21st-Century Art Still (Really) Needs Feminism
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21st-Century Art Still (Really) Needs Feminism

The Art Gallery of Ontario collaborates with local multi-arts organizations on a wide-ranging, interdisciplinary discussion about feminism and artistic practice.

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Shary Boyle. Photo by Seth Fluker.

Despite the punishingly frigid temperatures in Toronto last night—with the wind chill, they fluctuated between -30 and -40 degrees Celsius—the Art Gallery of Ontario was full to capacity. The crowd was there for 2014’s inaugural First Thursday, the museum’s extremely popular series of events that fills the Gehry-designed building with music, eclectic vendors, installations, and even arcades. This instalment of the series featured programming from Long Winter, a monthly event that takes place at the Great Hall.

Dubbed the “Long Winter Takeover,” the Long Winter programming filled the AGO with varied and often simultaneous performances and installations: a bazaar in Walker Court with its own currency; performances by Doomsquad, Snowblink, Isla Craig, and Henri Fabergé; a DJ set from Katie Stelmanis of Austra; interactive video portraits by Dangling Participle; and immersive installations by Paul Kneale, Tough Guy Mountain, and Anni Spadafora. One of the secret highlights of any Long Winter event is the arcade, filled with weird and wonderful indie video games—and this event featured games created by members of the feminist game-maker collective Dames Making Games.

The keystone of the evening, however, was a discussion, jointly presented by the magazine Hazlitt and After School, a monthly series of talks “by academics and non-academics” that envisions itself as “education reimagined for the curious grown-up.” Entitled “21st-Century Art: Why Feminism Still (Really) Matters,” the talk featured four vibrant, immensely talented women, all of whom approach artistic practice, and feminism, from different aesthetic and ideological angles: Shary Boyle, whose work recently represented Canada at the Venice Biennale and whose paintings, drawings, and sculptures have been exhibited at the National Gallery, the AGO, and the Centre Pompidou; Vanessa Dunn, who performs in the feminist art rock band Vag Halen; Petra Collins, who founded the artistic collective of emerging women entitled the Ardorous and designed the Period Power t-shirt for American Apparel; and Aminah Sheikh, whose artistic practice engages deeply with her identity as a Muslim woman and whose work (she recently participated in this video about “Mipsterz” ) often explores the possibility for beauty and self-expression in the hijab.

What made the talk so engaging was a combination of the talent of these women—all of whom are making exceptional art across very different mediums and forms—their extremely varied interpretations of feminism, and the different ways their politics are manifested in their personal artistic practices. Vanessa Dunn is concerned about reclaiming the traditionally male sphere of “cock rock,” and in particular reclaiming the live performance of aggressive music by creating a safe space at Vag Halen shows. “There’s a feeling of solidarity in the crowd, and everyone there knows that if something were to happen, at least six people have their back. There’s really no place for assholes at our shows.” She sees Vag Halen performances as opportunities for dialogue, and for women to both feel welcome and operate as agents in the creation of music and the live experience.

Petra Collins, whose work intersects with Dunn’s in its in-your-face challenges to gender roles, spoke powerfully about the role that a new kind of community—an online community of young women—played in the development of her artistic practice. Collins says she “didn’t feel like I had to wait for permission” from artistic organizations and publishers to start sharing her work; rather, she could create her own community and platforms. She also fiercely rejects notions of shame in her own work, and identifies Aminah Sheikh’s work as something she feels very drawn to. “What we’re trying to work towards is power to own your own body, and not to have shame, whether that means covering up or not wearing anything.”

Aminah Sheikh’s work operates outside of white, Western, and secular feminism, and she was an important voice on the panel. She spoke eloquently about the importance of rejecting other faith-based and cultural traditions as tools of oppression, and also of reclaiming or working them through as empowering forms of expression for women—pointing to, for example, the artistic and fashion potential of the hijab. “Modesty is not linked to shame,” she says, and her work attempts to highlight aspects of her relationship with Islam, including ideas that “the body is beautiful, everything is beautiful, and God creates beauty.” She says that while it can be hard for Western feminists to see beyond the idea that the hijab is a tool for oppression, “Islamic feminism is saying that modesty is not a negative thing, that it is about celebrating bodies in a different way.” She sees her work as exploring new ways to navigate and build relationships with faith that empower women.

Shary Boyle also attempts to build a relationship between feminism and beauty in her work, which includes extremely detailed illustrations and finely wrought porcelain figurines—many of which feature some form of distortion or mutilation. She is fascinated by “what attracts us to things and what makes us feel repulsed by other things,” and by the ways the dynamics of revulsion and attraction play out on the landscape of a woman’s body. She says that she feels “a huge amount of compassion” for her subjects and that she “never make(s) characters that I don’t have a strong emotional connection to.” Her work views fragility, vulnerability, frailty, and beauty through a feminist lens, attempting to revise and broaden traditional boundaries of beauty. She is also fiercely anti-violent, and when asked on the panel whether she still believed feminism was a relevant term or idea, bluntly stated that until no women are raped anywhere in the world, we still need feminism.”

While heralding the “end of feminism” might be a quick way to get opinion-piece page views, these four artists prove that feminism is very much alive and informing their dynamic and varied artistic practices.