Feminism in Art: Steph’s Top Five

by stephaniegunner

Recently a group of radical feminists disrupted a meeting of a men’s issues group at Toronto University. The activists from Canadian Alliance For Equality (CAFÉ) picketed, hurled abuse at attendees and eventually pulled the fire alarm, forcing an end to the event. The situation at the university is very tense, with both sides feeling intimidated and victimised. It’s complex, and I’m not saying CAFÉ don’t necessarily have a point, but it was the way the group went about protesting that unsettled me. It was troubling to see self-proclaimed feminists resorting to bullying tactics out of fear. The way the CAFÉ members behaved is not representative of the majority of feminists, but unfortunately it’s often the loudest and most difficult child that gets the attention. When I talk about feminism; and that is an almost daily occurrence, it’s usually from a positive perspective. Equality is a brilliant idea for both men and women, promoting understanding between the sexes and even helping to boost our economy (see organisations such as 30 Percent Club to find out how). So I often talk about feminism using artworks


as illustration; because it’s often more relatable than the rantings of the radicals. Here are some pieces I’ve found inspiring, and which I think are good examples of a calmer line of enquiry into gender, relationships and feminism.

Isley Lynn – True Love: The Truth

When I first saw this performance piece by playwright and poet Isley Lynn, I’ll admit I was a little sceptical about the premise. A collection of her poems on the theme of love and relationships, linked together by the story of her romantic life to date, there’s huge potential for the screaming pain and anger diatribe that many may expect. The tone of the show is actually the exact opposite. Emphasising what has been learned; not lost, Lynn’s disarming honesty and openness allows us to see parts of our own experiences in her story. It would be giving far too much away to reveal the content of her final poem, but suffice it to say it reveals something deeply personal, which makes this much more than a whiny rant about boyfriends. It reminds us that the most important relationship in life is with ourselves, and that love is complicated for both sexes. We are all equal in love, and at times all of us are equally lost.

Helen Chadwick – Piss Flowers

piss_flowerOne of Chadwick’s most famous works, Piss Flowers is a series of casts made from the cavities created when she and her boyfriend urinated in the snow. As well as exploring how transgressive behaviour can be elegant and beautiful, the piece also has some interesting perspectives on physicality and gender. It is Chadwick’s urine that creates the central stamen of the flower, the penis if you like, and we imaginatively associate her body with power and forthright action. The labial petals are cast from her partner’s stream, connecting his male body with light touches and decoration, usually considered feminine traits. The way this artwork plays with ideas of what male and female bodies naturally do, as opposed to what we prescribe them to do, is what draws me to it. That, and the fact it has piss in the title.

At The Drive In – Invalid Litter Dept.

Invalid Litter Dept. is a song by Texan post-hardcore band At The Drive In, dealing with some issues pretty close to home. The band members hail from El Paso on the border with Mexico, and the town of Ciudad Juarez is a mere 11 minutes away by car. Since 1993, over 400 women have been murdered in Juarez, their bodies discovered raped, charred and mutilated in the desert outside the town. Many have attributed the term ‘Femicide’ to the series of killings, citing Mexico’s corrupted justice system as a major reason there have been no convictions to date. Invalid Litter Dept. contains lyrics referring to the murders, particularly criticising the indifferent attitude of the federales, or Mexican police. It doesn’t strictly fit my brief of a calmer voice of equality, but the fact this song has been written by an all-male band making music for a male-dominated medium and a core market of young men is particularly heartening for me. It’s angry, but it’s a male voice, so it’s more readily listened to by the general populace. I’m not saying that’s right, but it’s how things function for now, and the more men we have echoing feminist lines of enquiry the further along the road we can get. It’s a great example of how taking a stand against violence towards women is something good men do too.

Lora Hristova – Tales of Hubris

wallpoemArt and pornography are generally thought of as visual mediums, and for the most part that’s true, but this series of works by Lora Hristova shows how words can have just as much impact, if not more. Taking extracts from porn magazine writer Jeff Hubris’ articles and cutting them up, rearranging and censoring them, Hristova presents these texts on large Perspex wall hangings, giving the words ultimate visibility. Re-contextualising the texts muddies the waters of the porn industry even more, and the motivations and experiences of the people involved become even more ambiguous. By not telling us what to think, but questioning how we think about porn, Hristova gives men and women a chance to reconsider what we’re seeing, and how we connect or disconnect during the sex act.

Sonnet 130 – William Shakespeare

Regardless of anything else we may know or debate about Shakespeare; his sexuality, his attitude towards women, etc. this sonnet is the single most romantic thing I have ever read. It seems that even in Elizabethan times, women were put under pressure to be beautiful in a way that society dictated, and that their lovability and worth as a person was directly linked to achieving this state. Sonnet 130 pulls down the idealised bullshit of commonplace expressions of love, and replaces it with a much more believable and recognisable experience of a relationship. By being shoulder-shruggingly honest and pointing out the beloved female’s “faults” before declaring a sincere love for all her earthly wonder and human beauty, the speaker is looking at a woman and saying ‘I see you as you are, and I love you’. What could be a more beautiful statement of love and recognition of someone’s worth beyond their physicality, than that?

So the rhetoric of feminism need not be one of rage and anger, but of calm enquiry, explanation and curiosity. Whether it’s the playfulness of Piss Flowers, the plain injustice of the Juarez murders, or the elegance of words and stories that peak your interest in broader affairs, I encourage you to explore this artistic terrain. There are many more voices in feminism and art than just the yell of protest, and I promise you won’t always get shouted at if you come along to an exhibition or event.  Well, not unless you sit at the front, of course.

Tell us about some of the people or artworks that have inspired you, comment below or tweet us @TheatreLGBT

By Stephanie Gunner