By Stan Ziv
On Saturday, an estimated 200,000 people will gather for the Women’s March in Washington D.C. (and millions of others in more than 600 sister marches around the world) to protest the new Groper In Chief. But the marches—which are also an expression of solidarity and a promise to fight for the rights, health and safety of women and all groups—will not be limited to bodies in the street.
What women and their allies do with their feet, their voices and their signs on Saturday, artists are also doing with their work. The prospect of Trump’s inauguration and the political and social climate of the 2016 presidential election have spurred exhibits like “Nasty Women,” which ran at the Knockdown Center in Queens from January 12 to 15 and additional “Nasty Women” shows happening now and scheduled in the coming months at “other nasty venues” in the U.S. and abroad. Another exhibit, “Uprise/Angry Women,” opened Tuesday at The Untitled Space in Manhattan. These shows are not only an expression of protest and solidarity, but also fundraisers for organizations like Planned Parenthood and the ERA Coalition.
Indira Cesarine sits at a table at the back of the bright white gallery the week before the opening of “Uprise/Angry Women,” artwork in boxes up front waiting to be unveiled and hung. The morning after the election, she says she and her staff gathered tearfully around a computer to watch Clinton’s concession speech. They’d been following the campaigns, and Trump’s recurring sexism and aggression toward women, with dismay.
“From his attitude towards women’s looks and what makes a woman beautiful to his ‘nasty woman’ comment about Hillary Clinton, to his prerogative of thinking he can grab pussies because he’s successful or that women should be punished for having abortions. Just the collective of everything he’s said. And then Mike Pence as well,” Cesarine says. “All these people that voted him in… clearly think it’s okay. Isn’t it amazing that that’s been accepted in our country?”
When she woke up on November 9 to the news that Trump had prevailed over Clinton, “I was just in shock, and I felt like immediately my response was, I want to create and exhibit and give a platform to female artists around America to respond to this,” says Cesarine, a photographer and artist who founded The Untitled Space in 2014 as a platform for women in art and to promote feminist art as a genre. “Art can be an act of protest in itself. It can be a catalyst for change. It can inspire people, empower people.”
Though The Untitled Space has previously hosted exhibits of women’s art—like “The ‘F’ Word: Feminism in Art” and “In the Raw: The Female Gaze on the Nude”—this would be the first overtly political one, organized explicitly in response not only to Trump’s impending presidency but also to the political environment in which his candidacy was rooted. This would also be the gallery’s first show curated via an open submissions process. Cesarine put out a call on The Untitled Space’s website and on Facebook and quickly received a deluge of submissions. She chose 80 works out of more than 1,800 that poured in from all over the country and even abroad; from teenagers and from established artists; from immigrants from Russia, Brazil and elsewhere; from disabled women and cancer survivors.
When putting the show together, Cesarine started with the title “Angry Women,” to reflect her own emotional state and that of many other women around the country. Beyond that, it’s “really about challenging the stereotype of a powerful woman as being nasty or angry or bitchy,” she says. “It’s okay to be angry about these issues … to encourage artists to embrace their anger and channel that energy to make great art and empower others with their art.” A couple weeks later, she added the other half of the title, “Uprise,” because it’s “also about how empowering it can be for women to work together with a unified front, confronting and challenging these sort of social political issues that we’re all grappling with and emphasizing solidarity.” A quarter of the proceeds from the sale of the art—which ranges in price from $100 to over $10,000—will go to the ERA Coalition’s Fund for Women’s Equality.
People overflowed out of the small gallery onto the rainy sidewalk Tuesday evening for Uprise's opening reception. The warmth of the crowd in the gallery cast a fog on the broad windows. A few of the featured paintings, drawings, sculptures and mixed media works depict Trump, while others target broader issues including sexism, sexual assault, rape culture, reproductive rights and diversity. Most were created in the months since Trump became president-elect, but a handful are older. The works are brazen, with a fearlessness that seems to antagonize any notion that progressive values are soft and precludes any expectation that their holders will be silenced.
