A Photographic Celebration of Women in Contemporary Art

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Nikki S. Lee, The Hip Hop Project (1), 2001
Nikki S. Lee, The Hip Hop Project (1), 2001

A new exhibition comes to London from Washington’s National Museum of Women in the Arts this week, drawing on the legacy of 70s feminist art to explore themes of identity, truth and selfhood

Nikki S. Lee is an artist best known for taking on the characteristics of figures within subcultures, including drag queens, yuppies, and hip-hop fans. She requests that bystanders take pictures of her using a point and shoot camera, and in so doing asks searching questions about the nature of identity and the self – key themes of a new exhibition at London’s Whitechapel Gallery, titled Terrains of The Body. Lee is one of 17 contemporary female artists, including Marina Abramović, Rineke Dijkstra, Anna Gaskell, Hellen van Meene and Nan Goldin who feature in the exhibition, which spotlights women artists.

Each has turned the camera on themselves and other women – presenting their subjects in both domestic spaces and expansive landscapes – to explore how the female body might be used as a vehicle to express identity, individual and collective experience, and narrative. The photographs and one video on show are from the National Museum of Women in the Arts in Washington D.C. – the only international museum dedicated to work by female contemporary artists. “Whitechapel Gallery doesn’t have its own collection, so we invite institutions with collections to show works,” chief curator Lydia Yee tells AnOther. “It’s a way to bring to light to works that are perhaps not so well know to UK audiences.” Here, Yee illuminates some of the key concepts driving the exhibition.

On performance and narrative…
“The exhibition draws on the history of feminist art from the 1970s and looks at its legacy; in particular, it explores the relationship of photography to performance and video work. Some of the works are stills from performances, or from narratives invented by the artist, or something that the artist has previously presented on film.”

On photography, truth and fiction…
“The inherent tension within the field of photography is held between documenting what you can see – its closeness to truth – and its ability to fictionalise. This tension is also reflected in the exhibition, particularly through Marina Abramović’s The Hero, for example. The work was made in tribute to her father, shortly after his death – yet to what degree it is grounded in reality or fiction is open to interpretation.”

On ambiguity and the uncertainty of memory…
“Anna Gaskell’s video work is very powerful, due to an ambiguous narrative. A series of young girls recount a fragmented story that turns out to be a personal tale of how the artist’s mother was killed in a car accident; Gaskell told the girls her story and then they were asked to retell it from memory, with each girl inevitably embellishing and forgetting certain details of the tale. The result is as though the artist is attempting to recall the event herself, but is stuggling to remember all of the details due to deep-rooted trauma fracturing her memory.”

On shaping and presenting the self…
“In many cases, the subjects of the photographs are heavily focused on performing their own image for the camera; something everyone is now doing today with the cultural phenomenon of selfie-taking. A number of the photographers blur the boundaries between artist and subject, such as Nikki S. Lee, who becomes one with the people she portrays in her work. In Daniela Rossell’s Rich and Famous the individuals in the images are carefully posing and styling themselves; then you have Hellen van Meene's portraits, which are quite stylised – and although they look and feel quite casual, the photographer has clearly made a lot of pointed decisions with composition.”

On the female body, the domestic space and landscape…
“The title of the show points to the relationship between the body and the landscape. The figures are often set in a domestic environment or an expansive landscape, and the photographers use these settings to give visual cues. A forest might connote a fairytale, while a claustrophobic domestic setting may suggest something about the constrained environment in which a young girl has grown up. In some of the works, the setting is of equal importance to the figure.”


Photography from the National Museum of Women in the Arts: Terrains of the Body is on show at Whitechapel Gallery from January 18 until April 16, 2017.