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Are all-female exhibitions problematic?

Janine Antoni, “Lick and Lather,” (1993) image via artnews

While some of us see all-female exhibitions as the antidote to a long history of all-white-male exhibitions, others heartily disagree, arguing that both all-male and all-female exhibitions are problematic. Personally, I’m on the fence–I see a huge difference between curating all-male shows, which uphold a gender-biased status quo, and all-female (or rather, all-non-male) exhibitions, which could potentially shed light on subjectivities that have been historically marginalized.

Perhaps we should ask ourselves: why organize exhibitions based on gender (or race), anyway? Are gender and race useful curatorial rubrics? Logically I would lean toward no, but of experience I would say yes. Take a look, for example, at Hamza Walker’s excellent Renaissance Society exhibition "Black Is, Black Ain’t", which argues that blackness is not a politically irrelevant category as some would have it–to say that we’re post-race denies the structural racism that permeates our lives.

While some argue that we shouldn’t ascribe so much power to gender and race as categories, this supposition ignores that gender and race are structuring elements in our lives. To argue that gender is a socially irrelevant category denies that we see ourselves, the world and others through structuring elements such as gender and race.

On the flip side, and diverging from our comparison with race, gender exists on a spectrum that is self-identified, and continually expanding and redefined culturally–to suggest that there is only one womanhood, or only two genders, would be at its root retrograde. Take for consideration “Bad Girls,” the 1994 exhibition curated by Marcia Tucker of the New Museum, which was derided by some feminists for unwittingly upholding gender stereotypes. The press release for the exhibition reads:

“Unconventional, humorous, and distinctly unladylike, Bad Girls presents the work of 45 artists, including Janine Antoni, The Guerilla Girls and Carrie Mae Weems, who confront gender, race, class and age issues and question methods of visual representation. Essays by Linda Goode Bryant, Cheryl Dunye, exhibition organizers Marcia Tanner (Bad Girls West) and Marcia Tucker define the societal influences that have shaped contemporary notions of femininity, while promoting the subversive wit these “bad girls” use to challenge traditional concepts of marriage, fashion, food, and sex.”

Nothing like an all-female exhibition that relegates itself to primarily considering marriage, fashion, food and sex. Why not politics? Why not STEM fields? Tucker is certainly a hero for her other many achievements, but this exhibition always seemed like a stain to me, like a family/male-friendly radical feminism with its teeth pulled. Perhaps the danger of curating-by-gender is inevitably delving into the realm of unprogressive cliché.

Your thoughts?

I think the ‘let us lead by example’ provocation made by those who are (myself included) critical of the influence of race/gender on personal identity, is becoming embarrassingly rhetorical.

Emancipation from these things is probably best made in small steps, if it is viable at all. I see it as a kind of collective Stockholm syndrome; race and gender roles, even dumb ones, are a kind of beloved tyranny.

That said, we’re not all the same, and we don’t all feel that way. Some people aren’t interested, swaddling themselves in even the most ‘regressive’ forms of these identities. For us to pose as if enlightenment is just around the corner, like "if ONLY everyone were on the same page as we are’’… is problematic in itself because its almost puritanical.



I appreciate this sentiment. Honestly, I haven’t been thinking about these issues in any way other than through frustration.

Agreed. I think about this constantly – re: shows about race, gender, and even as education relates to displaying contemporary art (e.g. Outsider Art Fair, etc.). What is the responsibility of the art critic in creating context and analysis around these shows when they happen? I’ve gone back to this 2013 discussion “Public Forum on Race and Gender in Contemporary Art,” hosted by PAFA, several times to keep jostling my thoughts on these topics: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oSlnVRv2jLw#t=0

Are all male exhibitions problematic?

While I completely identify with the frustration regarding the issue of female presence in the art world and the ambivalence when considering all-female exhibitions, there are somethings that can be done to change the situation and rectify several centuries of disregarding women artists.

Firstly, I do feel that, at least in Brazil, we usually face a double problem: on the one hand, female absence in exhibitions does seem to reinforce sexism and discrimination, echoing fallacies such as female inferiority or some other lame position. But on the other hand, when we propose new approaches to the subject such as an all female contemporary art show (unlike the New Museum one, which involved stereotypical issues) or institutions develop public calls dedicated to women artists, it is not unusual to hear that such initiatives actually strengthen the perception that those artists do not deserve to be there for no reason other than their gender, or that depending on quotas actually shows that these women otherwise wouldn’t have a space in the art scene because they simply weren’t good enough. Ok, I know that acting as though this is obviously ridiculous doesn’t help the debate, and probably enlightenment isn’t just around the corner the same way we don’t necessarily hold the Truth, but it is quite infuriating to lose on both ends! Not addressing the issue of female presence holds us back and perpetuates the status quo; curating all-female exhibitions seems to equally disfavour real changes in this ongoing marginalization process, especially when such shows are based on patronizing or condescending curatorial mottos.

Looking at contemporary art galleries, for example, we actually have more female-run galleries than male-run ones, while most of them represent twice as many male artists. Some even go as low as having only one fifth of women among their artists. I know that this pertains only to Brazil, but this scenario was surprising to me.

Historical exhibitions “rescuing” women artists from footnotes or even total neglect are less criticised but still raise doubt and demur. The Frida Kahlo and surrealist women artists exhibition held at Tomie Ohtake Institute recently rekindled some of these arguments, some bickering and one or two real reflections on revisionism and feminism. As a “historical” show, it counted on the time and effort of curators and researchers who are trying to recover women artists who were forgotten or actively erased from art history. This is not an easy task (probably, it is an infinite one!).

Objectively speaking, gender and race are definitely not valid curatorial criteria, but who can be objective when dealing with art, artists, history and, let’s face it, people themselves? I know I can’t. As I’ve been slowly realizing over the past five years of working in this area, almost everything is a matter of interpretation, textual construction and obviously perspective. Sometimes we push too hard when trying to fit an artist in a specific curatorial project, or we actively misuse a word claiming poetic license, and it is common to forgive artists’ personal faults because of their amazing works. There’s hardly anything objective in my work and most things depend on our perspective or are even a matter of opinion. Gender and race are part of the fabric of life, and art is just another realm where we could replicate inequalities or work towards rectifying them.

Nonetheless, this is not to say that gender bias SHOULDN’T be an issue anymore, that I don’t wish we could have already healthily surpassed this anachronistic adversity. It shouldn’t matter but it still does and there has to be a way of exposing it within the art market and art world without running the risk of limiting the issue to fashion, marriage or sex, without running the risk of reinforcing bias through the idea that all-female exhibitions exist because of quotas or similar arguments, and without perpetuating a monolithic view of gender as a binary construct and femininity as a static permanent condition.

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