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Women, Art & War: 2009

December 18, 2009

PALM, FINGERS & FINGERTIPS 000406 © 2008 Jenny Holzer

As this series has hopefully demonstrated, war has been and continues to be a problem that the human race faces on a global scale. It is, however, often through these unfortunately common experiences that we can reach across national, racial and religious borders and share both our past and current horrors as well as our dreams for a better future. One way that many women—as well as men—have done so is through the arts. They have used painting, installation, theater, writing and music to tell their first person experiences. They have researched the lives of others and attempted to re-tell, mourn or make sense of the destruction. Some have used humor; others, simple metaphor.

I would like to end this series—though hopefully not our discussion—with a reflection on the past year and what it has brought in relation to the subject “Women, Art and War.” Below is a brief chronological list of books, exhibitions, deaths and films of 2009 that ask us to reflect on this vast subject in myriad ways. I invite you to use the “comments” section below to add to this list of resources. Thank you for reading.

January 1st-February 1st, 2009 (continued from October 25th, 2008): The Museum of Contemporary Art/Chicago organized and hosted the Jenny Holzer exhibition Protect, Protect. In the spring, the exhibition moved to the Whitney Museum of American Art, where it was on display March 12th–May 31st, 2009. The show is a compilation of Holzer’s newest work and includes her iconic LED light pieces as well silkscreen paintings, all addressing the U.S. war in Iraq by either quoting or reprinting declassified and redacted government documents. In the past Holzer has borrowed the voices of many sources—poems, novels, songs, speeches, etc.—but in this newest work, she sticks to quoting the U.S. military and the correspondence of its prisoners, their own words revealing (or attempting to cover-up but failing drastically as in the case of the censored portions) the horror of invasion, torture and murder. As Roberta Smith concludes in her New York Times review of the exhibition’s New York installation, “There is astrictness and narrowness to [Holzer’s] art that may be easier to respect than to love. But in many ways she has met—at least for the moment—the basic requirements of artistic importance. Her work is singular, consistent and relevant. It has developed and has also been influential. It regularly succeeds in taking us deep into the machinations of human frailty and power.”

You can view on youtube a brief Art 21 clip of Jenny Holzer talking about the difficulty of researching and creating artwork on such horrific subjects as well as the anonymity and distance she creates for herself in her presentation. A transcript of the Art 21 interview can also be read on the PBS website.

May 2nd: Brazillian activist and theater director Augusto Boal passed away at seventy-eight due to respiratory failure. He was the author of six books, including Theatre of the Oppressed (1979), which introduced the theory behind the practice he would go on to spread worldwide, a type of participatory and improvisational theater as a means to work through contemporary situations of oppression and improve hierarchical power dynamics. Theatre of the Oppressed, in its various forms, has been used and is being used by workers, prisoners, students, unions, churches, women’s and minority groups worldwide, and those actively involved with TO believe “that we must re-establish the right of everyone to exist in dignity. We believe that all of us are more, and much better, than what we think we are. We believe in solidarity.”

Mona Hatoum, Hot Spot III (2009), Fondazione Querini Stampalia, Venice

June 4th-September 20th: In conjunction with the 53rd Venice Biennale, Fondazione Querini Stampalia hosted Interior Landscape, an exhibition of new and recent works by Lebanese artist Mona Hatoum. Fondazione Querini Stampalia is a foundation that hosts and preserves the library, furniture and art collection of the past noble Venetian Querini Stampalia family. In this unusual exhibition, Hatoum’s work was shown in a contemporary exhibition space as well as amoung the family’s possessions on one floor of the home. On a few occasions, according to the exhibition press release, the artist made “a number of interventions in the museum collection using the furniture as the container or frame for some new ideas and some existing works which, when placed in this historic setting, generate different meanings.” In her work, Hatoum, who was born in Beirut to Palestinian parents and now lives between London and Berlin, addresses global issues of displacement and the resulting dissatisfaction that arises from not being allowed access to the land of one’s origins. While her work often originates from her own personal experience as an exile, it often—especially in exhibitions such as this one—takes on more general interpretations related to belonging, place and identity.


