This year, NYSCA honors the New York State Women’s Suffrage Centennial. Through our Regional Economic Development Council initiative, we have provided FY2017 grants to organizations commemorating the occasion through their programs. In addition, on this blog, we will regularly pay tribute to grantees who honor the Centennial and showcase the impact of women in New York State arts and culture.
For our latest Women in NY Culture feature, we spoke with DJ Hellerman, Curator of Art and Programs at the Everson Museum of Art, about the exhibition Seen and Heard: An Active Commemoration of Women’s Suffrage. Through NYSCA’s REDC initiative, the Everson received funding to create this summer exhibition commemorating the 100th anniversary of the passage of women’s suffrage in New York State. Seen and Heard explores the use of the arts as a catalyst for social change and features the work of nine contemporary artists as well as several works from the Everson’s collection. By presenting Seen and Heard, the Museum hopes to empower citizens to participate in the local democratic process by sharing their unique perspectives, to create positive change, and to demonstrate the role of the Everson as a community resource for activism through the arts.
Located in Syracuse, the Everson houses 11,000 works of American art – including one of the largest ceramics collections in the U.S. – in an I.M. Pei-designed building. In addition to NYSCA’s REDC initiative, the museum receives support through our Museum and Electronic Media & Film Programs.
NYSCA: Why did the Everson Museum choose to focus on the Women’s Suffrage Centennial to create Seen and Heard?
DH: What a great opportunity to focus on political representation. Women’s Suffrage is an important part of New York’s history and its impact is not confined to the past. We decided to do a commemoration because the Suffrage ethos is still active in Central New York.
NYSCA: Why include contemporary artists, and why these artists in particular?
DH: It was important for us to work with artists actively engaged in issues of representation and visibility at this moment.
The artists in the exhibition bring a wide range of life experiences and bring many different perspectives to the show. Those experiences become content in the artwork and give us the opportunity to have intergenerational conversations about some of the most important issues of our time. We also included artworks from our permanent collection as a way to provide an historical grounding for some of the issues each artist is addressing.
NYSCA: What issues does the exhibition address, and how?
DH: Women’s issues, of course, primarily the ongoing fight for equal rights and representation for women, but also ideas about women’s bodies. The exhibition also addresses issues of racism, colonialization, imperialism, and capitalism. In different ways, these are all –isms that systematically oppress an individual’s freedom.
The exhibition shows the arts as a catalyst for social change by urging viewers to wake up and pay attention. We aim to spark ideas, and nudge people into action.
NYSCA: Can you describe a few of the pieces in the exhibition that exemplify its goals?
DH: Lionel Cruet depicts the interactive nature of the environment using digital printing, performance, and installations. Cruet’s At the End of Daybreak centers on a massive semi-translucent cube. Video projections throughout the gallery show an erupting volcano, which spews lava and bursting fire—all natural phenomena that have the potential to create new geological formations. The title of the installation refers to Cahier d’un retour au pays natal (1939), translated as Notebook of a Return to the Native Land, a book-length poem by Martinican writer Amié Césaire. A Speculative Atlas of the Caribbean is a photo installation from Cruet’s growing archive of images that explore the tensions and contradictions inherent to those with social and political power.
Mildred Beltré is a multi-disciplinary artist interested in grassroots, social justice political movements, their associated participants, structures, and how those ideas affect social relations. Her work for Seen and Heard centers around non-hierarchical, prefigurative politics. In creating banners featuring provocative imagery and playful double entrendrés, Beltré uses humor to ask what it means to want to create a world free of sexist, racist, capitalist, and imperialist subjectivity and what it takes to make revolution desirable. For Beltré, social change requires putting one’s own body on the line, having “skin in the game” as well as laughter, warmth, and human connection.
Jessica Posner is a feminist artist who creates experiences, objects, images, and language in response to cultural, historical, and structural violence against female subjects. Since moving to Syracuse in 2013, Posner has used butter—a product she associates with the populist butter sculptures of the New York State Fair—as a metaphor for a delicious, fleshy, and slippery body politic. VENUS is a life-sized reinterpretation of the Venus of Willendorf, a four and a half inch tall figurine carved between 28,000 and 24,000 BCE. Posner’s VENUS, a large fleshy female form whose womanliness is accentuated even more due to her size, is totemic and powerful, commanding attention and respect. At the same time, Posner incorporates her typical blend of ironic humor: the figure, carved from Styrofoam, is covered in a butter and beeswax mixture she developed by watching YouTube videos of Tibetan monks making sacred butter sculptures integral to their religious practices.
NYSCA: What do you most hope visitors will take away from the exhibition?
DH: We’ve got a lot of work to do. And, that work happens together.