Earlier this year, I had the absolute pleasure to work on an exhibition in Rochester. The Power of the Female Gaze looks at female art and artists, looking at how women depict other women. It was a fascinating project, and am so grateful to have had the chance to work on this project. We were also asked to present a lecture on the exhibition. And it was certainly powerful. While I don't have any videos, I hope the script is equally enjoyable!
The Power of the Female Gaze touched me deeply. It presents women of extraordinary abilities, as well as women in their everyday lives. Women whose names are left on the tapestry of history, others known to us only through stories told by our mothers and grandmothers.
For a novice curator, to curate for an art museum is an extremely rare opportunity. I am forever grateful to Jess Marten for allowing me to take part in this exhibition. I didn’t really know what to expect, or what would be expected of me. And I am sure there were moments Jess wanted to strangle me after last-minute changes to our meetings. (I sincerely apologize!) Nevertheless, between work and school, Jess understood – to varying degrees – and allowed some flexibility. Days were booked in advance to work through art in storage, while additional research was conducted off-site. Some of the artists were quite familiar to me. Georgia O’Keefe. Faith Ringgold. Mary Cassatt. Others, not as familiar. Suzanne Gutherz Warriner. Niki de Saint Phalle. Maria Katherina Prestel. I was also surprised to discover local artists. Hildegarde Lasell Watson and Kathleen McEnery Cunningham were two phenomenal women who married into two prominent local families. Coincidentally, families who also endowed two area museums – one being The MAG.
The museum’s collection goes beyond what’s on display. There are thousands of objects within their possession, many older than the museum itself. It was awe-inspiring to be so close to medieval relics, unique sculptures, and contemporary paintings. By comparison, kind of like the scene in Devil Wears Prada when Nigel takes Andy through the fashion collection to try on new clothes and accessories. Yes, dahlings. It was that fabulous!
While we were curating our female narrative, I was curating a narrative of my own. Late last year, I openly acknowledged my transsexuality, and began the transition process in January. At first, I was afraid. From the first visit with my doctor, to the first estrogen shot (which hurts like hell!), to signing papers to legally change my name, the thoughts of hate, fear, and violence were rampant. I was afraid of being rejected. Afraid of being ridiculed. Afraid of losing everything I had worked so hard for. The fear of being harassed in public places. The fear of being assaulted in private spaces. Fear limits us. It discourages us. It deprives us. It blinds us from walking down our path of life, and deafens us from understanding the lives of others. Fear is the greatest enemy of freedom. Like these female artists and their subjects, I refuse to let fear take hold of my destiny.
I was influenced by the story of Joan of Arc, as triumphantly shown in Anna Hyatt Huntingdon’s sculpture, who bravely led forces on the battlefield. I was inspired by the words of Harriet Tubman, so dramatically portrayed in Elizabeth Catlett’s print, who said “I shall fight for my liberty, and when the time has come for me to go, the Lord will let them kill me." I was reminded of the legacy I inherited. Like the works by Valerie Maynard and Kara Walker, the lives of my foremothers were objectified, subjugated, and brutalized. But through their struggles they persevered, and never forgot the queens that they were. Their blood runs through my veins.
This exhibition presents stories of women who defied the patriarchy and lived unashamedly. Who challenged what was considered normal, and treasured their unique selves. Mothers and mavens alike, they are inspirational to generations of women that have come, gone, and yet to arrive. It is also a reminder that, while we have come a long way to get here, there is still more work to be done. And we don’t need to be a wonder woman to take action.
The Power of the Female Gaze is more than a narrative of female art and artists. It is a visual testament to fearless women.