8 June 2021

Emergency Art History. Monika Fabijanska in Conversation

Adam Mazur

Adam Mazur: In your recent curatorial projects you touch upon issues related to feminism, how did this interest originate?

Monika Fabijanska: I have been working on feminist art ever since I can remember; it has been the main topic of my interests since the end of my studies. I remember exactly how it started: I was sketching scenarios of several potential topics for my master’s thesis. One of them was women’s sculpture. Besides architecture and urban planning, I have always been most interested in sculpture and I noticed that women sculpted quite differently – that in this tactile medium they revealed their incredibly intuitive creativity that had little to do with how men sculpted. For example, what can the chewing gum sculptures by Alina Szapocznikow be compared to – both conceptually and formally? Szapocznikow was key for me, but I also saw this distinctiveness in the works of Magdalena Więcek, Barbara Falender, Barbara Zbrożyna, Alina Ślesińska, and others.

Did you write your master’s thesis about it?

Ultimately, I wrote on the social and political role of fountains in urban space, using the example of Montpellier, from the aqueduct terminus – the monument to the ruler who brought life-giving water to the city – to fountains designed to humanize subsidized housing projects mostly inhabited by Arab immigrants and to organize playgrounds for their children.

Why didn’t you write about women’s art?

I don’t think I would have found an academic advisor to write about women back then. Unfavorable views of Alina Szapocznikow’s art persisted even years later. Kantor, Stażewski and Krasiński – those were great artists. Not Szapocznikow, and not even Abakanowicz – stuck in my memory are misogynist remarks about them by some professors as well as the young generation of curators, of either gender.

Natalia LL, ‘Hortus Eroticus’, 1995, photo installation, dims variable. ‘Architectures of Gender. Contemporary Women’s Art in Poland’ curated by Aneta Szyłak, SculptureCenter, New York, 2003. Photographer unknown. From the archive of Monika Fabijanska

Still, you have not abandoned your interest in women’s art…

Soon, I had the opportunity to turn my interest into practical rather than theoretical pursuit – already before leaving Warsaw for the Polish Cultural Institute in New York, I told Paweł Potoroczyn, whose deputy I had just become, that my main goal was convincing The Museum of Modern Art to show a retrospective exhibition of Szapocznikow. I remember that it made an impression on him. Less than three years later, in 2003, after meetings with dozens of curators all over the U.S., I finally met Connie Butler, who at that time was still working at MoCA Los Angeles. All the previous conversations led to the same response: if the artist died some 40 years ago and we never heard of her, why should we be interested in her now? Back in 2000 U.S. museums showed almost exclusively Western contemporary art. Connie Butler is a very special curator who has always worked towards the radical change of the canon. In 2004 we travelled to Poland to see Szapocznikow’s works. From that moment on, we worked on this project together, and eight years later, the Szapocznikow exhibition at MoMA became reality.

It wasn’t that simple, was it?

Not at all, but that would be a long story. A lot has happened along the way and many people joined in this effort. Connie became Chief Curator of Drawings at the Museum of Modern Art in 2006, and it is thanks to her that MoMA’s board members were persuaded to have the museum organize the exhibition of Szapocznikow. The final decision was made in mid-June 2010, two weeks before I left New York. My role was done; and curatorial work could begin. 

Throughout all these years, I worked with the best feminist curators. The first one was Aneta Szyłak, who came to New York on a fellowship in 2001. At our first meeting we decided that we would organize an exhibition of Polish women’s art together. She was the curator and the Institute was the producer. We could not show Alina Szapocznikow’s work in the exhibition Architectures of Gender. Contemporary Women’s Art in Poland, which opened a year and a half later, because the SculptureCenter could not provide museum conditions. But this exquisitely curated show, which was the first group exhibition of Polish art in NYC since the 1980s, the first in the United States to present the work by Paulina Ołowska, with a fantastic installation by Natalia LL and many others, enabled me to develop contacts in feminist circles. I placed its catalog in all major museums, always in person, always talking about the possibility of showing the Szapocznikow exhibition.

…feminism itself is an extremely complex, heterogeneous movement. Suffice it to mention the issue of pornography, where feminism has been divided from the very beginning. From a transnational perspective, feminism represents many different experiences that manifest in different programs and views.

