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Deconstructing Patriarachy  by Bev Pike
Deconstructing Patriarachy

 

Imagine yourself in 1975 wandering through the Winnipeg Art Gallery’s Images of Woman exhibition.

What’s this? So many of the artworks depict women naked, and, in this International Women’s Year show, curated from the Winnipeg Art Gallery’s permanent collection, only 28 percent of the artworks featured are by female artists.

You read that the gallery hopes the exhibit will attract women visitors. Imagine!

(above: Boob Tree, Phillis Green)

Let’s wander into the next gallery. What a big difference. The art in this exhibit is interesting. It doesn’t fetishize women’s bodies. It has depth, humour and warmth. Each piece in the Woman as Viewer show demonstrates a gripping purpose.

Laugh with Boob Tree, a tree trunk bearing bright pink crocheted breasts, by artist Phyllis Green, who grew up in Winnipeg. Study Primo (112 Fois la Petite dans la Grande), each cubby of the sculpture representing female biological events. Created by Irene F. Whittome of Montreal, its compartments are filled with knotted hoses, pom-poms and empty space. Enjoy the canvas floor sculpture Morning by V. Walker of Calgary, in which dozens of 12-inch terylene phalluses emerge in rows. Let cryptic self-portraits like An Whitlock’s Pulped Underpants, handmade into paper, haunt you.

Then, steady your balance as you take in American artist Judy Chicago’s famous vagina dentata drawing, Rejection Quintet. Winnipeg’s Sheila Butler is represented too, with Walking on Water, an etched portrayal of a figure drowning under a man.

Drawing your gaze next is Nude Lady 1, a ceramic sculpture of a woman, headless, armless and without feet, by Saskatoon artist Margaret Keelan. Finally, turn to Edmontonian Lylian Klimek’s primal piece Modular Nest, a wall shelf holding aluminum eggs inside pussy willow nests.

Art like this, profound and intense, invents symbolism for many female existences. In 1975, a time when only 19.9 percent of the WAG’s permanent collection is made up of art by female artists, Woman as Viewer inspires a feminist revolution in Canadian visual art.

BEHIND THE CURTAIN

The idea for the ground-breaking Woman as Viewer exhibit begins in April 1975, when Winnipeg artist Sharron Zenith Corne reads about the WAG’s Images of Woman exhibit and hits the roof.

“I was enraged!” she reminisces. “They got a $10,000 International Women’s Year grant to show naked women? That’s not going to help anything.”

Zenith Corne, who is just beginning her art career, immediately organizes an ad hoc group, the Committee for Women Artists. It includes Winnipeg arts critic and co-curator Marian Yeo and Plug In Institute of Contemporary Art co-founder Suzanne Gillies. With others (including you, had you been there), they design an international protest show entirely made up of feminist art.

The purpose of the feminist art show is “to celebrate women’s view of herself and her world, an aspect of life which has been constantly overlooked in mainstream art,” as Zenith Corne later writes in a November 1978 article, “Women in Exhibition: the Politics of Pioneering Art Feminism on the Prairies,” published in the feminist arts magazine Branching Out.

In May 1975, a month after the Committee for Women Artists is formed, the group publishes a “Manifesto in Defense of Women Artists” in Woman’s Place, the newsletter published by the Winnipeg Women’s Liberation. Twelve prominent Manitobans sign the manifesto, including future Manitoba Senator Mira Spivak, high-profile visual artist Esther Warkov and Winnipeg Free Press art critic Leonard Marcoe. It declares: “We cannot see how the Winnipeg Art Gallery show will promote the full participation of women in Canadian society or improve the status of women.”

Surprisingly, the WAG and its director, Roger Selby, succumb to public pressure and agree to give up two galleries for the exhibit of contemporary women’s art for a period of 20 days. The Committee for Women Artists launches a fundraising campaign, energized by municipal politician Pearl McGonigal (who will later become Manitoba’s lieutenant-governor), and puts out an international call for submissions.

OPPOSITION MOUNTS

The exhibit organizers face many challenges and one of them is Roger Selby.

It starts when the committee receives a letter from Selby telling them that the exhibit’s jury must include “a fairly prominent community personality” because the “women’s art might not be of suitable quality and be deemed acceptable within general social standards.” The committee refuses. Jurors of the feminist exhibit are Toronto filmmaker Gail Singer and Regina artist Deborah Sures.

Then, the all-male board of Canadian Artists Representation (CAR), an organization founded to ensure artists receive exhibit fees when their works are on exhibit, launches a media attack on the Committee for Women Artists accusing it of not paying fees to the Woman as Viewer exhibitors. Zenith Corne submits yet another grant application for artist fees.

Finally, close to the exhibit date, an Altona printing company refuses to print the exhibition catalogue after the owner sees Double Image, a line drawing of a male nude by New York artist Sylvia Sleigh. He calls it filthy. The committee finds a new printer.

In the catalogue that accompanies the exhibit, Zenith Corne is philosophical about the challenges faced by organizers. “The difficulties encountered throughout the past months typify the situation women have to surmount to make changes in the existing social structure,” she writes.

While the exhibit is being set up, the team of male installers complains to Selby. In a memo, they object to the exhibit and, in particular, to the Genitalia series by Toronto artist Badanna Zack. The work comprises 15 small, humorous sculptures, mostly of penises in eccentric configurations. The installers’ memo states that Genitalia “will probably be offensive to most people.”

