Throughout the course of history, “femininity” as a cultural and political construct has come to signify many different things. While femininity is often associated with a set of identifying attributes based on heteronormative assumptions of physical appearance, social behaviors, and historical mandates, today, the category of “the feminine” is up for debate as notions of gender are becoming more loosely defined.
Live Dangerously, a new exhibition of photography at the National Museum of Women in the Arts, seeks to redefine the relationship between women, the natural world, and evolving definitions of femininity. The exhibit focuses on twelve photographers who employ a variety of visual tactics to capture femininity and its many complexities. Rather than capitulate to the patriarchal strategies of creating and viewing that have structured the history of photography, these twelve artists make work in resistance to the male gaze and gendered expectations within the medium to create more active and empowering images. As described on the National Museum of Women in the Arts’ website, “Artists in the exhibition often depict the female body wholly immersed in mountains, oceans, valleys, and deserts. Several of the photographers capture these figures near crashing waves or underwater, as though the ocean’s depths are their natural habitat. Rather than seem daunted by the sublime forces of nature, the women portrayed in Live Dangerously appear carefree, intrepid, and fierce.”
Artist Kirsten Justesen, best known for her cerebral performances, has photographs represented in this exhibition that document her site-specific and time-based work. Commenting on her investment in the body, Justesen stated “You have the body, the icon of sculpture in all its long tradition on the plinth. I started exploring the space around, formulating dimensional pieces that are not only the sculpture/body but the actions, positions, and decisions that you can play with”.
Exploring notions of the public and the private as well as the female body and its relationship to nature, artist Xaviera Simmons uses performance art, video, sculpture and installation to create richly-layered work that points to the various natural and manmade cycles in our daily experiences. As she writes in her artist statement, “It is the cyclical and diverse nature of this type of practice that engages me the most, where one work, in one particular medium, gives breadth and depth to another medium. The consistency found in shifting the practice alongside the navigation of diverse materials, subject matters, and the physical landscape in general, are what stimulate the scope of the projects produced”.
Rania Matar’s work explores notions of “femininity” in her photographs of female adolescents, who are often staged in private, interior spaces. It is not clear if the women in these photographs are luxuriating in their domestic environments, or trapped within these highly decorated jewel-box rooms?
Live Dangerously is on view from September 19, 2019 through January 20, 2020 at the National Museum of Women in the Arts. The museum is also hosting several thematic gallery talks which coincide with the exhibit, which can be found online at https://nmwa.org/visit/calendar.