You were methodical…

To say the least. Soon, many top U.S. museum curators were well aware of Szapocznikow’s art. That’s also when I began working with Connie Butler on WACK! Art in the Feminist Revolution, and with Maura Reilly on Global Feminisms,[1] the groundbreaking feminist survey exhibitions that opened in 2007. Polish artists were included in both of them (again, not Szapocznikow, for many reasons, but Ewa Partum, Magdalena Abakanowicz, Katarzyna Kozyra, Anna Baumgart and Elżbieta Jabłońska). We travelled to Poland several times with Connie, Maura and other American curators, looking for works for these and other projects. Endless discussions with Aneta, Connie and Maura in the galleries we visited, on trains and over coffee, many choices and micro-decisions − it was the feminist air I breathed. I learnt a ton from the best.

You act as if women’s art is still not recognized.

The generation of the second-wave feminists is passing away, and soon not only will it be impossible to interview these artists, but their works and archives may disappear. In Europe, there are always public institutions that will preserve some pieces, but in the U.S., where the market dictates the rules, and after the artist’s death, one needs to pay the appraiser, estate tax and storage fees, the works of many still underrecognized feminists simply have no chance of surviving. If they are not preserved, then, just like we remember just one 19th century American female artist – Mary Cassatt, we may remember just two or three names from the 20th century: Georgia O’Keefe, Ana Mendieta, Louise Bourgeois. Is this number representative for art, for history, for the documentation of human creativity? Provided, of course, there is a future worth preserving art for… What does this mean for the next generations of women who will have to ‘discover’ topics such as sexual violence again and again?

‘Architectures of Gender. Contemporary Women’s Art in Poland’, SculptureCenter, New York, 2003. Standing, L-R: Mary Ceruti (director, SculptureCenter), Karolina Wysocka, Natalia LL, Hanna Nowicka-Grochal, Anna Płotnicka, Katarzyna Józefowicz, Aneta Szyłak, Dorota Nieznalska, Monika Fabijańska. Sitting, L-R: Agnieszka Kalinowska, Elżbieta Jabłońska, Monika Sosnowska, Julita Wójcik. Photographer unknown. From the archive of M Fabijanska.

And what does this mean for you as a curator? Or as an art historian?

I often call my work “emergency art history”. Women are just as creative as men, but we still know very little about them and their art. We know very little about half of humanity. Today, where I work – in a very liberal city – feminist art is accepted, but in many parts of the world it is still considered marginal or strange. And I do not mean mere inclusion of female artists in the canon, but also of their themes. If an exhibition that recognized rape as one of the basic themes of women’s art and analyzed how they visualize it was presented only two years ago,[2] then we indeed are barely at the beginning of understanding the world of women.

Unfavorable views of Alina Szapocznikow’s art persisted even years later. Kantor, Stażewski and Krasiński – those were great artists. Not Szapocznikow, and not even Abakanowicz – stuck in my memory are misogynist remarks about them by some professors as well as the young generation of curators, of either gender.

Why ecofeminism(s) – in the plural? What can be the variants and varieties of this current?

Let’s begin by saying that feminism itself is an extremely complex, heterogeneous movement. Suffice it to mention the issue of pornography, where feminism has been divided from the very beginning. From a transnational perspective, feminism represents many different experiences that manifest in different programs and views. For example, women in the U.S. after World War II – when many of them joined labor force – were confined back to home, and feminism erupted as a result of this “domestication” and loss of agency. In the communist countries women did double duty: at home and at work, and therefore had some access to the public and industrial spheres. In the U.S., industrial space is still primarily a male preserve. These are mostly class divisions – it was in the upper strata of Western societies and the American middle class that feminism was born within those soft home interiors where women were part of the furnishings, barred from public participation and denied agency. In the lower classes, women have always worked while raising children – for example, this is the experience of African-American women. Their feminism is, of course, inseparable from the experience of racism.

American society is a conglomerate of many cultures which leave their imprint on feminism, creating its variety. Importantly, this diversity is historically fraught. In the context of ecofeminism, I stress that the fundamentally different relationship to the land of three groups defined by their roles in the colonial history of the United States – indigenous peoples, a handful of whom survived genocide and displacement but retained deep connection to the Earth and their traditions; white settlers who brought with them the concept of private land ownership, dividing it into parcels and extracting profits from it; and enslaved Africans who found themselves in a foreign land, without the right to own it, removed from their own spiritual traditions – means that these three groups have distinct voices relating to their preserved or lost relationship to Mother Earth. This is the specificity of ecofeminist art in the United States – a former British colony; ecofeminism(s) in Europe or Africa are different.

Among the artists in your show, there are well known second-wave feminist artists.

I invited sixteen artists to the exhibition ecofeminism(s), which I curated last summer at the Thomas Erben Gallery in New York – nine representing the pioneers of feminist artists, and seven representing younger and the youngest generations. I was interested in tracing whether the topics that were important to second-wave feminists are still relevant and for whom.

