Identity Politics Artworks
Artworks and Artists of Identity Politics
Dinner Party (1974-9)
This installation is comprised of a large triangular ceremonial banquet table (with each side of the equilateral triangle measuring 48 feet long), set with 39 place settings (thirteen per side), each of which commemorates a significant woman from history. Each of the three sides (or "wings") of the triangle represent a different period from history. Wing I includes women from Prehistory to the Roman Empire (Primordial Goddess, Fertile Goddess, Ishtar, Kali, Snake Goddess, Sophia, Amazon, Hatshepsut, Judith, Sappho, Aspasia, Boadicea, and Hypatia), Wing II includes women from the beginnings of Christianity to the Reformation (Marcella, Saint Bridget, Theodora, Hrosvitha, Trota of Salerno, Eleanor of Aquitaine, Hildegarde of Bingen, Petronilla de Meath, Christine de Pisan, Isabella d'Este, Elizabeth I, Artemisia Gentileschi, and Anna van Schurman), and Wing III includes women from the American Revolution to more contemporary feminist thinkers (Anne Hutchinson, Sacajawea, Caroline Herschel, Mary Wollstonecraft, Sojourner Truth, Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Blackwell, Emily Dickinson, Ethel Smyth, Margaret Sanger, Natalie Barney, Virginia Woolf, and Georgia O'Keeffe).
Each place setting features elaborately embroidered runners, featuring a variety of needlework styles and techniques, gold chalices and flatware, napkin with gold edges, and hand-painted china porcelain plates that contain raised vulva and butterfly forms (each of which was created in a style that represents the individual woman the place setting was made for). The table sits on a "heritage floor" made up of 2304 white triangular luster-glazed tiles, upon which the names of another 999 women are inscribed in gold cursive script. The installation is accompanied by rotating "Herstory" exhibitions that describe the roles of the 1038 women commemorated by the work.
Chicago completed this work over the course of five years (1974-1979) with the assistance of over a hundred volunteers and artisans (male and female). It was first exhibited in 1979 and went on to tour sixteen venues in six countries across three continents before being moved to its permanent location at the Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art at the Brooklyn Museum, New York, in 2007. Chicago's goal with the work was to "end the ongoing cycle of omission in which women were written out of the historical record." She came up with the idea while attending a dinner party in 1974, at which, she recalls, "The men at the table were all professors, and the women all had doctorates but weren't professors. The women had all the talent, and they sat there silent while the men held forth. I started thinking that women have never had a Last Supper, but they have had dinner parties." Women were selected for inclusion based upon the following criteria: making a worthwhile contribution to society, striving to improve the situations of other women, making an impact on women's history, and serving as a role model for a "more egalitarian future".
This work serves as an example of how women/feminist artists attempt to revise the (art) historical canon, calling attention to the historical accomplishments of women as a way to challenge the male-dominated nature of history writing. Another important aspect of the work for Chicago in this regard was the use of media typically associated with women and so relegated to the status of "handicrafts" or "domestic arts", such as weaving, embroidery, sewing, and china painting, as opposed to the 'fine arts' which tend to be dominated by male artists. In this way, she sought to present the former as high, rather than low art.
Dinner Party was a watershed moment for the centralization of female stories within an artworld context, galvanizing feminist artists to reflect further on historical precedents. It also provoked significant discussion around the correct way to represent women and their experiences. Although not universally praised by feminist critics, the piece asserted powerfully the necessity of engaging with female stories and brought into sharp relief the politics behind their previous exclusion. It remains one of the best-known and most institutionally significant feminist visual art works of the twentieth century.
Ceramic, porcelain, and textile installation - Brooklyn Museum, New York
Untitled Film Still #35 (1979)
This black-and-white photograph features the artist dressed as a 1950s housewife, standing in a somewhat dilapidated home interior in front of a door, near which coats hang from a hook on the wall. At the bottom of the door are several scuff marks, perhaps indicating that the housewife had over a period of time used her feet to open and close the door while her hands were full of laundry or busy with other domestic tasks. Sherman, dressed in a dress and apron with a kerchief on her head, stands with her body turned toward the left of the frame and her hands on her hips, a determined expression on her face and her eyes looking directly off of the right side of the frame.
