• Ljubljana / London
Miha Colner

Ongoing Struggle and Inevitable Pride

Ongoing Struggle and Inevitable Pride

Ongoing Struggle and Inevitable Pride

About the exhibition entitled Vigilance, Struggle, Pride: Through Her Eyes at Maribor Art Gallery (19 January-11 March 2018) curated by Marina Paulenka and produced by Društvo za evropsko zavest, Maribor; Organ vida, Zagreb; Fotoklub Maribor; Österreichische Gesellschaft für Kinderphilosophie, Graz; KuBiPro, Berlin; E@I, Bratislava.

Nowadays a large part of population across the so-called developed world (still) live in relative comfort and safety, enjoying basic human rights that have been gradually won and secured over the past decades of modern history. Therefore one would expect that those rights that grant an individual a relative quality of life are untouchable. However, it seems they are no longer guaranteed. Furthermore, certain features of the welfare state, such as free education and healthcare let alone the right to a home and basic universal income, have never been properly applied, even in the West; these progressive ideas will inevitably shape humankind’s fate in the future. But one of the most pressing issues that has persisted continuously and has never been properly applied is gender equality.

Empirically speaking there are only few states in the world that managed to secure equal pay and equal gender representation in institutions and companies, simply by adopting adequate legislation and even these legal requirements are now seen as constraining, impractical and absurd. In some other, more Darwinist-oriented countries, such equality is a mere utopia. The world has not changed as much as one would hope for in the past century. There has been significant technological and scientific development but certain social codes, traditions, and moral restraints are deeply rooted in the past. Generations are needed to eradicate archaic societal conventions and expectations. Throughout recent history it has been proven that one thing might lead to another and that certain changes in a society, which are justifiably perceived as positive, could cause immensely negative consequences. Revisionism has been a very common feature in the history of mankind.

Hannah Starkey, Untitled, 2016-2017 / Vigilance, Struggle, Pride: Through Her Eyes, installation view at UGM – Maribor Art Gallery (photo: Matej Sitar)

In Poland, for example, the right of women to freely terminate their pregnancy was granted in 1956, under the rule of the oppressive communist Soviet-puppet government (though the law that allowed abortion for medical reasons was already enforced in 1932). However, when the communist regime collapsed in 1989 and newfound liberties were introduced under the rule of parliamentary democracy and free market, a string of circumstances such as economic decline and catholic revisionism led to regression and abortion once more became heavily restricted in 1993. Moreover, quite recently the conservative Polish government aimed to tighten already harsh restrictions on abortion forcing many Polish women to seek commercial treatment in neighbouring countries or to carry out risky illegal abortions outside of health facilities.

Laia Abril, A History of Misogyny: On Abortion, 2016 / installation view at Les Rencontres d’Arles 2016

The right of women to maintain control over their own bodies has been the subject of ongoing struggle for over one hundred years, since the first wave of feminism, while protests of religious activists opposing the abortion have never really ceased to take place. In her work On Abortion, part of the A History of Misogyny series, the artist Laia Abril has been exploring the history of abortion in order to create a comprehensive visual and textual piece, a spatial installation where a spectator can experience stories and objects related to abortion throughout history. The piece was first shown in 2016 at the Les Rencontres d’Arles festival where photographs of women who underwent artificial termination of pregnancy were matched with texts revealing their stories, and objects for conducting an abortion were matched with newspaper cut-outs, found footages and photographs addressing the issue. Even though the set-up was neither linear nor chronological, the narrative was rather comprehensible and clear.

Another chapter of A History of Misogyny entitled Menstruation Myths deals with misconceptions about the female body in relation to the position of women in society. Both are works from which one can actually learn something while the position of the artist is not in any way ambivalent. However, the artist’s stance is rather logical, or even personal – since she is a woman – and it cannot be dismissed as propaganda; the advocacy for the right to control one’s own body is a very legitimate one. Moreover, the pieces bring out a number of historical references. The idea of controlling people’s bodies (and minds) has been an aim of every tyrant regime, from the Catholic Church’s repression to Maoist birth-and-sexual-conduct control.

Laia Abril, A History of Misogyny: On Abortion, 2016

Abril, showing the Menstruation Myths series, is one among thirteen female artists and photographers whose works are being showcased at the Vigilance, Struggle, Pride: Through Her Eyes group exhibition that premiered at UGM – Maribor Art Gallery earlier this year (until 11 March 2018). Selected artists critically address different aspects of struggles for basic human rights, from the point of view of women of diverse backgrounds from around the globe. The project is therefore a collage of various narratives reflecting the zeitgeist that can enrich a visitor’s experience with new findings and knowledge.

