Photographs of women, taken by women, to understand, explore, and celebrate womanhood. If you see one exhibition before winter ends, please let it be this.
Words Patrick Hamilton Courtney
It’s a poignant time for an exhibition like Terrains of the Body to be held. I’m writing this review two days after a women’s march in London attracted 100,000 protestors, with some 2 million joining similar demonstrations around the world. Equality seems a boat in ever shifting sands, where hard won successes in one arena are often met with disasters in another. Whatever one’s politics might be, the past year has demanded all of us decide where we stand on issues of feminism, homophobia, racism, and nationalism – sometimes with disheartening results.
The photographs in Terrains of the Body were provided by the Washington-based National Museum for Women in the Arts, the only major museum space devoted to the display of exclusively female-produced art. The Whitechapel Gallery’s show gathers 17 contemporary artists in an exhibition that enables story-telling from the female gaze, and aims to depict authentic womanhood rather than the often overtly-sexualised or simpering and soft male-created depictions of women in classical Western art.
Those exhibited, amongst many others, include famous performance artist Marina Abramovic, expresser of deep female desire Nan Goldin, conceptual and technical master Candida Hofer, profiler of Mexican privilege Daniela Rossell, and talented portraitists Rineke Dijkstra and Hellen van Meene.
Terrains asks the audience to go beyond looking at women, and instead to see their identities. The works are essentially about reading the body, and the potential that bodies have to tell a narrative in photography. For example Abramovic’s The Hero, an image that shows the artist astride a white horse waving the white flag of submission, is both an ode to her father and a comment on ideas of male gallantry.
A van Meene photograph shows an Asian woman caught in a moment of action and stillness – the point just before a bubblegum balloon bursts. And perhaps most powerfully of all, a piece by Ingrid Mwangi that shows a female back covered in scars. These pictures draw you in and inspire your curiosity.
In a world where millions of women face a million unique hardships, where too many people are belittled, persecuted, abused, or worse, where men who boast of “grabbing” the most intimate of body parts can laugh away from scandal unscathed, exhibitions like this remain vital and beautiful oases amongst the bog and bigotry. What a wonderful thing to behold.