Memories from August: Women’s Voices in New York

This post covers my visit to the Brooklyn Museum in New York City, where I saw the art exhibit called the Last Dinner, created by Judy Chicago and many other women. To see additional photos from this visit, please click here.

I wrote this post in Hebrew for the international day emphasizing the fight against violence toward women. I chose to dedicate its translation to English to the International Day of the Woman, a day focused too many times on selling women clothes and buying them flowers, and less times about the lack of equality we still experience in Western society and all that has been done to create more equality.

Even now, in 2012, many women can’t travel, work or study without worrying about sexual assaults. Many women can’t come back from work without fear or easily choose to couchsurf because they’re afraid they might be raped. Even when they return home, many women still face violence: they are employed without pay in a place that, statistically, is the biggest source for physical and sexual abuse for them: their home.

Throughout history, women have been positioned as having two single roles: giving birth and providing for the needs of their men and children. Every attempt to rebel imprisoned them in categories of mental illness. The female body, perceived as animalistic yet without sexual capability, is subordinated to this very day, more so if that body fails to meet the physical standards set by men. The feminist movement discovers over and over relations between rape, physical violence toward women, prostitution, pornography and the oppression of women in society. Women who participated in awareness groups in the 1970s understood that it wasn’t only one of them who was attacked, who suffered due to her role as a mother or who felt inadequate, be it because of her weight or because of wrinkles. Yet in order to be recognized as a woman – certainly a woman of value, who can be promoted at work, create a romantic partnership and perhaps dream about the ability to look at herself in the mirror – she must play the game: be subordinate, beautiful according to the present preferable beauty ideal, choose a profession that will leave you in the social, political and financial margins – and stay quiet.

The US feminist artists of the 70s asked to define the female existence in terms free of the thought presented by male culture. Their project was double-layered and focused on what they perceived as the basis of the oppression: the female body. On one aspect of the project, the artists asked to reveal the oppressing representations of the body. On the other aspect, they asked to create new representations for the female body. Many of them centered in one studio, where they shared a life. Some women left families they had created to come live in such a studio and create art that would hopefully make difference. An example to that is The Dinner Party, known as Judy Chicago’s work. In actuality, it was created not only by Chicago, but by an additional hundred women and two or three men.

The Dinner Party dealt with male artistic representations of Jesus’ last supper, and symbolically invited thirty-nine women, who worked toward improving women’s lives throughout history, to “the party”. The “guests’” names were written beside plates designed to symbolize who they were and what they were about. 999 additional women were symbolically invited by writing their names at the center of the installation. On the table there are plates, glasses, tablecloth of embroidery. The techniques and products used in this installation are such which women used throughout history for their arts, yet their arts were considered inferior, mostly because women were those creating it. Through this project, women and their art forms were re-placed at the center of the cultural stage as having value in a historic legacy. It is one of the projects that asked to add herstory to history and make it ourstory.

Every illustration and decoration on the dinner table represents a woman and her accomplishments. Centered together, the women – represented by plates - create a timeless historic thread, one that never existed until then, and open the door to creating cultural connections between different periods of times when it comes to women’s lives, activities and dreams. This project was an important step toward creating a known and valued female tradition, that new artists could build on and develop from. At the same time, according to Josephine Withers*, the same plates that represent them represent how women were metaphorically eaten up by history and their life stories were lost from collective memory. The decorations of the project represent female sexual organs, blocked here by the walls of the plate as they symbolize the feminist project of the 1970s: exposing the female body representations men set and recreating them – while empowering the female sexuality that was presented as non-existent or at least not important, and while suffering true lack and limitation: not the lack of a physical organ we never asked for, but the lack of history and of visibility.

The Dinner Party was first presented in 1979 in San Francisco, California. Since then, the installation found a permanent home in the fourth floor of the fascinating Brooklyn Museum, located in the fascinating New York City. The installation is surrounded by other feminist art works at the Brooklyn Museum’s Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art. During my visit there in August, the section that tells about the artists of the project was closed. I joined a screening of the project, a movie in which the storytelling voice was Judy Chicago’s, and then I hurried to the show room in order to gain a moment alone with the exhibit before the rest of the viewers come in. I found myself spending a long time there, parts of it alone and parts of it with other people. Had my time in New York City not been that short, I would have likely stayed there even more. To stand that close to such an important installation of feminist history was very moving.

When you visit the exhibition, don’t forget to ask for the booklet that tells you about each of the women in “the party”. You can’t take the booklet home, yet you can take pictures. If you move against the clock’s direction (turn right when you enter), you’ll embark on a journey across time. First, you’ll reach the wing that represents women from prehistoric times up to classical Rome. The second wing in the triangle of the table will bring you together with women from early Christianity up to the reformation movement. On the third wing, you’ll meet women who lived from the American revolution up to the feminist revolution. It’s hard not to be awe-struck by the courage of so many women throughout so many years. If it weren’t for their struggles, we wouldn’t have a chance for a voice. As I turned to leave, I whispered “thank you”.

For more photos from this exhibition, click here.

* Withers, Josephine (1992). “Judy Chicago’s Dinner Party, A Personal Vision of Women’s History”, The Expanding Discourse, Feminism and Art History (edited by N. Broude and M. Garrard),Oxford.

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