Thursday, April 2, 2009

Art from two generations of fantastic female artists

"You Put the Devil in Me," by Faith Finggold, 2004
By Greg Hanlon

(Published in the 4.2.09 issue of 24/Seven)

Coinciding with Women’s History Month of March, the Williamsburg Art and Historical Center is hosting an exhibit honoring female artists and calling attention to their continued struggle against institutional barriers.

Entitled “Women Forward,” the two-part exhibit features the work of 31 prominent female artists. Part 1 opened on March 7, and runs through April 12; Part 2 begins April 25 and runs through May 31.

The exhibit’s two parts feature two generations of women artists, those born before 1950 and those born after, a feature designed to highlight the evolving landscape of the art world.

“The older generations didn’t have the opportunity, but they made it possible for the younger generation,” said Yuko Nii, 66, the WAH Center’s founder and artistic director and the exhibit’s curator.

Since the Japanese-born Nii bought the shelled out former Kings County Savings Bank in 1996, she has turned it into one of Brooklyn’s most distinguished cultural institutions. But she is no stranger to the discrimination women artists have traditionally faced. While a student at Macalester College in St. Paul, Minnesota, a professor told her, “You should have babies, Yuko, not pursue art.”

A few years later, after submitting her portfolio to a New York gallery, the owner thanked her… for dropping off her father’s work.

Things have gotten much better for female artists since then, but as Nii pointed out, the art world should not give itself too many pats on the back for progress.

She cited a New York Magazine article from November, 2007, which featured the following statistic: From 2004 through the article’s publication date, the collections at the MoMa (5-8 percent of works by female artists), the Whitney Museum (15 percent), the Frick Collection ( 1percent), and Art Basel Miami (27 percent) all criminally under-represent female artists.

“Why is it that there are so many women who run galleries, write for major art publications and are curatorial heads of museums, while so few women are in important collections?” Nii wrote in the introduction to the exhibit’s impressive and comprehensive catalogue.

“In producing this show, I hope to help wear down the continuing resistance to women’s art.”

The catalogue – which sells for $50, and is worth every penny – also features thoughtful statements from the artists themselves, who were asked to elaborate on the role gender plays in their work and their career advancement.

Three artists in particular are featured: Judy Chicago, Faith Ringgold, and Toshiko Takaezu. Each of these artists come from different backgrounds (Caucasian, African American, and Japanese American, respectively), and featuring them reflect’s the exhibit’s goal of examining gender roles across different cultures.

Another featured artist is Yoko Ono, a personal friend of Nii’s, who contributed a work that evokes the “Imagine” circle in Central Park.

Like all exhibits at the WAH Center, “Women Forward” takes an interdisciplinary approach to its subject matter. In addition to the works of art, there will be a poetry reading on March 14, a panel discussion entitled “Why are Women Artists Still Underrepresented in Major Collections?” on March 15, and multiple theatrical performances on May 8, 9, 15, 16, 22, and 23.

Part 1 of “Women Forward” runs now through April 12 from 4 p.m. to 6 p.m.; Part 2 starts April 25 (4 to 6 p.m.) and runs through May 31.

Normal gallery hours are Saturday and Sunday, noon to 6 p.m., or by appointment. For more information about WACH and the other special events of “Women Forward,” go to, or call 718-486-7372.


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