Ewa Partum, ‘Zmiana – Mój Problem jest problemem kobiety (Change – My Problem is a Problem of a Woman)’, 1979. Fragment of performance documentation at the exhibition ‘WACK! Art and the Feminist Revolution’ curated by Cornelia Butler, MoCA Los Angeles, 2007. Photo: Monika Fabijanska

How would you describe the genesis of ecofeminist art?

Ecofeminist art emerged in the late 1960s, when the development of conceptual art, spiritual feminism, and the exclusion of women from the art market drove feminist artists far beyond the limitations of painting and traditional presentation in art galleries, to create new genres of art (social practice, ecoart) and take it – literally – to new territories. The anti-war movement in the 1960s and 1970s and the environmental protests of the 1980s played a major role.

Ecofeminism is grounded in spiritual feminism, which insists that everything is connected – that nature does not make a distinction between matter and soul. Ecofeminism rejected patriarchal dualism between nature and culture (a notion tantamount to civilization and progress) – the dualism inseparable from the issue of traditional gender roles. One response was Goddess Art aimed at reclaiming Herstory and the Creator as a female, and at empowering women by affirming their connection with nature, but many pioneers of feminist art focused on intellectual criticism of patriarchal religious systems rather than on proposing matriarchy.

One of the stereotypes about feminist art is that it was the art of the 1970’s. Nothing could be more wrong.

Ecofeminist art is a very broad phenomenon, and its development over the years can be compared to the development of all-encompassing geography – a science both natural and social. Yet, while the literature of ecofeminism as theory or activism is vast, the literature of ecofeminist art is limited and scattered. It was omitted from all major feminist art exhibitions such as WACK!: Art and the Feminist Revolution (2007); its scope and riches are well known only to specialists.

When planning the exhibition, I was interested whether the evolving definition of gender has definitively shifted ecofeminist art away from its essentialist concerns, such as Goddess Art, to areas where gender no longer matters, and therefore ecofeminist art becomes more difficult to distinguish from ecological art. After the exhibition, I planned to focus on the issue of mutual relations between spirituality and science in ecofeminist art. But political events of 2020 – the murder of George Floyd which became a turning point for the Black Lives Matter movement, turned my research to the issues of race, especially toward the ecofeminist art of African Americans.

‘ECOHYBRIDITY: Love Song for NOLA. a visual [black] opera in 5 movements’, 2015. Model: Shana M. griffin; Photographer: jazz franklin; Director: kai barrow; Producer: Gallery of the Streets @galleryofthestreets. Courtesy of the director

What is ecofeminist art according to you, and how is it different from feminist waves that followed?

The features that characterize nearly all early ecofeminist works (from the late 1960s to the early 1990s) are their foundation in spiritual feminism, which proposed to end the dualism between nature and culture; the belief that patriarchal religions and philosophies are the common sources of the abuse of women, nature and indigenous peoples; and finally, formal inventiveness rooted in the philosophy of ecofeminism and feminism. The radical rejection of painting, typical of all conceptual art, in this case was motivated by the exclusion of women from the art market and their ecological awareness. They turned to art made from natural materials that decompose, e.g., Bilge Friedlaender or Cecilia Vicuña. Another characteristic choice is contestation of monumentalism and creating works in landscape that leave no or minimal permanent footprint – in contrast to the classical Land Art the focus is on caring for nature, not marking the territory and permanently changing the environment (Ana Mendieta). Feminists also rejected the concept of a finished masterpiece and sought to create art that rendered natural life cycle and changes such as growth or aging (Helène Aylon, Agnes Denes). All this led to a radical departure from traditional art presentation in gallery space: ecofeminists, especially “Garbage Girls” as Lucy Lippard jokingly called them, that is artists who deal with pollution and the remediation of waste, have pushed the boundaries of the definition of art and proposed the most radical art forms so far – the art of repairing environmental damage (Betsy Damon, Aviva Rahmani, Agnes Denes).

…I hoped to shake art community out of that inertia of thought in the face of the disaster. It just so happens that feminists, driven by ecological sensitivity, had already proposed, in the 1970s and 1980s, some of the most radical art projects that still remain almost completely unknown…

These features define “canonical” ecofeminist art of white American women that grew out of spiritual feminism of the 1970s. It is worth remembering that the best ecofeminist projects were created between the mid-1980s and the mid-1990s, when these artists were already mature, that is when no one was interested in them anymore (as many as three artworks in my exhibition were shown publicly for the first time since their creation and original presentation – and these are iconic works of ecofeminism). One of the stereotypes about feminist art is that it was the art of the 1970’s. Nothing could be more wrong.

