The 1990s were a key decade in the production of feminist art in Halifax. In 1993, Saint Mary’s University Art Gallery exhibited Andrea Ward’s installation Hairstories. Gorge, an intermedia installation by Glynis Humphrey, made its debut at MSVU Art Gallery in 1996. Also in 1996, Suzanne Swannie’s Considering Two Small Forms, for Maja and Marta was presented at Anna Leonowens Gallery. Apart from illuminating body image issues and other details of women’s lives, these works hold in common a distinctive “aniconism”— the avoidance of figurative depictions of women’s bodies.
The purpose of exhibiting and publishing these three works together for the first time is to recover the significance of aniconism in feminist art produced by Haligonians during the 1990s.
Previously educated in Scandinavia as a textile artist, Suzanne Swannie enrolled at the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design in 1983, graduating with her MFA in 1986. Andrea Ward pursued MFA studies at NSCAD from 1989 to 1991. Glynis Humphrey joined the NSCAD MFA program in middle age, graduating in 1996. All three artists were exposed during their time at NSCAD to the legacy of the influential Anglo-American feminist Mary Kelly, who was an occasional visiting artist. Swannie, who at the time was raising two small daughters on her own, actually met Kelly, and supported Kelly’s audacity in presenting motherhood as a learned and difficult adjustment, rather than an instinctive fulfillment of destiny.
In 1981, Mary Kelly taught and exhibited her path-breaking work, Post-Partum Document (1973-1979), at the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design. In this first major work of her career, Kelly represented the invisible daily experience of women engaged in domestic labour—specifically, the experience of raising her son from birth through the age of six. Post-Partum Document is composed of numerous glass-encased “exhibits” containing graphs, diagrams, typed texts, stained diaper cloth and the child’s drawings. None of its myriad details include images of the child or his mother.
In the 1970s, a feminist politics of representation (since revised) developed around the psychoanalytic concept of the spectatorial gaze in the cinema, in which it was thought that spectatorship was gendered male. In such a situation, a woman can only appear as an image, with man as the bearer of the look; thus the woman’s appearance as an image inevitably signifies the man’s desire. (The visual pleasure afforded by the gaze is called scopophilia, or in more extreme cases, voyeurism.) Many feminist artists, in an effort to transform woman from object to subject of the gaze, decided to represent women by means other than figuration, using surrogates such as clothing and texts to avoid provoking a voyeuristic response.
The variety of these distantiation tactics is the principal focus of An Intimate Distance. The feminist scholar Abigail Solomon-Godeau has commented “…it is striking how inventive and resourceful artists have been in conceiving forms that do address issues of women’s subjectivity, but do not replicate dominant visual economies.” The reclining, tutu-clad TV monitors of Gorge, for example, propose the grotesque self-portrait of a woman of appetite. The woman’s pleasure in eating, demonstrated by on-screen close-ups of food being attacked by utensils, has endowed her with a bodily presence that defeats the attempted camouflage of feminine masquerade.
In Hairstories (1989-1993), Andrea Ward continues the style of Mary Kelly’s scripto-visual aniconism. The work is composed of 41 panels containing hair samples and statements obtained from women interviewed by the artist. The suite represents subjects of various ages, ethnicities and sexual orientations, each of whom is identified only by her birthdate. Richly framed in mahogany and encapsulated between sheets of glass, the “artefacts” of women’s hair-related memories are presented with clinical precision. Mounted on the wall or in hand-built mahogany cabinets, the panels also display instances of aesthetic extravagance, as when Ward substitutes hand-painted facsimiles for colour snapshots contributed by her anonymous subjects.
Considering Two Small Forms, for Maja and Marta (1995) is the most abstract of the works in the exhibition. Composed of 600 pieces of paper, it addresses two constraints on figurative depictions: the voluntary avoidance of it among Second-Wave feminists, and the Muslim religious proscription in force among ethnic Malays in Shah Alam, Malaysia, where Swannie made the work during a teaching residency. The work celebrates the accession to adulthood of the artist’s daughters by schematically documenting their physical growth from the ages of five through twenty-one. Each girl is represented in four stages of growth composed of dress pattern pieces arranged over four vertical strips of paper standing in for her figure. Analogies with Post-Partum Document are evident, yet Swannie’s work eschews even printed language in an effort to accommodate her Malaysian hosts.
Each work in An Intimate Distance contains multiple components. Apart from the intensely personal subject matter, such visual complexity both compels and sustains spectators’ engagement. As befits their well-educated creators, the works in An Intimate Distance are rigorously informed by theory. What makes them unique and uniquely instructive compared with contemporaneous feminist art is their poignancy, humour and poetic appeals to the imagination.