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Terrains of the Body: Photography from the National Museum of Women in the Arts at the Whitechapel Gallery

10 March 2017 | Annabel Wood

Whitechapel Gallery has teamed up with the National Museum of Women in the Arts to present Terrains of the Body. The photography exhibition explores various territories, both literal and metaphorical, through the female body. Founded in 1987 in Washington D.C, the National Museum of Women in the Arts remains the only museum to exhibit works solely by female artists from across the world, both past and present. The exhibition shows the work of 17 women photographers, originating from 5 continents. Although relatively small, it is a hugely diverse exhibition, boasting photographers as well as subjects of vastly different cultures, races and ages.

Wandering around the exhibition, I was immediately struck by the sheer number of stories that were being told through a single click of a camera lens. Since the feminist movement of the 1960’s and 70’s, photography has become popular means of presenting the monumental and the everyday moments of being a woman. The photography in Terrains of the Body gives a voice to women as creators and subjects, rather than seeing them as a passive accessory, as history has done all too often. Anna Gaskell gives a voice to a group of pre-teen girls who act in her eerie video installation, Erasers (2005). By nature of the exhibition space, the video is heard on repeat, making the girls’ echoing voices all the more powerful and poignant. Meanwhile the photographer Mwangi Hutter tackles voice without a sound in Shades of Skin (2001). She communicates through her own fragmented and scarred female body, alluding to the trauma of colonialism.

Terrains of the Body focuses on the individual as well as looking at the broader picture. Some of the works focus on a particular woman in a seemingly hap-hazard moment, for instance Hellen Van Meene’s Untitled (2000), showing a woman staring into the distance, blowing a chewing gum bubble. No further significance other than the picture’s face value is suggested. It is photographs like these that reverse the artistic process, instead holding a mirror to the viewer. It questions how we, as individuals, interpret a photograph, exploring the wider perception of art as a whole. Therefore these seemingly simplistic compositions lead to large complicated questions. Other photographers however, such as Eve Sussman, collide the individual and the national with her photograph titled Icelandic Love Corporation (2000), attaching a wider cultural meaning to a single shot. In this sense, ‘Terrains of the Body’ is taken literally; the woman within the photograph is linked to a geographical terrain.


Icelandic Love Corporation Where Do We Go from Here? 2000 National Museum of Women in the Arts, Gift of Heather and Tony Podesta Collection, Washington, D.C. © The Icelandic Love Corporation Photo: Lee Stalsworth
 
The exhibition promises and delivers an honest female gaze of women of all ages from all walks of life. It gives a refreshing and rare perspective in a time when women are objectified in the majority of commercial photography. This is perhaps best summed up in Marina Abramovic’s photograph, taken from her video The Hero (2001). It shows Abramovic dressed in black sitting on a large white horse, holding a white flag; her face illuminated by the sun as she gazes into the distance. With this very focused and minimalistic composition, Abramovic presents the figure as an image of female strength. She is portrayed in a pose that has been considered more traditionally masculine, alluding to a battle or a sense of conflict. The photograph has echoes of Van Dyke’s Equestrian Portrait of Charles I (1637-8). Yet instead of being a man dressed in armour, ready for battle, she as a woman holds the flag of peace.


Marina Abramović The Hero 2001 National Museum of Women in the Arts, Gift of Heather and Tony Podesta Collection, Washington, D.C. © Marina Abramovic Archives Photo: Lee Stalsworth

Terrains of the Body is a stand, although a quiet one, against archaic attitudes that worryingly seem to be remerging. It is through artists; first and foremost women like these, that other women’s voices can be heard loud and clear. At this point in time, with a certain someone having arrived in the White House, women need to be heard now more than ever.
 
The exhibition is free and runs until 18 April 2017, to find out more information visit their website.
 
 
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