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.