Photographing the Female met me coming in from a day some might call too cold for May that had me sharing a scarf with a generous friend. Unwrapping ourselves, we were greeted with Birthe Piontek’s Sheets, which pictured nine enfolded women with soft gazes wrapped into one another through a sheet.
Welcoming me into Photographing the Female, a world wide project and exhibition exploring what it means to have a “female identity” and the representation of this through contemporary lens-based artists, I settled into the softness of the image and pivoted right to the engoldened woman that hung beside it. A woman is depicted intensely in gold, creating a statue of her own, the only giveaway of her presence the trailing smoke of the cigarette in hand. Against the dark background, lit from above, the grey smoke matched her hair giving a name to “Babuska.” Texture is what comes through for me in this image, with ribs, collarbones, and sunken cheeks defined by the sparkling pigments.
What is female identity beyond youth? What remains? What forms? And what limits do we prescribe to age? Accompanying this piece, Babuska took more forms exploring themes of “sexuality, body image, and self perspective” with a tone of playfulness, strength, and one fueled by intimacy. Natasha Penaguiao of Denmark depicts her own grandmother in a unique way, showing her in both glistening lingerie but also her glistening skin draped in folds of experience.
Much of the representations of women that exist in the world could be simplified primarily to a focus of my Women’s Gender and Sexuality major, the male gaze. That is, the man’s perspective on a body often limited to definitions prescribed to it. Pieces of this collection stood directly in front of this and shared women in the authentic.
Of course the collection offered the female body, but presented what this can mean in a myriad of representations, beyond just fruit covered vaginas (though there was some of that too stating its own unique message). The collection offered depictions of woman as it comes to exist in our world and one that is not limited to only the “female.”* Candace Feit presents A Woman in My Heart, a series on those who don’t necessarily fit into cisgender categories in South Asia but “show varying degrees of ‘femininity.’” Here the femininity is seen through a festival called “Devenappatinam” that allows space to express freely forms of ‘femininity’ beyond the restrictions of biology. The image provides gentleness and intimacy of sharing in the “getting ready,” the light filtering in adding the divine nature intended.
The traditionally understood feminine was presented through the delicate but also through the defiance of those expectations. Leathered Skins, Unchained Hearts offers women in the heavy metal scene of Botswana called Maruk. These women dress in clothing and makeup that for them, acts as a form of armor. In a culture that is “religiously conservative and patriarchal,” some women use this space to create a new narrative of the normally understood “submissive, decent, obedient, and ladylike” expectations of them. In the domestic home, Debbie is placed with light shining around. Her leather outfit stands against the sun coming in through white silky curtains, evoking the juxtaposition of these dualities but also the integration of this identity into her world.
I was struck by the catalyst of these photographs to talk about social issues like those that disproportionately affect mothers of color but also redefine “femininity” beyond only the lines of sexual or maternal we have so often been served. Presenting womanhood in its adolescence and in the position of elder, women pushing back against gender norms prescribed to them, or definitions of beauty, women without the understood “female” body, women in response to a history, women existing within a history in the making, forms of women supporting women, it’s hard to raise up some pieces and not others with this diverse representation and honesty that is seen through the lens. It feels important to include the artists and subjects who did make up this collection. Thank you for your recording, for your sharing, for your response to the representation of women.
Tasneem Alsultan (Saudi Arabia/US)
Malene Anthony (Denmark)
Poulomi Basu (India)
Candace Feit (South Africa)
Abdollah Heidari (Iran)
Celeste Knirke (Denmark)
Jamie Knowlton (US)
Andy Margetson (UK)
Rania Matar (US)
Cristobal Olivares (Chile)
Natasha Penaguiao (Denmark)
Mavi Phillips (US)
Birthe Piontek (Germany)
Mafalda Rakos (Austria)
Marie Schuller (Germany/UK)
Paul Shiakallis (South Africa)
Prarthna Singh (India)
Georgia Stockwell (US)
Daro Sulakauri (Georgia)
Luo Yang (China)
Ji Yeo (South Korea)
Alexandra Von Fuerst (Italy)
In the unfortunate changing climate of our environment, creating a more-than-brisk day in May, I am pleased to see the changing climate of gender and our allowance for authenticity beyond the restrictions formally placed on these forms of identity. Photographing the Female poses the questions, “How will these photographs inform the future?” and “How do these representations fill in a wider spectrum of femininity that has always existed?”
Beacon Gallery is partnering with Resilient Sisterhood Project for this exhibit, an organization focused on teaching and supporting women of African descent about reproductive diseases that disproportionately affect them. For more information about the nonprofit and its mission, visit https://www.rsphealth.org/. Photographing the Female is on display through June 2nd, visit https://beacongallery.com/index.php , for more information about the gallery and future exhibits. For information about the exhibit taking place internationally and read interviews with presented artists visit, https://photographingthefemale.com/.
*A word describing a biological make-up often equated to mean woman. This is exclusionary to other types of bodies who might fall into misunderstood understandings of gender.