This photograph comes from Sherman's series of Untitled Film Stills (1977-1980), in which she recreated 69 still images from Hollywood, film noir, and art house films, placing herself in the position of the female subject (acting as femme fatale, starlet, housewife, vamp, sexy librarian, working girl, etc.). Rather than being self-portraits, Sherman's Untitled Film Stills seek to open a dialogue about stereotypical representations of women in the media. Although, read together, the images show a variety of roles that women are permitted to take on in the media, they also reveal the limits of these predetermined roles. As exemplified by Untitled Film Still #35, a woman's place is often confined to the domestic sphere, where she is expected to also maintain herself as sexy and alluring to satisfy male fantasies. Sherman says of the series "I was really torn between an infatuation with those periods and feeling like I should hate them, because those kinds of role models, and those structures those artificial devices that women were expected to fit themselves into, like bras and girdles. [...] I also wanted to show that the characters themselves were as confused as I was, and frustrated by the roles that they were being forced to play".
Seen from its first exhibition as an inherently feminist work, Sherman and her photographic practice are now a touchstone for visual artists interested in the representation of women in twentieth and twenty-first century media. Drawing on her identity as a young woman, the Untitled Film Stills assert Sherman's agency over the stereotypical roles expected of her, and the ability of female artists to represent themselves. This artistic strategy is one that she has continued as she grew older: for example she has drawn on the role of the aging female performer encapsulated by the fading grand dame of Hollywood's golden age. Throughout Sherman's practice, her experience and identity as a woman is foregrounded and used as the guiding impetus.
Gelatin Silver Photograph - Museum of Modern Art, New York
Artifact Piece (1986)
In this performance, Luna lay in an exhibition case in the section on the Kumeyaay Indians in San Diego's Museum of Man wearing only a leather loincloth. Around his body, he placed labels describing the origins of his various scars (for instance "excessive fighting" and drinking), as well as several personal effects, including ritual objects used currently on the La Jolla reservation (where Luna lived). Also included were Rolling Stones and Jimi Hendrix records, shoes, political buttons, college diplomas, and divorce papers. Luna lay in the case for several days during the opening hours of the museum, occasionally surprising visitors by moving or opening his eyes to look at them.
Luna (1950-2018) was a Payómkawichum, Ipi, and Mexican-American artist, born in Orange, California, who moved to the La Jolla Indian Reservation in California at the age of 25. The following year, he earned a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree at the University of California, Irvine, and seven years later a Master of Science degree in counselling from San Diego State University. His goal with this work was to present indigenous culture as a living, evolving culture, rather than an extinct, lost, romanticized culture as is generally represented by museums. As art critic Jean Fisher writes, Luna was thus exposing "the necrophilous codes of the museum," that is, the way that cultural institutions make corpses out of living Indigenous peoples and cultures. Luna has stated that "I had long looked at representation of our peoples in museums and they all dwelled in the past. They were one-sided. We were simply objects among bones, bones among objects, and then signed and sealed with a date." By directly confronting museum-goers with his own living, breathing body, he forced them into a jarring moment in which they must confront their own ethnographic assumptions and prejudices. He recalls that many of the visitors spoke about him as if he weren't there, even after they realized he was in fact alive.
The array of ritual and secular objects with which he surrounded himself served to further emphasize the hybrid reality of contemporary indigenous life and culture. He said of the work, "In the United States, we Indians have been forced, by various means, to live up to the ideals of what 'Being an Indian' is to the general public: In art, it means the work 'Looked Indian', and that look was controlled by the market. If the market said that it (my work) did not look 'Indian', then it did not sell. If it did not sell, then it wasn't Indian. I think somewhere in the mass, many Indian artists forgot who they were by doing work that had nothing to do with their tribe, by doing work that did not tell about their existence in the world today, and by doing work for others and not for themselves." Luna went on to explain the importance of the performance/installation medium, saying that "It is my feeling that artwork in the medias of Performance and Installation offers an opportunity like no other for Indian people to express themselves in traditional art forms of ceremony, dance, oral, traditions and contemporary thought, without compromise. Within these (nontraditional) spaces, one can use a variety of media, such as found/made objects, sounds, video and slides so that there is no limit to how and what is expressed." In this way, he challenged the Euro-centric gaze that objectifes others, such as Native Americans. As Fisher writes, Luna aimed to "disarm the voyeuristic gaze and deny it its structuring power", by placing himself in a position of power (as he was in control of when and to whom he chose to reveal his "aliveness", thereby implicating museum-goers in the performance without their previous knowledge or consent). This strategy has also been undertaken by other indigenous artists and artists of color, most notably Guillermo Gomez-Pena, Coco Fusco, and the performance group La Pocha Nostra.
