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Corporal Identity: “On Her Terms: Feminine Power Embodied” at the Fitchburg Art Museum

Featuring the work of seven contemporary artists, the exhibition examines how the female form represents a space of agency and oppression.

Review by Emma Breitman

Artworks conveying embodied femininity, set against the white wall of a gallery, at Fitchburg Art Museum.

Installation view, “On Her Terms: Feminine Power Embodied,” Fitchburg Art Museum, Fitchburg, MA. Works include Suspended in Blue series by Minoo Emami, Foundations: Split Busk, Foundations: Corset, and Foundations: Stays, and Parturition: Vaginal Tube & Wire Work Speculum by Lindsey Beal. On view through June 2, 2024. Photo by Charles Sterniamolo.

In an age when marking identity categories simultaneously feels like checking a diversity box and like a crucial reclamation of historically subjugated identities, I was curious to see how the Fitchburg Art Museum (FAM) tackles embodied femininity in their new exhibition “On Her Terms: Feminine Power Embodied.”

The exhibition, curated by Lauren Szumita and Eli Yung, explores how the female form is a space of both agency and oppression. The show features work by seven contemporary artists—Azita Moradkhani, Catherine McCarthy, Claudia Olds Goldie, Lindsey Beal, Maria Yolanda Liebana, Minoo Emami, and Nafis M. White—who work with a variety of mediums, including paint, fiber art, sculpture, photography, film, collage, and multimedia.

A squat pyramid of prints faintly etched with faces, lit up by a green light coming from beneath.

Minoo Emami, In a Heartbeat, 2022–23. Laser-etched prints on handmade abaca paper with light, dimensions variable. Installation view, “On Her Terms: Feminine Power Embodied,” Fitchburg Art Museum, Fitchburg, MA. On view through June 2, 2024. Photo by Charles Sterniamolo.

The artists cover topics from reimagining postures of power previously relegated to male subjects, to photographs of early gynecological tools, to intimate apparel exploring Iranian American identity and the dichotomy of pleasure and pain enacted on women’s bodies.

With such a varied scope of work, the exhibition functions almost like a survey course in Feminism 101. I found that this approach made the basic concept of feminism accessible for its audience but also flattened the artists’ work collectively.

Each artist has at least two to three projects on display in the two galleries dedicated to the exhibition—either in both or spread across multiple locations within the same gallery. The first features pieces from White, McCarthy, and Liebana, as well as from Emami’s project Peace March. While McCarthy’s work highlights how normative beauty standards have failed those it claims to revere (white, cis-gendered, able-bodied, blonde-haired, blue-eyed, etc), White’s and Leibana’s works grapple with normativity and offer alternatives.

Emami’s work feels less directly in dialogue with the others in the first gallery, yet forms a bridge to the second, connecting to her other project In a Heartbeat and to Moradkhani’s work, all of which grapple with the gendered effects of war. Combining the work of Beal, Moradkhani, Olds Goldie, and Emami, the second gallery additionally interrogates gender norms and gendered technology.

While the first gallery feels spacious, the second overflows with content. Olds Goldie’s sculptures stand atop podiums that pepper the center of the room; Moradkhani’s garments are suspended from the ceiling; and Emami’s prints poke out of one corner. Sometimes wall texts are placed to the right of works, sometimes to the left, with artist statements similarly sprinkled across both galleries.

While each artist’s work thoughtfully and creatively engages with corporal femininity through these topics, the pure mass of work in the second gallery presents a challenge for the viewer. Separately, each work has a clear message, but together their messages get muddled and the work dissolves into the general category of womanhood. It feels as though the works live in alternate planes within the spectrum of femininity and lack proper narratives connecting each to the rest.

Two sleeveless T-shirts and a tank-top a bra and underwear

Installation view, “On Her Terms: Feminine Power Embodied,” Fitchburg Art Museum, Fitchburg, MA. Works include Law, Pink Man I, In Bloom I, In Bloom, and Law 1 by Azita Moradkhani. On view through June 2, 2024. Photo by Charles Sterniamolo.

Installation view, “On Her Terms: Feminine Power Embodied,” Fitchburg Art Museum, Fitchburg, MA. Works include Oculus by Nafis White, DNA and Dreamer by Catherine McCarthy, and Lamea by Minoo Emami. On view through June 2, 2024. Photo by Charles Sterniamolo.

For some viewers, this lack of cohesion may provide an introduction to feminism by presenting a wide array of feminine experiences. While this is certainly valuable from an educational standpoint in our ever-polarizing world, it simultaneously boils each artist down to their identity markers. The work, however, is much more complex and nuanced than the presentation allows. It is almost as though the artists’ complex ideas of identity (re)formulation and responsiveness to contemporary issues, emblematic of fourth-wave thinking, is being filtered through a third-wave, monolithic mindset.

But so what? Why these artists with these particular identities? I found myself searching for nuance and complexity as I circled the two rooms, yet I kept running up against the frenetic layout of the art and its accompanying text, piecing together which work addressed which topic like a jigsaw puzzle.

For me, White’s work was the exception. It reminded me of queer theorist José Esteban Muñoz’s concept of disidentification—how racial and gender minorities negotiate normative culture by neither accepting nor rejecting it. Instead, they transform normative culture for their own purposes. In Oculi, White places the traditional Victorian mourning practice of hair weaving within the context of Blackness. While Victorian hair weaving was regaled, diasporic Black hair weaving and braiding traditions have long been systematically penalized. In situating White’s work within the context of this bitter double standard, White both pokes holes in the logic of racialized beauty practices and creates something new that flips previous historical scripts and reveres Black ancestral knowledge.

Many of the other works held similar nuance, yet the disordered artist statements providing key context, along with the abundance of work, created a barrier for me as the viewer. “On Her Terms” held so much potential to interrogate how traditional femininity is centered around whiteness and what it means for artists of color to explore feminine embodiment beyond normative, white definitions. Much of this conversation is already intrinsic to the works presented, like White’s, but is muted by the broad category of femininity. Explicit interrogation of the category itself in the exhibition’s framing would have unearthed the subtleties of the diverse experiences presented, as well as situated the work in contemporary discourse. Doing so would have provided the exhibition with a much needed So what? that would have ignited conversation between the works rather than stymied them.

Still, glimmers of radical identity formation were able to shine through—from Emami’s ornamental prosthetics that explore how we regain our autonomy after trauma to Moradkhani’s intimate apparel exposing the connections between pain and pleasure. I just wish that they had ample space to expand and radiate even brighter.


On Her Terms: Feminine Power Embodied is on view at the Fitchburg Art Museum through June 2, 2024.

 

Emma Breitman

Contributor

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