Speaking Truth by Speaking Art: Women’s Voices in New PhotoLab Exhibition

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Jenny Holzer, Inflammatory Essays (detail), 1978–83, offset lithograph on coloured wove paper, 43 x 43 cm each. National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa. © Jenny Holzer / SODRAC (2017). Photo: NGC

Back in 1968, the Philip Morris tobacco company introduced its new Virginia Slims — designed exclusively for women — with the slogan, “You’ve come a long way, baby.” Fast-forward nearly fifty years, and it becomes clear that, as far as women may have come, there is still a long way to go.

In the exhibition PhotoLab 2: Women Speaking Art, now on view at the Canadian Photography Institute (CPI) of the National Gallery of Canada (NGC), the work of nine women artists and one collective from the 1970s through the 1990s explores a wide range of issues and concerns, from highly personal events to identity politics. Featuring Lorna Boschman, Susan Britton, Sara Diamond, the Guerrilla Girls, Jenny Holzer, Mary Kunuk, Shelley Niro, Lorna Simpson, Lisa Steele and Carrie Ann Weems, the exhibition includes fifteen thought-provoking works, including ten videos, three photographs, and two sets of prints, all by female artists from the NGC national collection.

Shelley Niro, Overweight with Crooked Teeth, 1997, digital video disk (DVD), 5:00 minutes. National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa. Photo: © Shelley Niro, courtesy of V-Tape

“Nowhere but in work by women do words figure so strongly in contemporary art,” says Andrea Kunard, Associate Curator of Photography at the NGC. “The Guerrilla Girls use posters to denounce the racist and sexist biases of the art world and its institutions. Other artists in this show create videos, mix photographs with text, and produce text-based prints to explore the contexts of who is speaking and why; convey issues of social concern; provoke response; inform; and, most importantly, stimulate viewers to take on the active role of questioning.”

The works on view cover a wide range of artistic practices and preoccupations. A trio of videos by Lisa Steele, for example, present a highly personal take on the world around her. In The Ballad of Dan Peoples (1976), her own chanting stands in for her grandfather’s missing voice; and in A Very Personal Story (1974), Steele recounts the day her mother passed away, through a series of scattered memories.

Lisa Steele, A Very Personal Story, 1974, b/w videotape, mono, 17:00 minutes. National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa. Photo: © Lisa Steele, courtesy of V-Tape

Susan Britton’s video Susan (1976) takes a similarly personal approach, depicting the artist as both girl-next-door and prostitute. It is a clever duality that appears to bare the artist’s soul, while at the same time bringing her credibility into question. Shelley Niro also plays with constructed images in Overweight with Crooked Teeth (1997), which parodies romanticized concepts of Indigenous peoples.

A pair of videos by Lorna Boschman, an artist known for works reflecting gender politics and gender identity, are even more intimate. Scars (1987), for example, interviews four women with a history of “cutting” in a park setting, switching back and forth between visuals of their scarred arms and the nature surrounding them.

At the other end of the spectrum, Sara Diamond’s video, Ten Dollars or Nothing! (1989) explores a broader reality, looking at women’s working conditions in British Columbia’s salmon canneries during the 1930s. Presented largely through the eyes of Indigenous worker Josephine Charlie, the work is part of Diamond’s Women’s Labour History Project.

Sara Diamond, Ten Dollars or Nothing!, 1989, colour videotape, 11:45 minutes. National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa. Photo: © Sara Diamond, courtesy of V-Tape

Rounding out the videos, Mary Kunuk’s 1996 Unikausiq (Stories) is a computer-animated record of childhood stories and songs from Inuit legends. Employing a modern medium to capture ancient oral traditions is, as the artist has said, “my way of keeping them alive.”

"Since the introduction of the Sony portapak video recording system in the 1960s,” says exhibition research assistant Euijung McGillis, “video has altered the notion of art. Video as an artistic medium triggered these female artists, in particular, to incorporate themes ranging from the personal to issues of social and political justice into their artistic practices, distancing themselves from the Old Masters traditions and other precedents set by their male counterparts. It was a new territory for everyone. It was an uncharted territory for them to examine “the self” as a narrative tool." 

Although video became an important means of expression for women artists in the 1970s, traditional mediums were also transformed. “Many contemporary art practices break down the idea of the single, self-contained image,” says Kunard, “often to expose the political and ideological factors operating in society. In Jenny Holzer’s text-based work, language is used to achieve this goal. Other artists such as Lorna Simpson and Carrie Mae Weems combine text with photographs to present the social realm as a challenged and challenging site, especially in terms of race, gender, and sexuality.”

Holzer’s The Inflammatory Essays (1978–1983), for example, features excerpts from the writings of diverse sources such as Rosa Luxembourg, Emma Goldman and Vladimir Lenin. Each panel has exactly 100 words in twenty lines, without indicating either the author or context of the passages Holzer has chosen.

Lorna Simpson, Partitions & Time, 1991, gelatin silver print, 50.9 x 61.1 cm. National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa. Gift of Photographers + Friends United Against AIDS, New York, 1998. Photo: NGC. Courtesy of the artist

Words play a key role as well in Lorna Simpson’s Partitions & Time (1990, printed 1991). Offsetting a pair of photographic mirror images, the artist has added marginal texts that look like captions, but instead seem to raise more questions than they answer.

PhotoLab 2 also features a selection from Carrie Ann Weems’ moving From Here I Saw What Happened and I Cried (1995). A series of 34 photographic prints in its entirety, the four photographs shown here include images of African Americans appropriated from daguerreotypes that Weems has tinted red with added text. These images were originally commissioned in 1850 by biologist Louis Agassiz, who believed in the inherent superiority of the white race.

The exhibition is rounded out by eight posters produced by the Guerrilla Girls between 1985 and 1990. Formed in protest against an art industry they considered both racist and sexist, the Guerrilla Girls use costume, satire, clever language and re-appropriation of images to get their message across. 

Guerrilla Girls, Why do women have to be naked to get into Boston museums?, 1990, poster, 55.9 x 43.2 cm. National Gallery of Canada Library and Archives, Ottawa. Art Metropole Collection, gift of Jay A. Smith, Toronto, 1999. Photo: NGC

In the January 1849 issue of his journal Les Guêpes (The Wasps), Jean Baptiste Alphonse Karr famously wrote “Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose” — in other words, the more things change, the more they remain the same. As women’s rights once again come under fire around the world, it becomes ever more important for women to speak art in order to help the rest of us find our voices. 


PhotoLab 2: Women Speaking Art is on view in the Canadian Photography Institute Galleries of the National Gallery of Canada until September 10, 2017. Also on view in the CPI Galleries until September 17, 2017, visitors won't want to miss Photography in Canada: 1960–2000.

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