And what is ecofeminism in today’s art?

It is more difficult to define ecofeminist art today – it became a much more complex phenomenon because the understanding of gender has changed significantly and the essentialist views of early feminists are archaic for many. On the other hand, they remain salient for many female artists of color, especially indigenous artists – the concept of Mother Earth and the incorporation of tradition are very important to their feminism. Yet, there are also indigenous artists for whom this tradition is outdated – they see ecofeminist art as ecopolitical activism and part of the struggle to get their land back. So I do not see the possibility of defining today’s ecofeminist art beyond saying that it is art that deals with the relationship between women and natural environment: from dreams about a Goddess, to aspects of environmental degradation that affect reproductive and children’s health, to queer concepts of identity related to nature. This is a polyphony, and often contradictory – apparently or in fact. For example, there are artists working with endangered species in the context of posthumanism, and Native Americans who hunt animals and use their fur in their ecofeminist art.

And what about the theory of this current?

The ecofeminist literature of the 1970s is abundant and often essentialist. The artists were also greatly influenced by psychoanalytical theories and feminist archeology. Several texts that significantly affected the evolution of ecofeminist art into what it is today were published in the second half of the 1980s. In 1985, Donna Haraway published A Cyborg Manifesto – associated with post-humanism and new materialism, her works have contributed to the study of both human-animal and human-machine relationships. Judith Butler introduced their theory of gender performativity in 1988 and Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw – her theory of intersectionality in 1989. Ecofeminism has evolved from essentialism to an understanding of gender as a social construct, but women’s lives around the world remain closely tied to the environment, not only in metaphorical sense: its degradation affects fertility, children’s health and access to food, while women have a direct impact on population size and on the patterns of consumption in developed countries. Therefore, ecofeminist art today continues to be concerned with environmental degradation as a critique of the patriarchal structure of power, capitalism and colonialism – but it is much more racially diverse. Especially indigenous feminists refer to the tradition of strong ties with nature and intensify their criticism of the colonial policy of overextraction, water privatization and the destruction of indigenous peoples.

Betsy Damon, ‘A Memory of Clean Water’, 1985. Installation: paper pulp, grasses, stones, minerals ©Betsy Damon. Courtesy of the artist

And in the foreseeable future?

Ecofeminist art in the 21st century is primarily characterized by growing interest in designing futuristic proposals for the life on earth – projects of speculative feminism centered on posthumanism and antispecisism (Anicka Yi, Jessica Segall); by anti-capitalist and anti-imperial projects denouncing global corporate strategies (Aviva Rahmani, Mary Mattingly, Carolina Caycedo); and by collaborative projects with scientists (Lynn Hershman Leeson).

How did you select works for the exhibition? What guided your choice?

As always – I was seeking variety. And not only thematic or racial; it is very important for me to create physical experience in the exhibition space – the tension between individual works; their content but also textures, shapes, colors – to bring in the sensuality of space. I always try to design the show in a way that would convey the narration also to those who do not have time to read descriptions.

What prompted me to do an exhibition of ecofeminist art was curiosity. Within half a year, I conducted two interviews – with Helène Aylon for The Brooklyn Rail and with Joan Jonas for the Orońsko Sculpture Quarterly; the accompanying essay on Jonas’s installation in Venice was later reprinted the Degree Critical in New York. I’ve known Aylon for 17 years and had many conversations with her. Both interviews were important to me – I was fascinated by how diametrically different art concepts can both be called ecofeminist. I thought it would be worth taking a closer look at this diversity.

How did you conduct your research?

It was an unusual exhibition for me, because I thought of it as a form of activism and means of inquiry, not a research conclusion. My previous exhibition on the iconography of rape, The Un-Heroic Act, was the result of three years of work, where I selected twenty works out of three hundred in a way that made the exhibition representative of American society – providing a cross-section of three generations, different racial groups, the recurring themes through which artists address rape, and all visual mediums. Each element was therefore a carefully selected piece of the puzzle – removing any one would create a hole in the fabric.