Nevertheless, Woman as Viewer opens on November 26, 1975, alongside the WAG exhibit Images of Woman. “Erotica in staid old Winnipeg” reads the headline of the article in the December 1 edition of the Globe and Mail.

A week into the exhibit, Selby bans many of Zack’s Genitalia sculptures after the committee rejects his demand that a “warning notice” be placed near the work. According to a November 28, 1975 WAG memo, this includes “14 penises, 9 of which are chrome plated, 2 ceramic penises c/w hair and 1 white ceramic vagina.”

On December 11, 1975, a Globe and Mail headline reads, “Caution: eroticism, nudity may be offensive.” In the article, Selby disparages the sculptures as “definitely erotic.”

Did I mention there should have been a warning outside Selby’s WAG office? Many visitors remember a coffee table littered with Playboy magazines and his constant sexual banter. Selby remains director until 1983.

After the WAG removes the sculptures, they are promptly put on display at the nearby artist-run gallery Plug In. Zack makes an appearance on Peter Gzowski’s national CBC Radio show Gzowski on FM to defend her work and to dispute the idea that a woman creating sculptures of male genitalia represents a threat to civilization.

RAVE REVIEWS

The Winnipeg Free Press publishes two reviews on the exhibit. Above the fold, John W. Graham’s commentary, Issues political, not aesthetic,” zeros in on the “preponderance of ironic or satirical images and the amount of attention focused upon the genitals.” He then sputters that if women artists want to see male nudes, “then displaying images from Playgirl would have said it all.”

In contrast, Katie FitzRandolph’s article, “Woman as Viewer makes winning show,” describes the exhibit as a big splash for the WAG’s new building, which opened in 1971. Of the WAG’s truculence, FitzRandolph surmises that, “having that success come from outside is too much for the organization to stomach. Viewer has proven Winnipeggers will visit the gallery in large numbers if offered a challenging and stimulating show.”

LASTING LEGACY

Referring to her triumph, an entry on Zenith Corne in the Who’s Who of Canadian Women published in 1999 will say, “Woman as Viewer is the first national exhibit at a major cultural institution to include depictions of women’s experiences—by women—and to use feminist criteria.”

Come back to the present moment and reflect on how Zenith Corne, having had no prior arts administration experience, worked seven days a week for seven months to overcome formidable obstacles. Woman as Viewer helps launch Zenith Corne’s long art career and after the exhibit, she finds herself a consultant for various governments on sexism in the arts. Zenith Corne receives a YWCA Woman of the Year Award in 1979.

Art critic Marian Yeo describes how, around 1969, Zenith Corne’s work shifts away from large easel canvases as she begins drawing “cartoon-like female figures and sexual motifs.” A co-conspirator and friend, Yeo writes that Zenith Corne starts with “a single, outlined body or body part, first concentrating on the pelvic region—wombs, ovaries and phalluses, and later breasts and faces.”

She explains that “a body image, pared down to essentials, was ideal for dramatizing ideas and feelings that simultaneously were being explored in feminist consciousness-raising groups, academic studies and the popular media.”

In the artist statement for her 1981 Montreal exhibition, Wombs and Phalluses, Zenith Corne writes, “The sexuality of this work became a metaphor for more basic and important themes—the psychological rape of women and the relationshipbetween men and women in our society.”

 In 1984, she presents her solo art show, Taboo Images, at the University of Manitoba’s Gallery 1.1.1. Zenith Corne’s distinctive graphic drawings, according to Yeo represent “forms and configurations of pre-verbal experience or archetypal patterns” blending into mystical androgynous imagery.

Woman as Viewer becomes a catalyst for many  feminist projects in Winnipeg, including a Festival of Feminism event in 1978 organized by Yeo, which featured panelists including Germaine Greer and Dr. Henry Morgentaler.

The city’s feminist art community continues to thrive. In 1984, feminist artists create Mentoring Artists for Women’s Art (MAWA) to develop mutually beneficial links between established and emerging female artists. A few years later, in 1988, Winnipeg’s Women in the Arts extravaganza includes an all-women international exhibition at the WAG called “Identity/Identities: An

Exploration of the Concept of Female Identity inContemporary Society.” In the exhibit’s  catalogue, curator Shirley Madill describes the dream: “The objective is to develop post-traditional forms of gender identity on the basis of insights into the uniqueness of the female experience.”

 It is this exciting feminist artists’ communitythat draws me to Winnipeg from Alberta. When I exhibit my paintings for the first time in 1984, I find an art scene that makes me proud to be part of a movement with thundering women who upend patriarchal selfishness using innovativeworkarounds and witty activism.

So where does all this leave female artists?

Interestingly, the Winnipeg Art Gallery acquired Phyllis Green’s Boob Tree as part of its permanent collection in 2014. World-wide, only about 20 percent of works in permanent collections in public art galleries today are by women artists. As analysts Joyce Zemans and Amy C. Wallace ask in their report on gender and public art in Canada, “Whose history, then is recorded?”

As of July 2020, art by female artists makes up 22.9 percent of the Winnipeg Art Gallery’s permanent collection, an increase of just 15 percent in 45 years.

Same where you live too? Bloody good time for protest! 

Bev Pike is Winnipeg visual artist. She creates very large paintings of fictional underground grottos as refuges for above-ground disaster. Find out more about her at bevpike.com.

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