GWSS 290: Feminist Art and Visual Culture in a Global Perspective

I will be teaching a new course in Autumn 2012. In this inaugural year, it gives students a unique opportunity to explore feminist art and the multiple contexts of its creation and circulation through an exciting series of events at UW and in the community, at the Henry Art Gallery, Seattle Art Museum,  and Seattle Public Library.

Feminist Art and Visual Culture in a Global Perspective
GWSS 290 Special Topics in Women Studies
Fall 2012, M-Th 11:30-12:20
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  • Can art move you to understand the world in different terms?
  • How have feminist artists and critics looked power in the eye?
  • Do women really have to be naked to get into the Met?

In 1989 the U.S.-based group of anonymous artists called the Guerrilla Girls issued the following question with their Metropolitan Museum poster campaign.

Guerrilla Girls ads like this one have been published in magazines, pasted on signboards for street protests, and plastered on bathroom walls in museums and theaters. Their work, which involves image-making and performance, serves as one example of feminist art. Feminist art cannot be classified as a style, like impressionism or cubism; nor is it bound to a particular medium, like painting or quilting. Feminist art challenges artistic conventions and embraces multiple media; it expresses criticism of structural and ideological inequalities with regard to gender, sexuality, race, class, and nationality, while proposing alternative, experimental solutions.

This course takes that premise to the global level, asking how social categories like gender and sexuality are constructed in similar and different ways across cultures, and how the work of feminist artists responds to these powerful formations as shaped by local and global institutions. Rather than assuming that feminist art begins in the West, as important origin stories like the formation of the Guerrilla Girls sometimes suggest, we explore an art history of innovation and intervention grounded in centers like Beijing, Johannesburg, and Mumbai, which also asks if women have to be Western to get into textbooks of feminist art. Artists covered include figures such as He ChengyaoKim SoojaYayoi KusamaNalini MaliniShirin Neshat, and Tracey Rose.

The first two weeks of GWSS 290 provides a grounding in basic questions such as “what is feminism,” “what is art,” and “what is feminist art,” followed by a history of the movements that have exposed prejudices in the art world, exploding canons of modern and contemporary art and of Western feminist art itself. After that, each week of the course presents a case study (China, India, Iran, Japan, Pakistan, South Africa). Students are introduced to debates about gender, nation, and artistic representation located in the history and politics of a particular place. With this important lens for understanding the context of an artist’s work, we then explore the work of 2-3 key artists and the configurations of power, gender, and sexuality they question through their aesthetic experiments and interventions. A final unit on transnational diasporic artists will unsettle the place-based framework of the course and push students to question national and cultural as well as gender boundaries.

While this is a lecture-based course, close-looking exercises in the classroom are designed to sharpen students’ visual analysis skills and spark discussion. The weekly units encourage students to reflect upon the cultural construction of gender and sexuality in a way that deepens their awareness of world politics, and to ask how various artists and artworks shift their understanding of both feminism and art. Students learn basic methods of anthropological and art historical research, and practice an interdisciplinary approach through course assignments, which guide them to analyze visual form together with the social, political, and economic dimensions of art objects.

The course is organized in conjunction with an international conference, New Geographies of Feminist Art: China, Asia, and the World, which will be held at the University of Washington in November. It is timed to coincide with Elles, a major exhibit of feminist art originally installed at the Centre Pompidou in Paris, which will be at the Seattle Art Museum (SAM) from October 2012 to January 2013. Combining scholarly presentations with artists’ and curators’ roundtables, this conference examines the practice, circulation, and cross-cultural significance of contemporary feminist art from Asia. This unique opportunity will enable students to attend talks by four of the artists featured in the class: Navjot (India), Zanele Muholi (South Africa), Hung Liu (from China, based in the U.S.), and Wu Mali (Taiwan). Students are required to attend and write a report about at least one conference lecture, panel, or roundtable, as well as one of the fall lineup of community events related to the conference. Three Friday sessions (held at the same time as the lecture, 11:30-12:20) at the Henry Art Museum on campus will feature a talk by museum staff members about feminist collecting practices, an on-site exploration of a video installation that is part of the Elles exhibit, and an introduction to the Henry Study Center, where students can view and research works in the museum’s permanent collection. Guided exhibit tours of Elles at SAM and Social Order: Women Photographers from Iran, India, and Afghanistan at the Photo Center NW will also be organized on Fridays; according to their schedules, students can participate in these guided tours to fulfill the course requirement to attend at least one community event. (There will also be events at the Seattle Asian Art Museum and the Seattle Public Library, among many, many others.)

Assignments include: 1 short visual analysis paper, 1 midterm, 2 short reflections papers on: one conference session and one community event, 1 final paper/project researching an artist not included in the course syllabus that practices the interdisciplinary methodology presented by the course. The last paper/project will be posted in a digital database linked to the course website, so that students can share knowledge about the artists they examined, provide feedback to each other, and develop further connections between artists and generate future research questions. In learning how to build and post their project online, students also learn and practice basic digital scholarship skills.

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