Troubling Canons: Curating and Exhibiting Women’s and Feminist Art, A Roundtable Discussion

Reckitt, Helena. 2016. Troubling Canons: Curating and Exhibiting Women’s and Feminist Art, A Roundtable Discussion. In: Ruth E Iskin, ed. Re-envisioning the Contemporary Art Canon: Perspectives in a Global World. New York, NY, and Abingdon, UK: Routledge. ISBN 9781138192683 [Book Section]

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Abstract or Description

A discussion between Pauline Boudry and Renate Lorenz, Artists, Berlin; Angela Dimitrakaki, Senior Lecturer in Contemporary Art History and Theory, University of Edinburgh, and author of books including Gender, artwork and the Global Imperative: A Materialist Feminist Critique (Manchester); Kerryn Greenberg, Curator, International Art, Tate Modern, London; Koyo Kouoh, Artistic Director, RAW Material Company, Dakar, and curator of exhibitions including Body Talk: Feminism, Sexuality and the Body in the Work of Six African Women Artists (WIELS); Camille Morineau, Independent Curator, Co-Founder and President of AWARE, Archive of Women Artists, Research and Exhibition, and former Curator at the Centre Pompidou where she curated exhibitions including elles@centrepompidou; Helena Reckitt, Senior Lecturer in Curating, Department of Art, Goldsmiths, University of London, and former Senior Curator of Programmes at the Power Plant, Toronto; Mirjam Westen, Senior Curator of Contemporary Art, Museum for Modern Art, Arnhem, the Netherlands, whose exhibitions include rebelle. Art & Feminism, 1979–2009, and Female Power. Matriarchy, Spirituality and Utopia

This roundtable discussion considers how female artists are incorporated into dominant as well as feminist canons and under what terms. Women artists have been and continue to be excluded from or marginalized within almost all artistic canons to date. The situation is even more extreme for female artists who work in non-Western locations, who are frequently treated as exotic outsiders if not ignored altogether. Meanwhile, resistance to and backlash against feminist ideas and values are underway throughout the world, at the same time as many archives devoted to women’s and feminist work face closure. There is therefore a pronounced need for scholars, curators, and institutions to contest the absence of women artists from and devaluation within dominant narratives by researching and foregrounding artists who were close to existing canons but marginalized because of their gender, as well as artists who contested mainstream movements and developed their own collective as well as personal paths. This effort also calls for the development of institutions that support this art and guard against its future erasure.

Yet while contributors are clear that existing canons have not served female artists well, they find the question of how to expand canons less easy to answer. As the discussion highlights, it is not a simple matter of inserting forgotten women artists into existing traditions, especially when those traditions were predicated upon excluding them in the first place. Incorporating artists into histories that they were never part of has violent connotations. Such tactics can end up validating dominant canons, refreshing them with material from the “margins,” which is removed from its original context and leaves prevailing values and dominance intact. These practices also risk tokenism, especially when the appearance of one or two “exceptional” women in dominant narratives is seen as evidence that sexism no longer exists in the art world and feminist struggle is no longer needed.

Challenging the idea that canons can be straightforwardly expanded, in their contribution to the discussion artists Pauline Boudry and Renate Lorenz propose the concept of “troubling canons.” Tactics of troubling canons draw attention to the ideologies, inclusions, and exclusions that underpin canon formation, including canons of feminist art. To trouble canons means to pinpoint the logic of competition (between artists and mediums, genres and regions) that canons both symptomize and perform. Artworks from the past cannot be easily recuperated, the practice of troubling canons reminds us, as all acts of translation entail processes of misunderstanding and incorporation, identification and desire. Based in intersectional politics, this approach does not separate critiques of masculinity from those of whiteness, heteronormativity, cis-gender superiority, and other dominant value and classification systems.

The discussion goes on to argue that to understand why women artists have been systemically denigrated and ignored, we also need to look beyond canon formation to the historical circumstances in which male artists and masculinist values came to dominate. Women, after all, have historically been designated secondary roles in the art world: as lovers and wives, models and muses, and, more recently, gallery owners, collectors, curators, and critics. That women still carry the responsibility for childcare, as well as the socially reproductive labor that maintains life, profoundly impacts how their work is recognized and valued. If we are to reverse the endemic dismissal of women’s work, we don’t just need better, more diverse publications, exhibitions, collections, and institutions devoted to their art. The discussion highlights the need for changes on infrastructural level that reflect feminist ethics, promote feminist values, and sustain feminist futures.

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8 November 2016Published

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09 Jan 2017 10:35

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29 Apr 2020 16:21


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