“Why Must Women Always Carry Banners” was the title given to a piece I had written in the 70’s for FILE magazine about a job interview I had gone to in New York City answering a call for ‘women with university degrees’. The interview turned out to be an explicit gauge of my potential for servicing visiting delegates to the United Nations in a massage parlour wanting women who could carry on intelligent conversations with their clients. Naïve, unaware and indignant, I felt the subject worthy of reportage. FILE, in adding the title, deemed it flag waving. The pseudo-name they put on the article was Ruth E. Culvert – a slight slur?

Women, as do others, raise flags when there is cause. The reason may be as simple as asserting that in the work place qualifications should not be overlooked in favour of gender. In fact as Wallis Simpson says in the recent production (at Vancouver’s The Cultch) of the play The Duchess by Linda Griffiths – “Being a woman wasn’t nearly enough for what I had in mind.”

When in the ART arena, for women, as for men, being an artist comes first and it is as an artist that we are determined to be regarded even when the subject matter addresses gender issues. Towards Emily Carr’s work there exists a perspective of scholarship, gender-undifferentiated. Her subject matter, unbiased, is historically portrayed with only slight reference to the allures and pitfalls of her femininity. Photographed in gender-neutral baggy clothes with a monkey as a companion we are fed a low gender profile. Yet as a younger woman, she had maintained una bella figura.

Georgia Okeefe was a striking woman. Her husband Alfred Steiglitz took photographs of her, some in the nude, that were lauded just before her first public exhibition as being extremely sexual. Subsequent reviews, latching onto the only information they had of Okeefe, called her work “sensual”. Horrified, she tried to correct this interpretation but she never escaped this slant upon her work and eventually accepted it as commentary rather than as contumely.

In 1975, Carolee Schneemann performed Interior Scroll, a performance documenting her conversation with an eminent critic who at first appeared interested in her work and then turned the conversation into an interest in her body. Read from a strip of rolled paper inserted in her vagina, this unfurled banner served as a red flag alerting the art world to gender inequality.

Judy Chicago’s seminal Dinner Party today is housed in The Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art at The Brooklyn Museum. Chicago used materials usually attributed to women’s work to build monumental and political pieces. An affirmed feminist and intellectual, she stepped up to the plate in a game traditionally held on a male dominated ball field.

Currently showing Not a Rose at Camille Galerie in Detroit Michigan from May 08 to June 05 Heide Hatry with her body related work continues to voice feminist concerns. She tackled women in the workplace in her video where Hatry, in office attire leaves home to squat on the way to work and lay a quick egg.

And then there’s the grand dame, Louise Bourgeois, who first had a retrospective exhibition at MOMA, NYC in 1982. In 1999, she won the Golden Lion at the Venice Biennale at age 88 and in 2008, The Guggenheim, NYC honoured her significant contribution with a solo exhibition. In front of The National Gallery of Canada there is her giant bronze spider, Maman. Her ‘at homes’, every Sunday afternoon in New York City were a privilege to visit, a small salon of six to eight artists who would air their work before this great feminist mentor with the curator and art critic Robert Storr presiding. I had the privilege of attending in 2004.

Canadian women too have been carrying banners. Joyce Wieland championed not only women’s crafts but also the Arctic as did Michaele Jordana Berman. Mary Pratt brought woman’s domestic realm into technicolour clarity. More recently, Allyson Mitchell’s female sasquatches and pink furry sculptures replete with vaginas and breasts have gained pride of place in art museums internationally.

Where are we at today? A recent survey of exhibitions in Vancouver and Seattle revealed a relational point of view to the issue of banner waving.

The Seattle Art Museum’s exhibition Indigenous Beauty reveals the elevated aesthetics of artists whose status as art maker was not separated from the intrinsic workings of the people, nor gender favored, but acted as living expression of spiritual, political and hierarchical beliefs. Many of the pieces were made by women, particularly baskets, ceramics and beaded works, with men being particular to the wood carvings. Yet recent findings that 70% of the murderers of indigenous women were committed by indigenous men show that in this traditionally matriarchal culture, women still must bear standards. ‘Raising the standard’ has more than one definition.

Belleview Arts Museum in Seattle shows Read My Pins from March 13 to June 07. Madeleine Albright, former Secretary of State, wore lapel pins when meeting with foreign diplomats signaling her approach to the negotiations at hand. For example, called ‘a snake’ by an Eastern leader, she’d ‘replied’ by wearing a snake pin on their next meeting affirming his
statement but adding that “he’d better watch his
next steps”.

Monte Clarke Gallery in Vancouver April 11 to May 09 showed Paper Forest by Karin Bubas. Having visited the terrain where Emily Carr had worked, Bubas, in homage, created large three dimensional photo works by printing multiple images from her negatives and then laser cutting to reconstruct them in lush depictions of raincoast forests. The press release cites the works “suggest a tone of isolation”. There is nothing overtly feminist in her stance but her link to Carr is note-worthy.

The gallery included additional works by Coleen Heslin – bold abstract imagery exerting a confident presence. Made by tie-dying cloth stitched seamlessly to form pristine flat ‘paintings’ Heslin resurrects Chicago’s legacy of reclaiming women’s work but disguising her method so that they read as muscly, assertive and more masculine than feminist. She hits from a mid-ground, baseline in a world where women strive for neutrality by assimilating their gender opposite.

Men advance under flags as well – conservative, traditional or rebel, but most often there is no need to unfurl, no cause to fight and seldom is it a gender issue unless it relates to LGBT rights. Women continue to wave banners because they are still bristling against unequal gender acknowledgement. Until they are no longer encountering lotharios, an ensign will flutter forward (Zappa’s freak flag flying) professing the authenticity of the female perspective. And just as Shari Boyle at the last Venice Biennale told the story of the mermaid acknowledging a
contextualization of silence, we must continue to
speak our language or it will be lost.