Laia Abril, A History of Misogyny: Menstruation Myths / Vigilance, Struggle, Pride: Through Her Eyes, installation view at UGM – Maribor Art Gallery (photo: Matej Sitar)

The diversity of discourses is a rather positive feature of the exhibition – despite a lack of thematic consistency from a curatorial point of view – as it provides it with the necessary dynamic, contemporary spirit. Documentarian and photojournalist approaches are thus presented side by side with conceptual photography, films, collages and photo-installations which encompasses the heterogeneity of so-called contemporary photography. Purposely, the result is a profound visual exploration, analysis and representation of case studies from different areas and socio-political entities, in several instances highlighting the artists who are left outside the spectrum of Western dominated contemporary art scene, from the so-called third world and developing countries. However, the postcolonial aftertaste persists as many of these artists originated in these countries but now live and work in the (Western) centres of power. Without this they probably would not have been recognised and canonised within the contemporary art world. But what they do offer is an insight into a world of displaced persons, migrants who exist in between places and do not belong to any of them. Many artists live in one place but draw their inspiration from another one, i.e. their homeland.

Amak Mahmoodian, Shenasnameh, 2016 / Vigilance, Struggle, Pride: Through Her Eyes, installation view at UGM – Maribor Art Gallery (photo: Matej Sitar)

Among the latter is also Iranian-born and London-based Amak Mahmoodian who addresses issues of collective identity, referring to Iranian women whose official identification imagery follows very strict rules – a portrait with a headscarf and a fingerprint. Her installation, a grid of images next to fingerprints of different women, including the artist herself, points out the uniformity of a dress code. However, her piece can be seen much more universally as every society has its rules and regulations that uniform and control citizens according to its cultural and ideological codes.

Sandra Vitaljic, Beloved, 2011-2013

Focusing on much more intimate phenomenon Sandra Vitaljić explores the notion of love, relationships and death in consumerist and materially-driven societies. In the series Beloved she meticulously portrays different body parts (specimens from autopsies) with signs of fatal wounds, in front of neutral background, in order to address extreme situations when love becomes personal possession. Her photographic artefacts are eerie reminders of love-motivated murders. In her series and photobook Pussybow April Gentler mocks media representations of the female body in mainstream media and, by using found images, creates digital collages. The result is an ironic kaleidoscope of images that underlines the absurdity of objectifying imagery.

April Gentler, Pussybow, 2017

Beside these conceptually accomplished and often slightly ambivalent works there are some groundbreaking examples of visual storytelling based on principles of documentary photography. Quite outstanding is the photo-essay of American photographer Nina Berman about a survivor of child pornography and sex trafficking who desperately tries to assimilate to “normal life”. An Autobiography of Miss Wish showcases an emotionally charged selection of pictures from the past 25 years during which Berman appropriated a documentary approach and closely followed her subject with whom she eventually grew close. The recently released artist book combines the subject’s drawings and other archival materials that brings out her often blurred memories, and photographs shot by the artist that display the unembellished reality of the victim’s long-lasting trauma.

Nina Berman, An Autobiography of Miss Wish, 2017 / Vigilance, Struggle, Pride: Through Her Eyes, installation view at UGM – Maribor Art Gallery (photo: Matej Sitar)

One of the most stunning works in the exhibition is the series of photographs entitled Death by Palestinian photographer Ahlam Shibli who explores the inevitable radicalism of the population that has lived under the generations-long occupation by the state of Israel. The extreme circumstances of being part of a struggle, that can ultimately lead to voluntary martyrdom, has been imposed on many families in the occupied areas of Palestine where the abnormal situation has long since become their day-to-day normality. For many of them death is part of everyday life. Therefore the photographer captured processes of grieving for the loss of loved ones where propaganda imagery merges with piety. Almost every family has lost somebody and keeps his or her picture on show. More than the extremism of martyrs the artist depicts the universal horrors of war and endless state of emergency based on ethnic division, civil and economic inequality and military suppression.

Ahlam Shibli, Death , 2011-2012

In a way Shibli’s photographs that show the de-privileged position of women in a male dominated armed conflict sum up many issues raised by this exhibition. In the recent years humankind has faced increasingly rising intolerance, manipulation, hatred, supremacism, brutal Darwinism, and with it the severe decline of equal status of women in (many) societies. The artists shown in this exhibition address some of the alarming, though by no means new, issues into which many women of the world have been pushed because of the constant instability caused by the political, military and economic interventions of the leading world powers. However, these interventions have weakened some of the hard won civil liberties also in the US and Europe which used to be (and hopefully still are) a safe haven for human rights and equality. But the pendulum is swinging back – in front of our eyes – threatening to destroy once model societies.

Artists: Ahlam Shibli, Amak Mahmoodian, April Gertler, Hannah Starkey, Laia Abril, Lua Ribeira, Nina Berman, Nina Mangalanayagam, Nydia Blas, Sandra Vitaljić, Tasneem Alsultan, Tomoko Sawada, Zanele Muholi

Sandra Vitaljic, Beloved, 2011-2013 / Vigilance, Struggle, Pride: Through Her Eyes, installation view at UGM – Maribor Art Gallery (photo: Matej Sitar)

© Miha Colner, February 2018 / proof reading: Ana Cavic