Summer of Photography Festival
The theme of this year’s Summer of Photography Festival is women’s issues, feminism, sexuality, motherhood. It consists of 23 exhibitions taking place all over Brussels and lasting the whole of July and August. I saw four of them until now and I wanted to write a few words, as I would like to strongly recommend you to visit the exhibitions.
The largest and most important exhibition is hosted at the Bozar and is called “WOMAN. The Feminist Avant-Garde of the 1970s”. Representing the second wave of feminism, the female artists of this era aimed at a radical shift in values.
The patriarchy and inequality were and remain present for centuries. The artists represented at this exhibition aimed at starting a discussion on sexuality, pregnancy, the female body, rape, women’s role in society. They wanted to challenge gender roles, which were/are politically constructed to ensure male dominance. As “male supremacy” remained unquestioned for so long, the only way for their voices to be heard was to do so in a radical way.
Therefore, these female artists started using their own bodies, nudity, genitalia in their art. The female body, and in general the “image of a woman”, which was up to now viewed and projected from a male perspective as an object, was used back by the feminist artists themselves in an effort to redefine their identities and reclaim their bodies. An interesting example is a work by Alexis Hunter entitled “Identity Crisis, 1974” that shows separate portraits of herself photographed separately by two professionals, herself, a neighbour, a friend and a lover. The images are shockingly different. Sexualised images by the professionals and the lover, a gentle sadness by the friend and a quiet niceness by the neighbor. And her self portrait is full of rage and depression and lacks and sexiness or niceness shown in the other portraits.
On the subject of rape and the porn culture, an interesting example is that of the artist Valie Export in her performance act “Action Pants: Genital Panic, 1969”. She was dressed in crotch-less pants and, holding a machine gun, walked up and down the aisles of a porn cinema with an unsuspecting audience.
One of the largest parts of the exhibition showed photographs by brilliant young photographer Francesca Woodman. Over a hundred black and white photographs of the artist herself, using props and her naked body as a theme. In most of them she uses props so successfully, that she merges completely into the environment, thus almost requiring an effort to find her in the photo. In others, she stares at her own camera so intensely that the viewer’s first instinct is to look away. And most disturbingly, the viewer becomes a witness of her road towards suicide, as her struggle intensifies and the photographs become more vivant.
A very interesting characteristic of the whole exhibition was how these female artists were using their own bodies to make art. They could, hypothetically, have been photographing other women to try to get their message across. The explanations for this given by some of the artists were that their own bodies were always available to them, or that they felt they could go the furthest with their own selves. At the same time the political theme of that time was that “The personal is political”, i.e. it was questioned whether women's activism groups were a useful part of the political women's movement, as the groups were not intended to solve any of women's personal problems.
It is nevertheless still questioned by some whether it was necessary for these women to produce feminist art only using their own images. However, the more I think of it, the more certain I am that the same result could not have been achieved in any other way.
The self-portraits, the array of rooms of black and white images, the directness of the theme, make this exhibition outstandingly good. The photographs are mostly quite small and you need to go really close to see what is happening. And then once you are really close you get the women’s eyes staring back at you…and the message is delivered to you…loud and clear…in a way that you do not forget it after you leave the exhibition.
And the most disturbing aspect of the whole exhibition was that the issues remain the same. The gender roles, the patriarchy, the male projection of the female image have not changed. There are some surface changes but the core problems remain unresolved. One could even say that they have gotten worse. Nowadays, women are weary of defining themselves as feminists and men have become grossly unashamed of openly being anti-feminists. The 70s at least had some voices for radical change. Where are those voices now?
The aim of this Avant-Garde feminist art was to lead to a paradigm shift. However, upon exiting the exhibition, I heard a male viewer saying to his female friend “so what is the point? You women complain that men sexualize you and that the world is full of porn, and here you are taking naked photos of yourselves”. And I realized that to men, the female body is just a female body, irrespective of how it is depicted. A pussy is a pussy. Tits are tits. Were women the only viewers of the exhibition that could understand the ways in which these feminist images were different to the sexualized ones that men take?
At the same time, the exhibition was packed with a lesbian crowd on both times I went. Which is good, given how close the feminist and lesbian radical movements were in the 70s. At the same time, it troubled me. Could this be indicative that, nowadays, radical feminism, or even non-radical feminism is mostly interesting to lesbians? This would indeed be saddening and I hope it was merely symptomatic of the two days that I visited the exhibition. At the same time, the taboo attached to the word "feminist" these days, the "anti-feminist" movements run by women are indicative of a wider problem.
So, the exhibition left me tired, full of thoughts, depressed. But it also left me more determined to try to make changes, to stay vigilant of the gender roles, to be inspired by those radical feminist who really tried to achieve something, by using the personal as the political.
The exhibition is very strongly recommended. It is a lesson in history, in society, in gender. So…go and see it…take your friends…do not under any circumstances miss it.
The works in the above exhibition are in complete contrast to “Lessons in Posing Subjects” by Robert Heinecken which is shown at Wiels. This exhibition consists of polaroid shots of models from mail delivery and porn magazines of the early 80s. The polaroid shots come in groups and aim at depicting poses struck by models and explaining them. It is striking that most of the polaroids show headless models. It is also interesting how the poses which are traditionally used for men are completely different to those used for women. Men tend to stand firmly on their two feet. They are solid, grounded, indestructible. The women on the other hand, are made to stand leaning on one leg or to one side. They look like, if you were to push them gently, they would fall. They look fragile.
So these photos are the exact opposite to the Bozar exhibition. They show women in the image created for them by men, absolutely objectified (see for example the lack of head…) and set there for the male gaze.
But while these two exhibitions are in complete contrast, their objective seems to be the same. The Heinecken exhibition, through its direct realism of the projection of the female body, could be seen as highlighting and creating awareness of the outrageous extent of the objectification of women.
So again, a very interesting exhibition. Do try to see it.
Finally a small criticism to the organisers of the Summer of Photography Festival. I was puzzled by one of the exhibitions. The Belgian Six of The Word magazine. The photographs seemed to me to be completely unrelated to the theme of the Festival. Do not get me wrong. The exhibition was really good, I enjoyed it, I support it in general. But what was it’s role as part of this specific Summer of Photography festival?
In any case, the Summer of Photography Festival is an absolute must for every woman, feminist, lesbian. The official website with full information can be found here.