International Women’s Day, observed on March 8, is when we are invited to reflect on gender equity on a global scale. It’s a tricky ask, as each nation is ruled by the singularities of its context. Everywhere, there’s progress to celebrate and setbacks, sometimes of the deadly sort, to denounce. Increasingly, it’s become a day to examine the inclusivity of our definition of womanhood, what criteria defines and binds these billions of individuals.
The jury on that is perpetually out, but a uniting thread seems like the experience of being acted upon by systems of power. Last year, the U.S. Supreme Court stripped Americans of their constitutional right to an abortion and, right now, women in Iran are heroically demanding the basest human dignities.
The complexities of womanhood are familiar fodder for the art world, which has always had artists and curators use their platform to educate on the diversity of experiences possible.
Below are a few shows on view during Women’s History Month that articulate the subject with elegance.
Alina Bliumis at Situations
Situations in New York is presenting Alina Bliumis’ first solo exhibition with the gallery, titled “Plant Parenthood.” For the show, Bliumis has created watercolor portrayals of flowers used in the traditional medicine of various cultures to induce abortions. Like an ode to Georgia O’Keeffe’s eerie lushness, Bliumis’ red and pink petals unfurl in sensual gestures reminiscent of reproductive organs. As its title explains, the show is a statement against the repeal of Roe V. Wade in June 2021, a decision which has already had deadly repercussions for Americans capable of giving birth. The flowers are sweetly rendered by Bliumis and testify to the legitimacy of a centuries-old medical procedure.
Wangechi Mutu at the New Museum
Mysterious forms that fuse the feminine, animal, and fantastical populate the celebrated practice of Wangechi Mutu. The Kenyan-born artist explores the the relationship between gender, race, and personal and political history through complex collages, paintings, videos, and sculptures. Decades worth of her artwork has been assembled in New York for “Intertwined,” her survey at the New Museum. Among them are Crocodylus (2020), a reptilian female occupying 13-square-feet of the gallery floor, and more abstract humanoid sileouhetes made with clay from soil in Nairobi. It’s a markedly meditative display, speaking to the conscious and unconscious influences that shape us into often unrecognizable forms.
Nancy Spero at Galerie Lelong & Co.
Galerie Lelong & Co., New York is staging a solo exhibition of works by the late artist Nancy Spero titled, “Woman as Protagonist”. Over several decades, Nancy Spero tackled the interconnected issues of sexism, racism, and classism through paintings, sculptures, and installations that each conveyed her ceaseless outrage at history’s treatment of women. Popular culture, art history, and totemic women leaders mingle in an oeuvre that, in all its disparate forms, suggested a common root of inequity.
The works on display at Galerie Lelong were created between the mid-1990s and the early 2000s, the last two decades of Spero’s life. Despite the heavy subject matter — she often referenced historical atrocities — Spero preferred a light color palette and liberated brushstroke. It’s a comforting encouragement against nihilism in the face of oppression. As she is quoted in the gallery’s press materials, “these collages of handprint figures are superimposed in fast rhythms to increase the tempo of actions of women in narrative/history.”
Rummana Hussain at the Institute of Arab & Islamic Art
The Institute of Arab & Islamic Art has inaugurated its new space in Manhattan’s West Village with the first (and long overdue) U.S. presentation of Rummana Hussain (1952-1999), a pioneer of India’s conceptual and performance scene.
Hussain was a fierce political activist due to her various identities as a woman in a patriarchal society, and a Muslim in a predominantly Hindu country sporadically rocked by spasms of violent nationalism. In her art, she explored how personal and political history converged in her body, which was one among many materials in complex installations and assemblages. The AIAI has restaged “The Tomb of Begum Hazrat Mahal”, a 1997 installation which takes the historical figure of Begum Hazrat Mahal, the second wife of Nawab of Awadh Wajid Ali Shah, and the regent of Awadh, as its protagonist. With her husband, she lead an armed revolt against the British East India Company in 1857. Here, the gallery acts as an altar for Hussain to offer her fealty in the form of dead roses, heavy iron tools, divas bound in string, and pale papaya halves splayed open like limbs. Myth and memory mingle without discernible boundary.
Sanja Iveković at Kunsthalle Wien
For those passing through Vienna, Kunsthalle Wien has up “Works of Heart (1974–2022)”, a survey of the influential Croatian multimedia artist Sanja Iveković, one of the first in the country’s artistic history to define her practice in feminist terms. Her art, which spans photography, installation, performance, and sculpture, functions as a political investigation into the construction and weaponization of history, in particular the relationship between mass media and ideology. How — where — is the female identity formed? From unreliable images circulated by unknown motivations, or from somewhere innate and untouchable? The latter place, she might say, is worth pursuing.