Ivet Ćurlin, Ana Dević, Nataša Ilić and Sabina Sabolović

September 12th-November 8th: The 11th International Istanbul Biennial was curated by What, How & for Whom (WHW), a non-profit curators’ collective based in Zagreb, Croatia, whose curatorial team for the project was headed-up by four women: Ivet Ćurlin, Ana Dević, Nataša Ilić and Sabina Sabolović. “Our collective,’’ stated Sabolović in a New York Times article on the exhibition, “always tries to deal with the social and political topics which we feel are swept under the carpet.” The exhibition “What Keeps Mankind Alive?” took its title from “Denn wovon lebt der Mensch?,” the closing song of Bertolt Brecht’s Threepenny Opera (1928). In their conceptual framework, the curators argue for the utilization of the influential Marxist and dramaturge’s words as “an attempt to think about the role of artistic endeavor in the conditions of contemporary capitalism, to reevaluate our everyday practices, our value systems and modes of operation.”

Sanja Iveković's Turkish Report 09 (2009) © Photo: Jaana Prüss

Included within the exhibition were two pieces by croatian artist Sanja Iveković, whose work since the 1970s has repeatedly addressed issues related to gender and politics across media as wide-ranging as photography, performance, video and installation. For Sunglasses (2009), the artist distributed the stories of abused Turkish women that she had collected at a local shelter  across and within magazine advertisements for women’s sunglasses. Iveković’s Turkish Report 09 (2009), meanwhile, drew attention to the unequal status of women in Turkey as reported by Turkish NGOs by printing related facts and figures on bright red pieces of paper and subsequently crumpling them up and distributing them throughout the exhibition’s venues for visitors to stumble upon.

The biennial also included Signs of Conflict: Political Posters of Lebanon’s Civil War, a piece by Zeina Maasri, Associate Professor at the Department of Architecture and Design at the American University of Beirut. The piece consisted of a collection of posters from the fifteen year long war (1975-1990) and demonstrated the vast aesthetics utilized within this intense period of political upheaval and violent atrocities. You can learn more about these posters and the history that surrounds them in Maasri’s book, Off the Wall: Political Posters of the Lebanese Civil War (February 2009).

October 13th: University of California Press released Julia Bryan-Wilson’s book Art Workers: Radical Practice in the Vietnam Era. In her first book, UC Irvine art history professor Bryan-Wilson focuses on the practice of art critics and artists of the 60s and 70s U.S. to attempt to redefine artistic labor and self-identify as art workers. This shift was pivotal to a series of new styles and approaches to visual art, including feminist art and criticism, and coincided with the general populace’s dissatisfaction with the war abroad. The label “art worker” was often invoked in recognition of the direct relationship between capitalism and the art world and what could thus be seen as a passive support for American imperialist endeavors abroad. Bryan-Wilson looks to four case studies in the book, analyzing the manner in which specific art workers attempted to think more critically about their own work and find alternatives to counter and draw attention to the problems of the art market and its complicity in violence and oppression. Perhaps most relevant to GAB readers is the chapter on Lucy Lippard, which addresses how she came to feminist criticism, the difficulties she faced as a female art critic and her struggles to make art meaningful in a time when frustrations with art’s limitations were palpable. Throughout the book, Bryan-Wilson recognizes the utopianism of the time without succumbing to its appeal, identifying the problematic power dynamics that developed within progressive art collectives as well as demonstrating the often limited change brought about by protests and institutionally critical exhibitions.



Search and Destroy, detail (2005) © Nancy Spero and Galerie Lelong

October 18th: Feminist/anti-war activist and artist Nancy Spero passed away at eighty-three due to heart failure. Well-known for her gruesome paintings of violence during the Vietnam War era, Spero never tired of asking her viewers to confront the ever occurring acts of oppression within the U.S. and worldwide, past present and future. Her inspirations were often specific—the Vietnam War coming into American homes via the television or the Gestapo’s torture and torment of Marie Sanders and Masha Bruskina—but the manner in which she drew, printed, painted and installed her works often gave the feeling that such events could be occurring nearly anywhere, over a wide-range of periods and to nearly any woman or civilian powerless to escape.  She has been quoted in a PBS slideshow of her work as saying: “I cannot re-draw the images I did long ago. I’m in another time. But what’s the difference? Death is death, and there’s my subject matter—the ever-present helicopter, from Vietnam to Iraq. There’s a terrible similarity running through all this stuff.” Spero represented the United States at the 2007 Venice Bienale. For more information about and pictures of on her contribution, Maypole/Take No Prisoners, read Deborah Frizzell’s article in Cultural Politics from March 2009. Visit the blog Bad at Sports: Contemporary Art talk for Claudine Ise’s compilation of Spero’s obituaries.


