“What does it mean to be with you? Saying yes to everything you want?” “Are you with me?” “It’s my body! Even when it rebels.”
These were a few of the phrases painted onto the white tablecloths, beside sunsets and seascapes and a pair of purple ovaries, that appeared at a feminist-minded event in New York this past Saturday. Crowds had gathered in the grand second-floor of the city’s Park Avenue Armory to paint and see what “100 Years | 100 Women,” an event celebrating the arts and the 100th anniversary of the ratification of the 19th amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which guaranteed the right to vote for American women, had to offer.
As the event’s attendees—which ranged from children to seasoned feminists—painted using a set of watercolors, famed performance artist Karen Finley held forth about the works. “It’s subversive,” she said, gesturing at a table. “This is a subversive act, especially within a space like the Armory, which has such a deep, male history.”
Against the far wall was an empty stage, flanked by two wall-length banners. Finley had created both for the symposium and they were overtly gendered, with great painted waves of fuchsia, red, and hot pink that formed the shape of breasts.
One banner read, “It’s my body,” and that may as well have been the phrase that defined the symposium. Questions (and declarations) of bodily autonomy—freedom from the Man, men in general, and exclusionary vestiges of dated forms of feminism—pervaded the event. It was a full day talks, salons, and performances, and yet it was just one part of “100 Years | 100 Women,” which will continue in May with presentations of artworks commissioned by female-identifying and non-binary artists, of which a prominent few were announced today.
(In total, the initiative is commissioning 100 artists. Ten New York–based cultural institutions, including the Park Avenue Armory and its lead partner, National Black Theatre, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Apollo Theater in Harlem, and New York University, were enlisted to select them.)
During the big announcement, the Armory’s program director, Avery Hoffman, explained that the event was held to ponder “the successes and failures of the feminist movement in the past 100 years.” The crowd roared back: “Mm-hmm!”
Finley, who was there talking with representatives of another symposium partner, the experimental theater group, La MaMa, was named as one of the Armory’s chosen artists. The multidisciplinary group spans dance, visual arts, literature, music, and photography, and includes Sama Alshaibi, Murielle Borst-Tarrant/Safe Harbors Indigenous Collective, Ebony Noelle Golden, Chanon Judson, L’Rain, Toshi Reagon, Jaime Sunwoo, and Sahar Ullah.
After the announcement, visitors were invited to browse the salon. The Armory’s artist-in-residence, vocalist Sara Serpa, presented her suite Recognition, which made use of found footage from her family archives in Portugal and Angola, original soundscapes, and texts by the revolutionary Amílcar Cabral. Down the hall, the National Sawdust presented its Forward Music project, which featured commissioned pieces from female composers, including Angélica Negrón and Shelley Washington. Paola Prestini’s cello composition was overlaid with distorted soundbites from an interview between Susan Sontag and a male journalist who repeatedly interrupted her.
There were talks to attend, too, and they focused on art, activism, theater, and suffrage. There was, for example, “Public Art & Citizenship,” which explored the potential for art in the public sphere to champion equity. The talk’s most memorable moment occurred during a discussion of the installation of Faith Ringgold’s searing painting American People Series #20: Die (1967) beside Pablo Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon (1907) at the nearby Museum of Modern Art.
Curator Jessica Bell Brown, speaking with artist Zoë Buckman and Kemi Ilesanmi, the director of the New York nonprofit the Laundromat Project, considered the juxtaposition of a black woman’s vision of racial violence and Picasso’s depiction of erotic, exoticized women.
“Across the two paintings, there are stories of modernism and representations of race, social hierarchies, and gender,” said Bell, who was recently named an associate curator of contemporary art at the Baltimore Museum of Art. The pairing will surely offend some audiences, she added, but “we learn in moments of discomfort.”
As Brown pointed out, some level of discomfort may not be fun, but it is necessary. Finley echoed these ideas, saying that, in the process, spaces where art, gender, and violence are discussed openly could result. “Eating together, making art together,” Finley said, beside the painted tables, which were strewn with complimentary clementines. “We should have more spaces like this.”