Several pieces feature the middle finger, including Rebecca Leveille’s “November Fucking 2016” and Lauren Rinaldi’s “So Many Fucks to Give,” a waist-to-upper-lip drawing of a nude woman holding her middle fingers over her nipples. There are also plenty of pussies. Daniela Raytchev’s “Liberty” depicts the head of the Statue of Liberty rendered in pink with a vagina for a face. Fehren Feingold’s “My Pussy to Grab” is a striking watercolor of a woman staring at the viewer while holding her crotch with one hand. Some works deploy caustic sarcasm—like Shawnette George’s “Fuck Boy Repellant,” a large canvas featuring a spray can with the tagline, “One spray keeps the Fuck Boys away!”—while others are minimal and somber—like Alyson Provax’s “Untitled,” a tiny, simple work that reads in black print on a white background, “I thought it would be different by now.” Cesarine contributed two works of her own: “Protest,” a large oil painting depicting in shades of gray a group of angry women marching, and “Fuck Off,” a neon pink light sculpture that spells out those words.
The “Uprise/Angry Women” artist-slash-curator is hardly the only one to channel her response, to a sexist bully and his entourage taking over the White House, through visual art or to use it to raise money for organizations that support women’s rights. Immediately following Trump’s victory, independent artists like Leah Goreen, Shawna X and Natalie Somekh announced that proceeds from the sale of certain prints and photographs would benefit Planned Parenthood. The National Museum of Women in the Arts in Washington D.C. will hold a special “Nasty Women” tour this Sunday. And like Cesarine, Jessamyn Fiore, a curator, and her friend Roxanne Jackson, a ceramic artist, decided just days after the election to put together an exhibit.
It began with a Facebook post that read, “Hello female artists/curators! Lets [sic] organize a NASTY WOMEN group show!!! Who's interested???” It garnered hundreds of responses. The co-directors of the “Nasty Women” exhibit secured the Knockdown Center in Queens, where Fiore is on the curatorial advisory board, for the weekend before Trump’s inauguration and decided they would accept submissions from any woman as long is the pieces adhered to size guidelines and got to the organizers in time. Every work would cost $100 or less and 100 percent of the proceeds would go to Planned Parenthood.
They received submissions from girls and women ages five to 80 from all over the country, including many from red states. They assembled a team and constructed 10 giant letters twice the height of an average adult to spell out “NASTY WOMEN.” The artwork, including paintings, drawings, sculptures and videos, was displayed on the letters. Over the course of a Thursday-to-Sunday run from January 12 to 15—which also included musical performances, sign-making workshops, panels and a resource fair—they sold out all the artwork and raised more than $42,000.
“Sometimes when I start on a project, I think, ‘Well what do I want?’” Fiore says. “Before this inauguration and march,” she thought, “I would like to go to something where I have this experience of connecting with people, so that I’m fortified to face what’s ahead.” And indeed, she told Newsweek on Monday, sitting down for the first time since finishing the de-install, “I got dose of positivity and connection. I’m going to hold on to that.”
In addition to submissions for the Queens show, Fiore and her team got a slew of people inquiring about whether they would tour the exhibit to other locations. So they set up a simple system to allow others to organize their own iterations. They would share their graphics, language and website and promote any self-organized “Nasty Women” exhibit as long as it was a fundraiser for an organization that supports women’s rights and the organizers made an effort to have as diverse a group of artists represented as possible. The long list of shows at “other nasty venues” includes Detroit, San Diego, Charleston, Phoenix, Memphis, Lubbock, Lexington, Portland and San Francisco, as well as Melbourne, Lisbon, Cambridge and Amsterdam.
“Doing a project like this made it very real that we’re not alone. In particular there’s women all over this country… willing to stand up and fight for their rights,” Fiore says. By creating a piece of artwork to contribute to the “Nasty Women” exhibit in Queens or one of the many popping up elsewhere, they are each “adding a very loud clear voice to a choir that’s saying, ‘Hell no!’”
These are some of the first instances since Trump’s election of women using visual art to to protest the incoming administration. And with reports on Thursday that the new president could cut funding for initiatives to end violence against women and eliminate the National Endowment for the Arts—along with his previous promises to appoint an anti-abortion judges and the fact that he’s surrounded himself with people like Mike Pence, whose record on women’s rights and LGBT issues is horrendous—such work only seems more urgent.
The visual art and other protests must continue, Fiore says. “The times are such that this now has to be a part of everyday life.”