A film that celebrates an artistic history too long hidden, too long misunderstood

Gazelle Mba discusses a groundbreaking feminist film and the politicisation of artistic identity

Kara Walker, 2014. Source: Flickr

In 2010, the artist Lynn Hersham released her first film !Women Art Revolution. In its exploration of artists such as Nancy Spero, Judy Chicago, Ana Mendieta and Howardena Pindell, the film gifts its viewers a seemingly endless array of archival footage, interviews and video art. Each image, every word spoken, fashions and recreates a history so long hidden, so long misunderstood. !Women Art Revolution painstakingly and movingly records how, in the 70s and 80s, feminist artists created work with the aim of fusing the worlds of politics and art. Their work speaks not only to the political movements of their times, but also to the burgeoning and now all-encompassing politicization of identity and experience.

Perhaps the most poignant moment in the film, one which presents the necessity of the film’s existence so clearly, is when ordinary New Yorkers are asked about their favourite female artists, and most can only name Frida Kahlo. Today, Frida Kahlo’s name is to be found in headlines once again, not in essays dedicated to her political commitments or her artistic abilities, but in the ways she has been reduced and commodified, a bracelet shackled to the wrist of prime minister Theresa May.

Much has been made of the intractable differences which separate Kahlo from May. Kahlo, a lifelong communist Mexican artist left disabled by a bus crash in her youth, incongruously and strangely attached to the body of May, whose allegiance to capitalism and the various oppressions it yields are obvious, and under whose leadership the government’s record on disability rights has been called a “human catastrophe” by the UN. While the Prime Minister’s jewelry can be dismissed as simply an ‘aesthetic choice’, its meaning calls out for analysis and exploration. Writing in the London Review of Books, Paul Clinton notes that Margaret Lindauer has argued that we have in a sense “obscured the specific political and geographic context of Kahlo’s work. Her transformation into a role model, as much as into a commodity used to sell t-shirts, films or, indeed, bracelets, has reduced the artist to her image and biography.” Yet, Kahlo’s commercialisation does not simply demonstrate the reduction of the artist to “her image and biography”, as Clinton and Lindauer state, rather it is emblematic of the ways in which neo-liberal and conservative discourse harness the power and resonance of identity politics, in ways that warp, distort and reduce the socialist and revolutionary politics of its purveyors, so as to nullify the challenge and opposition they present to the dominant and powerful. Frida Kahlo and the artists of !Women Art Revolution animate sites of intellectual and political contention, found in struggles against class, racial and gendered oppression. West evinces the “complicated relationship” the Chicano and queer activists who adopted and championed Kahlo’s image had “with the left wing in the 1980s, which saw identity politics as individualistic rather than concerned with collective struggle, linked to the self-interested culture of the Reagan and Thatcher era.” Her later work invokes Judith Butler’s argument that Marxists had too often portrayed struggles over identity as “merely cultural rather than concerned with questions of mate- rial production.”

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However, I would argue that our flawed conceptions and understandings of Frida Kahlo and her ilk, lie not in our failure to see identity politics as concerned with material production. Instead, it is in the way identity politics creates icons and role models whose thorniness, revolutionary instincts and ideas are dulled and eroded, so they can stand for anything and all things, be all things and as a result be nothing. It also leads to the politicisation and radicalisation of individuals whose work and activism is simply representational, who are themselves reflections, but not mirrors which incite re-examination and as a result, tangible and material change.

Nowhere is this more prevalent and pernicious, than in the critical and public reception of black women artists. Take the wildly similar yet dissimilar depictions of blackness by the artists Kara Walker and Tschabalala Self. Succeeding her groundbreaking 2014 installation “a subtlety”, Kara Walker returns to the two dimensional images of brutality and fear of which she was made both famous and infamous in her show: SIKKEMA JENKINS AND CO. IS COMPELLED TO PRESENT THE MOST ASTOUNDING AND IMPORTANT PAINTING SHOW OF THE FALL ART SHOW VIEWING SEASON! Her paintbrush expertly and viscerally renders scenes which investigate the nature or meaning of race, gender, sexuality and violence. Meanwhile in her first UK solo exhibition, at Pilas Corrias gallery in London, the artist Tschabalala Self, explores through a variety of media: painting, print and sculpture the commodifcation and hyper-sexualisation of the black body, using the New York Bodega as a the physical or geographical site of these happenings.

The political potential of Walker’s work is evident, but she denies and rejects any notion that she is a role model, a portrayer of triumphant and invincible blackness. The pain and fear in her work cannot be so easily compartmentalised and sentimentalised. She resists categorisation both biographically and in her art, a categorisation which would otherwise limit and stifle the radical and critical aspects of her work. Kara Walker is not supposed to paint or depict what she does, yet she offers it to us time and time again. She offers new political possibilities through her defiance. On the other hand, Tschabalala Self’s handling of the black female body and its accompanying sexualities, view the representational as inherently political. Self herself has stated that “the bodies that my work is talking about are constantly politicised, so it’d be impossible for the work not the politicised.” But to what politics does she allude to? What do these figures have to offer beyond the mere fact of themselves? Perhaps the shortcomings of Self’s work are best revealed by the language critics have used to denote the black female she represents. The Guardian calls them “raunchy” and “hedonistic”, W Magazine lauds these “self-constructed women” who “exuded confidence and cool” in “unapologetically sexual positions.” As shown by these terms and epithets, in her desire to subvert and take ownership or possession of that which has been declared shameful and abject, there is nevertheless a contradictory re- establishment of structures which originally rendered her subject matter shameful and abject.

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Their sexuality is rid of complexity, reduced to the feelings and perceptions it arouses in others. It is divorced from the insidious and structural transactions of power, which give it its meaning in the first instance. These bodies are delicious and entertaining spectacles, but not a spectacle which draws and call attentions to their darker political contexts, in ways that illuminate and elaborate our understanding of them.

It becomes worthwhile to focus on the specific rather than the general, the meaning of a particular work rather than the overarching implication of this artist’s entrance into the mainstream or the public acceptance of their work. We must go back, in order to excavate and rediscover the ideas and critical thought which stimulate and energise their artistic and creative resistance. Our need to constantly equate the representational with the radical, is to lose too much, to silence what else there is to say and call into question.