The Feminist Art Conference marks International Women’s Day with an exploration of immigration and power.
This Sunday, March 8, marks the 104th anniversary of International Women’s day. If you’re in one of 28 countries including Cuba, Ukraine, and Vietnam, it’s an official holiday that celebrates women’s political and social achievements and highlights the ongoing struggle for equal rights. If you’re in Canada, it’s cause for a statement from the Harper government complimenting women’s contributions to our economy and their ability to “create jobs, one business at a time.”
Either way, it’s an occasion with particular significance for Ilene Sova, founder of the Feminist Art Conference (FAC), whose summit was first held on March 8, 2013. “International Women’s Day is a time to think about inequality, and all the social justice issues that affect women, particularly oppressed women,” says Sova. “We live in a visual culture, and using art is a totally different way to access these issues. It’s different from a newspaper article and from a statistic. It’s something that people get right away.”
This time around, FAC decided to postpone their conference until September, when it can occupy studio spaces at the Ontario College of Art and Design. Instead, they’re presentingYou’re Not Here, a group exhibition that explores issues of immigration, relocation, and the lack of safe spaces for women in contemporary society. With more than two dozen artists participating—in media such as painting, photography, sculpture, and performance—the ongoing relevance and complexity of these themes is abundantly clear.
Works in the exhibition run the gamut from the deeply personal to the explicitly political, from Dorota Dziong and Shelby Lisk’s haunting portraits to Rosamund King’s gentrification-themed fortune tellers and Helene Vosters’s “Flag of Tears,” in which participants are invited to embroider a Canadian flag in remembrance of the 1,200 documented missing Aboriginal women. But every piece acts as a rebuke to the show’s title, offering up a declaration of individuality and belonging within cultures of oppression.
Daniels Spectrum is not the exhibition space by accident. Residents of Regent Park were forced to relocate during the area’s recent redevelopment, and in some cases had to move as far as Peterborough and Kingston. Once the development was finished, residents had to make the difficult decision: Do you move your entire family twice?
The exhibit “is structured around this idea of immigration and how it’s unique to Regent Park,” explains curator Jordana Franklin. “But, of course, it’s also not unique, in that it affects so many people, especially in a city like Toronto. We had this amazing outpouring of people telling stories about being first and second generation immigrants, and of their parents coming here and trying to make a home. It’s something that affects so many people in so many different ways.”
Art can provide an incredible outlet for telling these sorts of stories—if you can find the wall space. The institutionalized power structures of the art world have historically excluded women’s voices—especially the voices of transgender women and women of colour. When their works make it into major galleries, it’s often limited to themed exhibitions in which a multitude of viewpoints, experiences, and artistic approaches are thrown together to represent the sum total of female-created art.
So for the organizers of FAC, feminism is more than a description of one’s personal viewpoint—it’s a methodology for handling art’s creation and distribution. All decisions regarding the conference are made via group consensus, and exhibitions like You’re Not Here are assembled via an open call. For Franklin, as curator, she wants to be less about selecting work, and focus instead on organizing and displaying it. A heavy focus is also placed on encouraging a collaborative practice during FAC events, so that artists can meet and strengthen connections to their community. And this year, FAC hopes to expand this community internationally: Work created during the conference at OCAD will be travelling to New York City in 2016, for the Update to the Status of Women at the United Nations.
“My love of art has always come from the idea that it’s a platform,” explains Franklin. “It’s an amazing way to get people thinking about something, talking about something, communicating and coming together in a way that not everything can. It’s visual, it’s immediate, but it also provokes these levels of thought.”
Sova is hopeful, but pragmatic: “Can artists change the world? I don’t know if they can, but the fact that they have this platform now that they wouldn’t otherwise have, and that community members are coming to see their work, it’s a two-way street. And that’s pretty unique.”