Feminism’s Myriad Figures

Sylvette Babin
Although more than a century has passed since the first feminist actions, debates regarding equality between men and women are far from over. Many forms of inequality, oppression, and exclusion still exist and continually propel us to reflect on feminism. 

Yet today, we can no longer conceive of a female universalism that groups all women under the same one category. The intersectional approach, first used in the 1960s, has revealed many aspects of the stigmatization (racial, sexual, economic) that different groups of women experience and leads us to take into account a variety of possible experiences. It is therefore more appropriate now to speak of feminisms.

Observing feminisms in art also leads us to consider actions taken in society, namely in politics and the media. Jennifer Griffiths’ opening analysis of nudity in feminist demonstrations shows how, on the one hand, the commodification of the female body in visual culture strips it of its activist function and, on the other hand, various struggles for political and cultural power appropriate the female body. The example of Femen is significant, judging by the spectacularization of images in the media, which sometimes distract us from the initial issues at stake. The wearing of the veil is another well-known example that encourages us to look at the impact that recent debates on the subject have had on feminist groups and society at large. Valerie Behiery reminds us: “Feminist positions that deny agency to visibly Muslim women inadvertently replicate colonially rooted dominant discourses on the veil.”

The art milieu is no exception and has its share of disconcerting situations. Despite the higher presence of women in the study and practice of art, women remain a minority in institutions. The place given to female artists in major exhibitions is often the outcome of positive discrimination (women-themed exhibitions, representation quotas, etc.). Our current issue, authored entirely by women, could appear to be adopting the same position; the fact is that few men showed an interest to collaborate. Are feminist concerns still considered to be “a women’s issue”? Gender specificity is certainly not absent from the arts, in which certain tacit conventions are evident. The development of curatorial practices, which gave a voice to curators initially working in the shadows, has perhaps also played a part in exacerbating the secondary role of positions usually occupied by women. In this respect, Nanne Buurman emphasizes that by “applying masculinized models of creative artistry, curators thus became heroized…, whereas the relocation of feminized reproductive, maintenance, and care labour into the public sphere most often results in precarity and low wages rather than in glorification of exceptional achievements.” Becoming aware of these situations and recognizing them as facts certainly constitute the first steps towards a paradigm shift. Furthermore, isn’t the underfunding of the cultural sector — one of the main obstacles to fighting economic instability — just another means used by political powers to stigmatize women?

The questions related to feminisms in the field of art are numerous. As this forum has limited space, we decided to expand it online in order to make more voices heard. We asked various individuals known for their contribution to feminism to briefly discuss their views by answering the following question: “In your opinion, what is the single most urgent feminist issue that the arts community is facing today?” Their insights are published on our website at esse.ca/en/feministsopinions.

The entire issue and portfolios offer a selection of female and feminist art practices, activist or not, based on diverse approaches and communities. In this context, the (re)presentation of the body is undeniable. Yet to counterbalance the commodification mentioned earlier, we present artists who use the body as means of emancipation or affirmation of one’s identity. According to Thérèse St-Gelais, “the body has both a private and a public aspect and may, despite itself, be the focus of demands.” The type of protest, position or affirmation comes in as many forms as artists are diverse: subversion, uprising, reconsideration of gender archetypes and heteronormativity, post-colonial feminist theory, revival of ancestral practices, representation of the self, conscious and active use of seduction. These are among the many ways of expressing, again, the necessity of feminisms.

Translated from the French by Oana Avasilichioaei

Sylvette Babin
This article also appears in the issue 90 - Feminisms

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