probed deeper, making pictures that conveyed the complexity of childhood and motherhood.” Taking on her intimate sphere of family as subject matter, Mann challenges our expectations on motherhood. Kennel reflects, “After all, mothers are supposed to shield their children, and admire their husbands!  Mann's work complicates that (simplistic) idea about the feminine role, even while she's making those roles incredibly central to the work of art.”

Emp288Lowres Fpo

Katharine Carl, The Empress Dowager Tze Hsi, of China, oil on canvas with camphor wood frame, 1903. Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C.: Transfer from the Smithsonian American Art Museum, S2011.16.1-2a-ap.

Organized by PEM, the Smithsonian's Freer|Sackler, Washington, D.C., and the Palace Museum, Beijing and opening mid August, in a timely celebration marking the 40th anniversary of US-China diplomatic relations, Empresses of China's Forbidden City (working title) explores the role of the Qing Empresses (1644-1912) and tells the little-known stories of how imperial women influenced court politics, art and religion.


Daisy Yiyou Wang, PEM’s Robert N. Shapiro Curator of Chinese and East Asian Art  works with co-curator Jan Stuart of the Freer|Sackler to uncover the women’s voices and presence within China’s last dynasty. While imperial women were constrained in their own historical and personal settings, a monumental portrait of Empress Cixi and the story behind the portrait serves as a key piece for the exhibition. Wang notes, “This portrait of Empress Dowager Cixi seems to contradict Western newspaper reports that declared ‘she has the soul of a tiger in the body of a woman.’ Cixi gained this reputation after supporting a violent anti-foreign uprising, which besieged the American diplomatic quarter in Beijing. To show good will, she invited the American painter Katharine Carl to create this commanding portrait to display at the St. Louis World’s Fair in 1894 on the occasion of her 70th birthday. It was also her gift to President Theodore Roosevelt. Parallel to the U.S.-China conflict, the American artist’s approach clashed with the Chinese convention of how to paint formal portraits. About rendering Cixi’s face, Carl lamented,There could be no shadows and very little perspective, and everything must be painted in such full light as to lose all relief and picturesque effect….I had many heartaches…’”

2018 is off to a bold start. As you visit these exhibitions, (and) we hope you’ll and participate in these conversations! Be on the lookout of upcoming openings and programs HERE.

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