‘When I paint I don’t even know my name, I don’t know my gender, I don’t know anything, I forget everything human.’ The words of the artist Oda Jaune – whose monumental figures are concealed, disfigured, nakedly hybrid – reflect the range and historical arc of different feminisms underpinning this group exhibition of 38 women artists situated just outside Montpellier in the south of France. Charting a course from Lisa Rovner’s I can’t believe I’m still protesting this shit (2011–ongoing) in which the artist inserts herself into appropriated images of early feminist marches (‘breathing new life into old struggles’), the show is bookended by a pop-up library arranged with the support of Éditions des Femmes, founded by the late psychoanalyst Antoinette Fouque, an early leader of Le Mouvement de libération des femmes.
The show’s title, ‘Mademoiselle’, spotlights the ongoing debate in France about the embedded sexualization of women’s identities. Until 2012, official government forms required that women distinguish themselves based on their marital status (‘Mademoiselle’ refers to an unmarried woman, imputing virginity), whereas men of all ages, married or not, bear the official title ‘Monsieur’. In the context of a quiet port city such as Sète there is political weight to the issue’s public reiteration, especially given the continuing gender inequities in pay and corporate prominence across the country. The consequence for the show is a kind of double vision: an attempt to address simultaneously the cultural inscription of gender and move beyond the essentializing tendency of earlier feminist debates.
Curator Tara Londi’s invocation of Amelia Jones’s concept of ‘Parafeminism’ – of re-evaluating and extending earlier feminist strategies in order to confront present regimes of power – prepared this institutional space for its own creative dismantling. Jesse Jones’s slow enveloping of her extremely large curtain piece, No more fun and games (2018), around an old and unsuspecting male visitor captures perfectly the artist’s aim of ‘recalibrating’ the space of the gallery from a site of white male occupation to one of union in sisterhood. Digitally printed with the arm of the artist’s mother, a psychic, and ‘touching’ the other works in its proximity, the curtain transforms the white cube into a highly charged space of divination. Two monochrome photographic self-portraits by Zanele Muholi (both 2016) enframe and survey this space. A self-identified ‘visual activist’ for whom ‘photography doesn’t have a gender’ who grew up as a black lesbian in South Africa, her body of work bears within it bleak histories of persecution and violence suffered by black, ‘queer’ and trans communities. Shown here alongside sculptures and paintings by Nevine Mahmoud, Laure Prouvost and Elsa Sahal – collocated to evoke Lacan’s theory of the fragmentation of the female body that occurs when it’s fetishized by the male gaze – the specific context behind Muholi’s realism feels somewhat minimized, as does Transfeminism as a discursive frame.
The most successful juxtaposition is that of Liv Wynter’s Housefire (2018) with two large new sculptures by Rebecca Ackroyd, set amid a vaudevillian glow of pink strip light. Heaped up in a corner, Wynter’s installation of old televisions replays footage of a woman’s house being repeatedly set on fire. The artist occasionally performs seated in front of her installation: her script coupling gallows humour (‘too painful to see, too good to miss’) with the exhaustion of always having to speak out about attacks on women in the private sphere. When viewed in tandem, Ackroyd’s Nave! and Sol! (both 2018) – comprising acrylic glass, bleached white plaster, wax and steel – appear like excavations of female existence in posthuman form. According to Florence Peake, ceramic is a medium ripe for reclamation and it proliferates among the other sculpted works here. Peake’s floor piece, Us: Psychic Knead (2017), is an agglomeration of ectoplasmic remnants of her dance performance ‘Voicings’, in which ‘the inner landscape of the body’ emerges from the artist’s interaction with her public. By contrast, Elsa Sahal’s glazed ceramic Léda Missourifornia and Amarante (both 2015) hang in the air, internalized forms whose lyrical writhings pave the way for Mika Rottenberg’s film, Julie (2003), a floating caryatid who upends her external world instead.
In one room, video works by Sara Cwynar and Gery Georgieva establish a lineage for consumer culture’s effect on female subjectivity and identity formation. Both of Cwynar’s ‘essay-style’ films Rose Gold (2017) and Cover Girl (2018) call attention to covert forms of discrimination, or ‘soft’ sexism, by scrolling seductively through products and images – vestiges of the Mad Men generation of advertising – that seek to standardize ‘natural’ skin tones. Georgieva’s All-Eyes-on-Me (2017) in turn parodies YouTube make-up tutorials via a reductio ad absurdum in which her recommendation of lurid colours, gem stickers and toy eyes stresses the target audience’s complicity in its own pernicious manufacture. Elsewhere, Ambera Wellmann’s Small Widow (2018), Tala Madani’s Dissolved Pussy (2017), and Tschabalala Self’s Princess (2017) encapsulate a commentary that lurches between bodily convulsion, emasculation and the iconography of blackness. Years ago, Donna Haraway observed the difficulty for feminist theory of ‘hold[ing] race, sex/gender, and class analytically together’. This show confronts this difficulty while reminding us that binary logics still persist.
'Mademoiselle' is on view at Centre Régional d’Art Contemporain Occitanie/Pyrénées-Méditerranée (CRAC Occitanie), Sète until 6 January 2019.
Main image: Rebecca Ackroyd, NAVE!, 2018. Courtesy: of the artist and Peres Projects, Berlin; photograph Matthias Kolb