Sisterhood, Then and Now

Fierce artists grasp history with clear-eyed tenacity; that is their convergence

History repeats itself. And in the meantime, memories dim and attention spans shorten. Lulled by the hopeful, or perhaps hopeless, invocation of the end of progress, many bathe in the accomplishments of those who came before. Or simply cash in for the quick fix, or quick pick–that lottery of private fulfillment.

Neither Nancy Spero nor Mary Kelly has. As their current exhibitions convey, these fierce artists grasp history with clear-eyed tenacity. Each from a different generation and strategic position, both insist that we see where we’ve been and where we are going.

Kelly restages photographs from her own archive, casting younger artists as women’s movement activists of the 1970s. She makes women glow in “Flashing Nipple Remix,” reversing the spectacle of cameras documenting street theater protests against the 1971 Miss World Pageant in London. “WLM Demo Remix,” a 90-second film loop, dissolves an archival image of a 1970 women’s liberation demonstration into a current reenactment of the event. Keen to current politics, Kelly recasts the central figure, an African-American woman in 1970, as an Arab American in the 2005 image. Perhaps too subtle for those who are not savvy to the ambiguities of race construction, it’s a sound move that speaks directly to the moment. Arms locked in a wall of “sister power,” Kelly skillfully primes a new generation of women with an actual performance of solidarity.

In “Sisterhood is POW,” Kelly reflects on her own participation in the Miss World protest, producing a multi-paneled text that spans three walls. Its hollowed and back-lit script recalls and exclaims the events and conditions of the day, “… nil for Miss Used, Miss Laid, Miss Taken…”

Both Kelly and Spero wrap the interior of their respective galleries with a text, building critical revisions against a seemingly fixed wall of history; the two are linked by the reiteration of this device.

Using architecture to connote the construction of patriarchal history is a tactic that Nancy Spero has employed expertly for decades. She has infiltrated institutional spaces with her female protagonists, impressing the walls with the exuberance of strong women plucked from a broad expanse of visual culture. Her pictorial texts prove the brilliance of women who will not be silenced. “Cri du Coeur,” is another instance in a long and rich body of work that blasts full voice with the least of means—paper, ink, and placement.

In this installation Spero employs ancient Egyptian female mourners from the tomb of Ramos of Thebes in a contemporary lament of war and death. Following this continuous frieze, grounded along the floor, visitors plunge into a dense, accumulated murk. Low, and lean, the work commands a somber entrance, and then builds to elicit a shrieking grief. One is moved to pace the circumference of the room, and in doing so faces the mourners, drawn in profile, again and again. Waves of tightly packed choruses, with their arms outstretched, poke into the vast expanse of the walls above.

Spero twists and mauls the ink into a transfer of color that lightens and intensifies. She pulls out of blacks and blues, to bruise yellows, blood reds, and searing greens. And before she turns full circle, around the room, drains all color to reveal the tender paper support. She cuts and reconfigures, scumbles and scuffs through a chaos that hacks to the quick. Spero speaks of a loss both personal and ancient, pressing us to contemplate current events, from Katrina, to Baghdad, to the death of her longtime partner Leon Golub. “Sisterhood is POW,” says Kelly. It is the piercing wail of Spero’s mourners, and the chant of young women on the street. Another century of work is at hand. And as ever, it must be accomplished full voice in different dialects. Just as once the strategies these two artists employ might have seemed at odds, so now we must consider where they converge. If not, sisterhood may simply be a P.O.W.

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