Performance - San Diego Museum of Man
Rainbow Series # 14 (1996)
This image uses collage to splice together images taken from postcard photographs produced in South Africa in the 1990s and Western pornography. A bizarre hybrid creature is thus created, comprised of a Black African topless female from the waist up, and a white naked female from the waist down, wearing knee-high red leather boots and thigh-high red fishnet stockings. The white female hand, with red painted fingernails, provocatively reaches around her buttocks to hold open her vagina to the viewer.
South African artist Candice Breitz was born in Johannesburg in 1972, and currently lives and works in Berlin, Germany where she also works as a professor at the Braunschweig University of Art. In Rainbow series, Breitz explored and critiqued the competing cultural representations of, and influences on, post-Apartheid South Africa. In the wake of Apartheid, South Africa was seeking to re-negotiate its identity as the "Rainbow nation" (a national slogan adopted for a time in the 1990s), that is, a country in which individuals and communities of various ethnic and cultural backgrounds co-existed peacefully. Part of this project involved the production of tourist postcards, many of which presented indigenous-looking Black Africans in rural settings, although these postcard images were carefully constructed, and used models rather than "real" people. At the same time, South Africa was beginning to open its doors to foreign media, which led to the importation of a significant amount of Western pornography. Thus, during the 1990s, South Africans were flooded with highly sexualized images that almost exclusively featured white women. Breitz states that these images "were my response to the contagious post-Apartheid metaphor of a South African "Rainbow Nation," a metaphor which tends to elide significant cultural differences amongst South Africans in favour of the construction of a homogeneous and somehow cohesive national subject".
The photomontage technique used by Breitz in this series is anything but polished, with her cuts between the images harsh and crude. For Breitz, this method served as a sort of metaphor for the violence that continues to be carried out against women, as well as the tumultuous process of identity negotiation that continues to occur in South Africa. As Brietz says "It probably has something to do with my constant awareness of just how many women are getting cut up out there, literally or otherwise. [...] The Rainbow People are reconstituted as violently sutured exquisite corpses, fragmented and scarred by their multiple identities. They are far from the romanticised hybrid imagined by certain postmodern writers; or the seamless, slick, computer-generated images which some artists produce. Rather, at a time when porn is (at least for the moment) freely available in South Africa for the first time in decades, and when inner Johannesburg maintains the dubious distinction of having one of the highest rape and murder rates in the world, this series is, specifically, a perverse take on the composite subject making up the imaginary tribe which is said to populate the "New" South Africa. But, more broadly, and I think more importantly, the series is my attempt to imagine - and thus to problematise - the citizen which I think is prematurely celebrated in a great deal of the post-colonial, post-feminist, often post-political discourse of the '90s." This use of photomontage is an example detournement, or a strategy that re-uses preexisting media in a way that is critical of or oppositional to the original.
With The Rainbow Series, Breitz calls attention to intersectionality, or the multiple, overlapping, inextricable aspects of identity that complicate one another, such as the way that gender identity is further complicated by racial identity. In a 1996 interview she reflected that "Although we're focusing our conversation on gender here, I think the discussion must be extended to other struggles around identity, for example race or class or ethnicity. A feminism that does not take these struggles into account is not going to have any real power. We all experience multiple forms of identification, and our identity position is never exclusively 'male' or 'female' or 'black' or 'white.'"
Cibachrome print - Unknown
Stories of a Body (1990-2000)
This performance begins in a pitch-black room, and as the darkness and silence begin to grow uncomfortable for the audience, Duffy emerges, naked and harshly spot-lit from the front. Audience members are confronted by Duffy's "severely disabled" body, which bears a considerable likeness to the Venus de Milo, raising the ironic observation that one of art history's most iconic representations of feminine beauty is, in fact, armless.