In the case of ecofeminism(s), it was the other way around: I have been working on this topic since the spring of 2019 and I was just starting to look for an institution where I could show this exhibition in the next 2-3 years, when Thomas Erben, with whom I worked to secure the loan of Senga Nengudi ‘s work for The Un-Heroic Act, called me in October. It had been such a great collaboration that we knew we were soon going to do a project together. Thomas asked if I could do an exhibition on ecofeminism at his gallery. I know it sounds unbelievable, but he had no idea that I had already been working on it. Sheer conjunction of planets. Of course, a commercial gallery has its limitations: small space; the manner of presentation, which gives short shrift to deeper analysis; and different audience. So I thought for a moment. At the time, I was on the jury of the AIM fellowship for young artists at the Bronx Museum of Art. I noticed that out of several hundred applications we received, only six mentioned environmental protection, nature, water or climate change. It alarmed me and I thought that my exhibition may not need to be comprehensive, but it must be shown as soon as possible to provoke a discussion about the state of the planet. Whether it would result in someone’s political involvement, collaboration with scientists, or the fact that someone would give up eating meat, rethink the supply chain and the toxicity of the materials they use in their art, or be mindful of the environmental cost of organizing art fairs – whatever the specific effects, I hoped to shake art community out of that inertia of thought in the face of the disaster. It just so happens that feminists, driven by ecological sensitivity, had already proposed, in the 1970s and 1980s, some of the most radical art projects that still remain almost completely unknown…

Lynn Hershman Leeson, ‘Twisted Gravity’ – Version 4 Inverted DNA, 2020. Archival Digital Print 18 x 36 in. ©Hotwire Productions LLC 2020. Courtesy of the artist

Whom did you invite to the exhibition?

I chose 28 works by 16 artists – half of whom were the pioneers of ecofeminist art and half the representatives of younger generations. I adopted the principle that rather than presenting single, isolated ecofeminist projects, I would focus on artists who had devoted their entire lives or a significant part of their career to the issues of ecofeminism. The exhibition could not be international, it concentrated on ecofeminism in the U.S., but I wanted to emphasize that our political and consumer decisions affect the entire world – from Alaska to the Amazon to the Arctic. So I included the works of American feminists relating to these areas that are particularly threatened on a global scale.

What was the reaction?

The exhibition was accompanied by an essay and analyses of individual works, and an extensive public program that remains available online: my curatorial walkthrough, four interviews with artists and other curators and critics, and an interview with me and the gallery owner organized by Christie’s.[3] The exhibition got ten reviews – including in The New York Times, Art in America, Hyperallergic, The Brooklyn Rail, Italian Flash Art, and Indian STIR. At the 2021 College Art Association Annual Conference, I chaired a session and delivered two papers on ecofeminism, and my exhibition inspired the title of The Feminist Art Project day of programs at the conference. This is the second time my exhibition helped influence the TFAP program at CAA – two years ago, it was devoted to the art on sexual violence.

What are you working on now?

There is a new wave of interest in my 2018 exhibition on the iconography of rape. In the aftermath of the #MeToo Movement, numerous scholarly publications on sexual violence and teaching methods or interpretations of historical art are being planned and I was invited to contribute essays and interviews.

But right now I’m working on an interview with Lynn Hershman Leeson – perhaps the most complex feminist artist next to Ana Mendieta – still little known because her use of the latest technologies has been challenging for many. She is well recognized in Germany and on the West Coast, but in New York, familiar mostly among specialists. I think she is one of the most outstanding artists of the twentieth century. In June, she will finally have an exhibition in New York, at the New Museum, and for this occasion I did a long interview with her for The Brooklyn Rail. I was privileged to work with Hershman Leeson twice, showing her works both in the exhibition about the iconography of rape and about ecofeminism.

I also work with other artists of this generation or the estates – to preserve their oeuvre. It is painstaking work, often invisible for many years. I plan their exhibitions. I continue to work on ecofeminism – I have just written a text on the ecofeminist art by African Americans on which no literature existed, and I think it will take me a long time to analyze aspects of American ecofeminism. I would like to look at this topic on other continents – it may be that I will deal with this enormous subject for a long time. But I also have other plans for group exhibitions of women’s art – both political and conceptual, which are in the pipeline or await decision about grants. As with my master’s thesis – among many ideas, only a few become reality.

[1] WACK! Art in the Feminist Revolution, curated by Connie Butler: MoCA Los Angeles, National Museum of Women in the Arts in Washington, D.C., MoMA P.S.1, Vancouver Art Gallery, 2007-2009; Global Feminisms, curated by Maura Reilly: Brooklyn Museum of Art in New York, Davis Museum at Wellesley College, MA, 2007-2008.

[2] The Un-Heroic Act: Representations of Rape in Contemporary Women’s Art in the U.S., curated by Monika Fabijańska: Anya and Andrew Shiva Gallery, John Jay College of Criminal Justice, CUNY, New York, 2018

[3] The recordings of all these programs are available through www.monikafabijanska.com


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