who’s afraid of feminist archives?

June 15, 2023 – July 15, 2023
Pen and Brush, 29 East 22nd Street, New York, NY 10010

This exhibition curated by Monika Fabijanska in collaboration with Helena Shaskevich shows the role of feminist communities where mutual support made it possible for women to become artists in the 1970s New York. Accompanying The Feminist Institute Memory Lab, it presents the importance of feminist archives, the preservation of which is a matter of emergency art history. They hold stories of women who, unable to support a studio practice or even dream about a gallery representation, came together in various communities and created environments to make and show their art.

For artists like Betsy Damon, Dindga McCannon, Joan Logue, and Pat Lehman, community was crucial for survival and making art: a lesbian artists community, a Black women community, or that of women video- and filmmakers. Their agendas varied significantly, yet all had the same common aim: the empowerment of women.

Betsy Damon (b. 1940) in the 1970s was an artist, a lesbian, and a mother—fighting for the recognition that all three can co-exist, and often feeling lonely even among her feminist community. A leader among lesbian activists in New York, Damon co-edited the third issue of Heresies, Lesbian Art and Artists (1977), participated in the first lesbian art show in the U.S., curated by Harmony Hammond at 112 Workshop Inc. at 112 Greene Street (1978), and The Great American Lesbian Art Show at the Woman’s Building in Los Angeles (1980). Damon’s eight performances, created between 1977 and 1989, were presented outdoors in the streets of New York and other cities or at alternative women art spaces. Damon also took them to political events—UN World Conference on Women in Copehnagen (1980) and Nairobi (1985). She created most of them in collaboration with her lesbian friends or in workshops with groups of women.

For Dindga McCannon (b. 1947), who went to study at the Art Students League of New York with Harlem Renaissance artists to steer away from questions why she paints Black people, racism was a more pressing issue than sexism. Yet, a founding member of the Weusi Artist Collective and one of its only two women found herself lonely and without a support network to be able to continue making art when she became pregnant. In 1971, together with Kay Brown and Faith Ringgold, she organized and hosted in her apartment the first meeting of “Where We At:” Black Women Artists. Their 1971 exhibition at the Acts of Art Gallery in Greenwich Village was the first Black women’s professional artists show in New York, preceded only by the 1970 exhibition at the Gallery 32 in Los Angeles. The WWA artists exhibited together, supported each other economically, took turns babysitting, explored the unity of the Black family, the ideal of the Black male-female relationships, African traditions, and collaborated with male artists on several projects.

Organizing screenings at The Kitchen, an electronic art pioneer Steina Vasulka (b. 1940) noticed that women video makers were underrepresented, and approached documentary filmmaker Susan Milano to organize a festival of their videotapes. The first Women’s Video Festival at The Kitchen in 1972 featured works by individual artists, including Milano, Shigeko Kubota, and Elsa Tambellini, as well as grassroot collectives and guerrilla community groups. The festival, presented at the Women’s Interart Center since 1975, ran until 1980. Women’s videos ranged from early electronic and computer experiments to documentary films exploring various themes, such as abortion, lesbian motherhood, and the life of transgender people. The medium itself provided for creating archives of various artistic and social communities of the time.

Feminist communities can be strikingly varied, and it is only possible to tell their histories based on archives and oral history. Each artist’s archive is a portal to a larger artistic community, and their cultural, intellectual, and socio-political conditions.

The Feminist Institute’s primary goal to increase access to feminist materials and empower individuals to preserve their analog and digital legacies by offering our archival services to the public.