By Cecilia Nowell
Definitions around gender have shifted dramatically in recent years. Grammar aficionados have duked it out over the singular they and dictionaries have made space for words like “trans*” and “Mx.”
“Women’s Work: Art & Activism in the 21st Century,” which opens this Wednesday at Pen + Brush, takes the idea of definitions as a starting place, but goes much further.
The show challenges ideas of women’s work in the home and beyond, starting with the Oxford English Dictionary’s definition of women’s work as ‘traditionally and historically undertaken by women, especially tasks of a domestic nature such as cooking, needlework, and child rearing.’”
“Despite the last century of groundbreaking, audacious change and catalysts, the dictionary still hasn’t caught up to us,” curator Grace Aneiza Ali writes in the exhibit’s accompanying publication.
The artists featured in the show come from varied backgrounds, but ask similar questions about the roles of women as mothers, daughters, creators, activists, artists, and leaders.
Iraq-born Sama Alshaibi grapples with the aftermath of war and exile and reimagines the work of women through her gumoil-on-cotton prints of women carrying water, milk, or crowns on their heads.
Meanwhile, Cuban-born, U.S.-based María Magdalena Campos-Pons looks at women’s work as a space for healing in her 10-by-6.5 foot “Angel’s Trumpets, Devil’s Bells.”
Born in Guyana and of Indian descent, Suchitra Mattai follows the stories of women in the Indian diaspora, studying the work women do to create a sense of home away from home by placing portraits of women against colorful, archived backgrounds.
Likewise, Miora Rajaonary pays special attention to the ways in which her art represents women of her ancestry. As a Malagasy photographer now based in South Africa, Rajaonary focuses on representing the women and culture of her native Madagascar.
And, through layered black-and-white photographs, Ming Smith finds representations of women and the African diaspora in Egypt.
Pen + Brush is an appropriate space to host “Women’s Work.” Twenty-six years before the 19th amendment gave women the right to vote, New York painter Janet Lewis wrote a letter to her friends proposing a women’s art and literature society. The “Pen and Brush” organization held its first official meeting on March 29, 1894. Now an international nonprofit advocating for gender equity in the arts, it’s celebrating its 125th anniversary this year.
In the Pen + Brush spirit of women’s involvement in activism, politics, and art, Ali reflected on the the 2017 Women’s March as a sampling of women’s work: “What we heard in the language of protest, from the speakers on the stage to the masses in attendance, was a collective reminder that women’s work is rooted in activism, in justice, in service, and in resistance.”