Mary Duffy (born 1961) was one of the key figures in the development of Disability Arts in the UK. She is an Irish painter and performance artist who graduated from the National College of Art and Design in 1983 and went on to complete a Masters degree in Equality Studies from University College Dublin. In 2003, she was awarded an Honorary Doctorate of Laws by the National University of Ireland in recognition of her contributions to the international Disability Arts movement. Duffy was born without arms as a result of thalidomide poisoning. Thalidomide is a drug that was frequently prescribed in the 1950s and early 1960s for the treatment of nausea during pregnancy. It was later discovered that the use of thalidomide during pregnancy frequently resulted in severe birth defects. From a young age, Duffy became adept at using her feet and toes to perform many of the tasks typically performed with hands, including drawing and painting.
Duffy recognized that the vast majority of representations of disability had not only been created by non-disabled individuals, but that they also had contributed to overwhelmingly deleterious widespread attitudes toward and understandings of disability. She writes, "In 1980, while at art college, I began to look at, and to question, my own fragile identity as someone who was very definitely different, disabled, and therefore, without any relevant cultural reference points. There were disability reference points all right, but they had been created by non-disabled people and regarded disabled people as tragic, pathetic or brave. These images were so far removed from my own experience, I had to search for an image of disability I could be proud of, an image that did not reek of emotion or pity, an image that reflected disability as being a part of being human and all the richness and diversity that that entails."
Duffy performed this work at numerous venues between 1990-2000. Writing about the motivations and intentions behind Stories of a Body, Duffy states "...in doing this performance, by standing here, naked in front of you; I am trying to hold up a mirror for you, I am making you question the nature of your voyeurism". In this way, Duffy's performance seeks to challenge the particular mode of looking, or rather "staring" that has historically characterized, and continues to characterize, visual encounters between the able-bodied and the visibly disabled. Duffy thus challenges viewers to recognize identity, disability, and difference as constituted through processes of looking and staring.
According to Critical Disability Studies scholar Rosemarie Garland-Thomson, "staring," is an "intense form of looking [that] constitutes disability identity by manifesting the power relations between the subject positions of disabled and able-bodied." Garland-Thomson notes that "Staring at disability choreographs a visual relation between a spectator and a spectacle [...] By intensely telescoping looking toward the physical signifier for disability, staring creates an awkward partnership that estranges and discomforts both viewer and viewed [...] Because staring at disability is considered illicit looking, the disabled body is at once the to-be-looked-at and not-to-be-looked-at, further dramatizing the staring encounter by making viewers furtive and the viewed defensive. Staring thus creates disability as a state of absolute difference rather than simply one more variation in human form." Performa founding director RoseLee Goldberg notes that performance art is a particularly useful medium for exploring identity, stating, "What better way to make people pay attention very directly than to say 'Look at me, I'm standing right in front of you.' "
Performance - International Touring from 1990
Becoming an Image (2012)
In this performance (originally carried out at the ONE Archives in Los Angeles), a 1500-lb block of clay sat in the centre of a pitch-black room. Canadian, gender non-conforming and transmasculine artist Cassils then proceeded to physically modify the block using the force of their own body, kicking and punching the clay in order to alter its form. Sporadic camera flashes from collaborator Manuel Vason illuminated this process for only brief moments, providing viewers with mere glimpses of the transformation, and burning these momentary images onto the viewers' retinas. The captured images, which went on to be shown at other exhibitions of Cassils' work (alongside the modified blocks of clay), present the artist in the throes of this strenuous activity, grimacing and dripping sweat. Audio of the performance was also recorded and presented at subsequent exhibitions, as the sound of Cassils' physical exertion positioned as an integral part of the work. The performance lasted 24 minutes.
Cassils trained with a professional Muy Thai boxer to prepare for the performance in which they physically attacked the block of clay. Through the strenuous effort it required to physically re-shape the clay, Cassils offered a commentary on the amount of work it takes to develop and maintain one's body, and simultaneously, one's identity. The violence of their activity also alludes to the violence experienced by trans individuals around the world, and Cassils understands the modified block of clay as a monument to trans people's perseverance and fortitude. The performance was also carefully constructed as to implicate the witness (here, the viewer who glimpsed the performance through the camera flashes) into this dialogue. In this way, Cassils sought to make visible the historically invisible histories of trans individuals.
Performance - ONE Archives, LA / International Touring