Women (not zombies) take over SAM: Elles exhibit pairs spectacular art with cynical marketing

Japanese artist Yaoyi Kusama’s hallucinatory work is featured in the Elles: SAM exhibit. (Yoyi Kusama, Yellow tree/Living Room, 2010, seen at Aichi Triennale at Nayabashi Venue)

Oh my god! Run! Women are taking over the Seattle Art Museum!

SAM is currently running two related exhibitions devoted to female artists from around the globe.

The first Elles: Women Artists from the Centre Pompidou, Paris is a selection of the 200 works that were exhibited at Centre Pompidou in France since 2009. This is a major event for SAM, not only because this is the exhibit’s only stop in the United States, but it is the first time SAM has de-installed its permanent exhibit since the day it moved downtown 2007. Huge!

Bringing a show like this to town is no simple endeavor. It took the Centre Pompidou years to put the original exhibition together and it took SAM two years to organize to bring it to Seattle.

So hats off to the SAM’s staff. To see SAM’s physical space in a new light, filled with the art that is all by women artists is amazing. I enjoyed seeing works by O’Keeffe, Guerrilla Girls, Khalo and learning about works of numerous artists I did not know.

But there were a few parts of the show that cast a shadow on my ability to be fully taken by the work: The language used throughout the exhibitions and in marketing materials, and the lack of global diversity in the selection of artists represented.

French Artist Suzanne Valadon’s The Blue Room (La chambre bleue), 1923, Suzanne Valadon, Centre Georges Pompidou, Musée national d’art moderne, Paris.

The second exhibition, Elles: SAM is a compilation of works by women artists from SAM’s existing collection, presented chronologically through time.

Let me start my critique here and with the official title of this exhibit: Singular Works by Seminal Women Artists. Hmmm. Ok. What is up with this title? Seriously? Seminal?

At the risk of citing the Webster’s dictionary definition of something, ahem: Webster’s dictionary defines seminal as “of, relating to, or consisting of seed or semen” and “containing or contributing the seeds of later development.”

Both definitions are problematic. First, why is SAM referring to women’s work as consisting of semen?

If I’m supposed to focus on the second definition, then why is SAM viewing the female artists’ work that they have included as the seeds rather than works that could stand alone as fully grown trees? The role of women as mothers who contribute to the development of others, is yet another stereotype of what women are expected to do. They cannot just stand alone as women without reference to men or maternity.

Within this exhibit there was a painting by Egyptian artist Ghada Amer, an incredible collection of works by Japanese artist Yayoi Kusama, and a couple of paintings from Georgia O’Keeffe, including one titled Cow’s Skull on Red.

Once you get past the name of the exhibition and the constant reference to the artists’ famous artist husbands, there’s plenty to enjoy in the show.

American Artist Martha Roslers Semiotics of the Kitchen, 1975

Then there is Elles: Pompidou. This exhibit includes 30 women artists, but only seven are women of color: Frida Kahlo (Mexico), Tanaka Atsuko (Japan), Sonia Andrade (Brasil), Mona Hatoum (Palestine- although at the exhibition she is referenced to Lebanon), Ana Mendieta (Cuban-American), Marlene Dumas (South Africa), and Tania Bruguera (Cuba).

Of these seven artists, four live either primarily in the West or between their home countries and a western country. Just sayin’.

The public marketing campaign for Elles is also curious.

The exhibition’s main catch phrase is “Women Take Over.” All I could think of was some kind of terrifying zombies taking over Seattle. Why is the phrasing violent, why is women’s representation often seen as a scary or bad thing?

Another issue is that the TV ad and banners around the museum refer to the artists by their first name; why are we taking these women so casually by calling them by their first name? How should we know who Suzanne or Dora are? I would know who Valadon or Maar are. We would never refer to male artists from the modern era by their first names: Gustav or Robert.

French artist Niki de Saint-Phalle’s Crucifixion, 1965, Centre Georges Pompidou, Musée national d’art moderne, Paris. © 2012 Niki Charitable Art Foundation

Don’t get me wrong. I do think it is important to have an exhibit dedicated to women artists.

But I also think that it is important to take extra time to make sure the language used to describe and contextualize the work don’t undermine it or incite fear that by dedicating one exhibit in history to women would result in an all out woman-take-over.

Anyhow, during the next few months, as the Elles exhibits is running at SAM, there are a number of related community events happening around town. My recommendations are to attend Amelia Jones’ presentation on October 24th at SAM Downtown, and a presentation by the artists Wu Mali (Taiwan) and Navjot (India) November 14th at SAAM (Seattle Asian Art Museum).

Also, there is the international conference called New Geographies of Feminist Art: China, Asia + the World, organized by my department at the University of Washington from November 15th through 17th. This conference on the UW Seattle campus is open to the public with no fee. It promises to be great!


Elles:Pompidou runs until January 13th and Elles:SAM runs until February 7th.