Women, Feminism, Art and Aesthetic Liberation: Innovative Pedagogies and Practices

Earlier this year as part of my visit to the USA to present at the College Art Association (CAA) annual conference in New York I was pleased to attend the CAA’s Committee for Women in the Arts panel session themed around “Feminist Pedagogy through Activist Arts Practices” (New York Hilton, Manhattan, 17 February 2017). During this 90-minute session four arts scholars presented papers examining different manifestations and articulations of feminist liberatory discourse through contemporary visual arts practices. A brief outline of each paper is summarised below, with links to further information about the featured artists, their projects and their portfolios of work, past and present.

The College Art Association 2017 annual conference panel session organised by the Committee on Women in the Arts and featuring contributions from (L to R): Laura Elizabeth Sapelley and Jennifer Rissler (co-chairs); Aranke Sampada; Ann Fessler; Jessica Cochran; and Samantha Hill. Photo: Carol Dixon

(1) “The Kinship Project: Manifesting Connections to History through African-American Family Narratives” – This illustrated talk was presented by artist, anthropologist and archivist Samantha Hill who discussed an innovative archives-based research project she first developed in the early 2010s and has been touring to selected communities within the USA since that time to specifically empower African-American families to share photographs from their private and personal archives so as to provide fresh insights on what it was like to live in the United States and challenge racisms during the post-enslavement, pre-civil rights period from the mid-to-late-19th century through to the 1950s-60s (see: https://samanthahill.net/kinship-project/).

Artist, anthropologist and archivist Samantha Hill presenting photographic stills from “The Kinship Project” to delegates at the College Art Association annual conference in New York (17 February, 2017). Photo: Carol Dixon

One of the most inspiring narratives that Samantha presented featured the work undertaken to unearth period photographs about the life and work of Dr. Ulysses Grant Mason – a physician, entrepreneur and founding member of the famous 16th Street Presbyterian Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, which many decades later became the focus of national and international attention because of the bombing campaign waged against the black congregation in 1963 at the height of the civil rights struggles.

An early photograph of physician Dr Ulysses Grant Mason uncovered by Samantha Hill during her work with communities in Birmingham, Alabama, as part of the Kinship Project.

(2) “See Yourself Free”: Black Liberation and Aesthetic Freedom – This paper summarised the politically aesthetic works of selected African-American artists – including the portfolios of painter and printmaker Barbara Jones-Hogu and other founding members of the art-political movement AfriCOBRA (African Commune of Bad Relevant Artists) from the late-1960s and 1970s, through to the contemporary radical aesthetics of Sadie Barnette in the 2010s – presented by Sampada Aranke (Assistant Professor in the History and Theory of Contemporary Art) from the San Francisco Art Institute.

Detail from “To Be Free (Know the Past, Prepare for the Future)” (1970) by Chicago-born painter and printmaker Barbara Jones-Hogu. Source: womenartists.info [online].
(3) Giving Voice to Women Silenced by Shame – A  documentary film and installation-based presentation by artist Ann Fessler featuring extracts from her artworks A Girl Like Her and Everlasting New Englandwhich both discuss the (often hidden) experiences and traumas of young women and girls forced to surrender their newborn babies for adoption and fostering in the decades before Roe v. Wade in the USA (see also related details of Ann Fessler’s book “The Girls Who Went Away” at:  http://thegirlswhowentaway.com/).

(4) The Collective Curator – A case study presentation based on work from the portfolio of curator Jessica Cochran (Art Institute of Chicago) examining experimental pedagogies and reflexive exhibition making that builds on (and extends beyond) the concept of the 18th century “Cabinet of Curiosity” to explore contemporary ‘capsuling’ initiatives pursued over extended periods of time so that reflexivity is placed at the heart of the archiving and exhibition development process (see: http://jessicacochranprojects.org/).

Although very diverse in their subject content and style of presentation – ranging from accounts about the collecting and interpretation of family photographs as a way of bringing to the fore new narratives concerning the pre-civil rights  experiences of African-Americans in the USA, through to the showing of moving documentary films and exhibitions that have given voice to historically marginalised and excluded narratives about the ways women from different social backgrounds have challenged (and continued to push back against) sexism, patriarchy and male-dominated social and political histories and their legacies within mainstream Western society – what unified all these presentations was the activism of the feminist arts scholars imparting their knowledge and expertise on ways to bring about progressive, positive cultural change through the pursuit of innovative community-based visual arts projects, socially inclusive curatorial practices and sensitively pursued creative educational outreach initiatives.

Dr. Carol Dixon pictured at the protest wall created by delegates attending the College Art Association conference (New York Hilton, 17 February 2017).


Ann Fessler’s artist’s website – http://www.annfessler.com/

Jessica Cochran’s curatorial projects website – http://jessicacochranprojects.org/

An interview with the painter and printmaker Barbara Jones-Hogu, featured on the website “Never the Same”- https://never-the-same.org/interviews/barbara-jones-hogu/

Samantha Hill’s art portfolio and social anthropology project website – https://samanthahill.net

Women Artists – A selected A-Z listing of women artists compiled by Beate Minkovski, founding executive director of Woman Made Gallery in Chicago: http://www.womenartists.info/

Photo credit (for the title image): The featured photograph shown in the header for this blog post is a still from Samantha Hill’s “Kinship Project” featuring archival images documenting the “Great Migration.” Source: https://samanthahill.net/portfolio/the-great-migration/.

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