October 26th: The twenty-nine minute documentary Rape in the Ranks: The Enemy Within (2007) premiered at the New York Independent Film Festival. The film follows the narratives of four military servicewomen, all of whom were raped by servicemen sometime during their training and/or deployment abroad with the U.S. military. Read or watch Democracy Now’s interview with journalist and filmmaker Pascale Bourgaux, who directed the film. Marcia G. Yerman’s article, “Military Sexual Trauma: Seeking Justice,” is also a great resource for learning more about the film as well as the 2009 Military Rape Awareness Week.


Skateistan, International Day of Children, photo courtsey of Asheesh Bhalla

December 10th: ArteEaste co-sponsored the “Conflict Nations Program: Afghanistan at the Zero Film Fest” in Brooklyn, New York. The evening featured Robert Greenwald’s documentary Re-Think Afghanistan as well as a preview for Kai Sehr’s Skateistan — To Live and Skate in Kabul and readings by four Afghan-American writers. Re-Thinking Afghanistan is both a sixty minute film as well as an extensive on-going project that seeks to bring the perspectives of the Afghani people to worldwide audiences. It examines the casualties caused by recent U.S. attacks, challenges the assumption that war is likely to liberate Afghani women and presents the arguments as to why “victory” via war is impossible. Skateistan—To Live and Skate in Kabul follows Australian skateboarders Oliver Percovich and Sharna Nolan as they introduce their sport to Afghani children as an alternative to violence and a means to enjoy their childhood. Their work has also continued beyond the documentary by way of Skateistan: Afghan Skate School, which “engages growing numbers of urban and internally-displaced youth in Afghanistan through skateboarding, and provides them with new opportunities in cross-cultural interaction, education, and personal empowerment programs.”

Roxanne Samer is the Visual Arts Editor for Gender Across Borders. You can contact her at

  1. Becky Bivens permalink
    December 18, 2009 5:15 pm

    I’m so glad you did this! Lots of good information. Hal Foster’s article in this month’s Artforum is really relevant to this. He talks about the “precarious” quality of much of the work he’s been moved by in the last decade. Much a do with war and violence.

  2. Sally Marie permalink
    December 21, 2009 10:32 am

    Thanks Roxanne. This article has many references that we will be albe to use in Beyond War.

    Beyond War is an international, non-partisan, non-profit organization promoting peace and the end of war through education. We explore, model and promote the means for humanity to live together nonviolently. We believe that war is obsolete: the costs in lives and dollars are too great, and the outcomes for individuals, societies and the earth horrific.

    Beyond War promotes a positive vision for individuals, societies, and nations. We focus on three areas that need transformation:

    World view. Individually and culturally, we expand our identification to include all of
    humanity with no more “Us and Them” thinking. In today’s
    interconnected world, the future of each of us depends on the good of all.
    Infrastructure. Systems, institutions and resources that now support war need to be
    reallocated to support peace.
    Tools and processes. Relationship building, dialogue, intercultural understanding,
    listening skills, nonviolent communication, diplomacy, mediation and
    other tools will allow us to live and work together peacefully.

    Three Guiding Principles are the basis for our actions:
    War is obsolete. It is not absent, but it is outmoded, ineffective and in the
    nuclear age it can lead to extinction of all life as we know it.
    We are one on this planet.
    The means are the ends in the making. Enduring peace can only be achieved
    through peaceful means.

    Core Practices personalize the commitments we each make for individual actions:
    I will resolve conflict. I will not use violence.
    I will maintain an attitude of goodwill. I will not preoccupy myself with an enemy
    I will work together with others to build a world beyond war.

    Four strategies for nations are promoted:
    Diplomacy and nonviolent conflict resolution processes.
    Humanitarian foreign aid to developing countries.
    Adherence to international law.
    Collaboration and cooperation with other nations.

    Studies have shown that once 5% of individuals favor a new idea, it is embedded in the culture; once 20% embrace such an idea, it is unstoppable.* Therefore we expose as many people as possible, including leaders and policy makers, to the ideas, methods and strategies that can lead to a safer and more peaceful world.

    Sally Marie


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