Adelaide has sporadic explosions of open, dynamic engagement with philosophical and social issues through pop culture. Sometimes a little agitation is necessary to nudge the creaking cultural framework and provoke more intense, critical conversations, particularly regarding complicated navigations of contemporary feminism. The invocation by a curator of pop superstar Beyoncé Knowles-Carter and her music as an apparatus for artists’ examination and expression of their experiences of feminism provides a spark of humour and unashamed delight for the artists and the audience alike. Music, in any genre, triggers immediate sensation in audiences and captures emotive articulations of the lived experience. Beyoncé’s pop music, for all of its faults, creates moments of enjoyment and abandonment in which neither sex nor ego are dirty words, and sentiments that contradict the status quo are belted out with enthusiasm as lyrics grow to be anthems – ‘‘Who run the world? Girls!’’
However, the exhibition title’s proposition Beyoncé is a Feminist may strike a discordant note over the appositeness of Beyoncé’s position as a feminist icon. She is one of the most admired and powerful pop singers of this generation, a global brand, a sex-positive pop idol, and one of frustratingly few female stars to openly call herself a feminist. Few public figures will openly recognise that equality remains a fiction and affirmations of feminism remain dangerous; witness the fate of former Prime Minister Julia Gillard whose speech concerning misogyny struck a divisive chord in Australia. The open castigation of contemporary feminists reflects a predictable cynicism, and scrutiny of the veracity of those whose lifestyles and decisions reflect the often contradictory and difficult lives of contemporary women but remain incompatible with a narrow understanding of feminism.
Curator Brigid Noone has summoned Beyoncé’s influence to create a space in which both overt and understated manifestations of feminist thought and action are articulated in the expressions of artists from the broad church of feminism. The multifaceted voices in the exhibition expose diverse acknowledgements of gender equality as an on-going struggle complicated by sex, race and capital which is often marred by anxiety about the conventions of feminism and its uneasy histories. A feminist is far more than an advocate and supporter of rights and equality for women, and the parameters of contemporary feminism are indistinct and complex. Approaches differ across generations and communities and issues of intersectionality and constancy compound the divergences across the spectrum. Mirning woman Ali Gumillya Baker’s Black Fleet (2013) from the series Bow down Sovereign Goddess articulates an urge to acknowledge the impact of racist institutions and practices upon Indigenous women in this country and query the extent of the efforts made by white feminists to work for the freedom of all women.
Anxiety about the inclusivity and arbitrary standards of contemporary feminism are echoed in Meghann Wilson’s The Capital F Means I’m ‘Fraid of That (Bow Down) 2013, and Simon Gray’s Chartbuster still images of feminist figures (Judith Butler, Mary Wollstonecraft, Lena Dunham et. al.) are emblazoned with Beyoncé’s lyrics. Several featured artists similarly explored the manipulation of Beyoncé’s image in a fitting critique of the furore of the singer’s formidable control over her image and its proliferation on the internet. Sasha Grbich’s conversation work and Sera Waters/Cheryl Hutchens’ I AM/WE ARE, (both 2013), reveal the extent to which the exhibition created opportunities for the participating artists to reflect with their own mothers, other women and amongst each other about the shape and the roles of feminism in their lives. These works acknowledge feminism as an often unpopular, on-going struggle, complicated by the different pathways taken by individuals toward the unsettled issue of gender equality.
There is no definitive acid test for a contemporary feminist; the F-word is still a formidable invective that few will invoke for fear of association with tired stereotypes of an exclusionary and restrictive club. Meanwhile, Fontanelle provocatively asks questions that often evoke uncomfortable answers, exposing a fierce engagement that is anathema to passive spectatorship.
Jennifer Kalionis is an Adelaide based arts writer and PhD candidate at the University of Adelaide.
Beyoncé is a Feminist, curated by Brigid Noone, was at Fontanelle Gallery in Adelaide 7 July – 11 August 2013. www.fontanelle.com.au