expositions collectives

« Combative Acts, Profiles and Voices: An Exhibition of Women Artists from Paris »
AIR Gallery, New York
22 mai – 16 juin 1976


> Combative acts, profiles and voices – An exhibition of women artists from Paris, works by Bour, Hessie, Janicot, Maglione and collective work by Aballea, Blum, Croiset, Mimi and Yalter / intr. by Aline Dallier, catalogue d’exposition, New York, A.I.R. Gallery, 1976, introduction d’Aline Dallier, n.p.


/// Introduction by Aline Dallier

« We have no organized women artists movement in France. But last year a group of about thirty artists, students, and people of various trades and professions was formed. This group at once showed itself more concerned with issues covering a broad political spectrum than with a narrowly professional one. They criticized the stereotyped image of women which was being put forward by the press and UNESCO on the occasion of International Women’s Year. Since then the militants who were not particularly interested in art have split away from the artists. However, the group continues to think in terms of communication with women outside the artistic orbit and develops its collective criticism of the dominant ideology as it applies to women. It also tries to establish the responsibility each artist could assume in a feminist project on two levels, social and aesthetic.

Although the artists taking part in this exhibition are not all members of the group, it would be true to say that all are investigating the permanent relationship between the private and the political. It is this dialectic which I would like to illustrate at A.I.R. through two different kinds of work. One of these could be termed « textile » (though it might also include painting and graphics); the other could be termed « photographic » (and might include drawings and written texts).

The « textile » trend is, in spite of an apparent conformity to the past, connected with current women’s struggles. Bernadette Bour, Hessie, and Maglione belong to that generation of artists which reinvestigates soft materials, such as fabric and thread, from a new perspective. The combative artistic process in which they are engaged has its origin in the domestic duties which have for so long been imposed on women; but these constraints once analyzed become the very weapons of liberation.

Maglione is a painter who, among other things, has just designed the cover from the French issue of Erika Kaufmann’s Transfert (Edition des Femmes, Paris, 1975). Maglione still paints her dream landscapes, but she has also taken up embroidery. She uses large pieces of fine fabric, on which we find some of the motifs of her paintings – a leaf, a cloud – outlined as if ready to be embroidered. On the same large pieces of linen ar stitched real objects in miniature: a bride’s wreath, garters, ribbons, pearls, and household utensils – spoons, forks, a cheese-grater, etc. There may be skeins of silks in shaded colors. Some of these pieces are graded single-tone studies in blues, greys or mauves. Maglione’s work, when it is small, has a strong similarity to individual ex-voto offerings, and, on a large scale, resembles the festive cope which the Madonna wears on processional days in southern Italy, where Maglione was born. But in this case, it is housewives and seamstresses who are being honored and upon whom Maglione bestows the right to wear the symbolic « mantle of the Madonna ».

Hessie describes her work as « survival art. » Her identity seems to be bound up with the craft of needlework which is on the way out in the industrialized countries of the world. Hessie, who comes from Cuba, is particularly sensitive to traditional techniques. Nevertheless, her work attains a more elaborate symbolic level. One might say that she is trying, through the use of signs which become more and more complex, to pass from an area which has been previously assigned to the female sphere to a universal interfused (female/male) culture. In order to achieve this, Hessie progresses from straight lines and single stitches to knots, interlacings, and letters which she embroiders on her canvas. In this context, the artist’s procedure could be described as a series of semiotic acts that are capable of establishing a terminology with which women may communicate. In fact, before she arrives at an intersexual and interlinguistic global writing, Hessie must firts understand herself and other women. There is a subtle interplay between « identity » and « identification. »

Bernadette Bour is also experimenting with needle and paintbrush to create a new kind of writing – a voluntarily imperfect type of writing, since she wishes to criticize the smooth surface and structures in the minimal art tradition. She does so especially by running thread with a sewing machine into the superimposed layers of thin papers on canvas which form her large soft works. These are designed to be free-hanging so that one may see the stitched « writing » in straight or oblique lines, in zigzag fashion etc. showing through them. Bernadette Bour’s canvases which can be compared to the human skin are sewn over and over to give them « body ». Most of them are painted and overpainted, in flesh colors as ochre, beige, yellow or pink, and even grey. This feature and the regular spacing of the stitches remind one of the technique of tattooing, which can be regarded as a means of exhibiting and at the same time hiding the body. At this point it seems important to specify that Bernadette Bour’s works are often made of rolls of toilet-paper sewn together. The scatological nature of the material, added to the other corporeal aspects of her work, can be interpreted as laying stress on the claims of women with regard to the right to exercise the realities of their bodies, as opposed to the idealized image assigned to them by society.

While the textile works can be associated with a sort of acceptance of, and argument about, the feminine condition inside the house, the camera implies a movement toward the outside world. The artists of the « photographic » trend in this exhibition seem more interested in those aspects of public life from which women have until now been generally excluded.

Françoise Janicot works with the camera, but also with pen and pencil which she employs to draw on her photographs. She started as a painter, and decided to exploit the scorn with which she felt she, as a woman, was generally regarded. Since she did not exist in other people’s eyes, she was resolved to underline the hidden quality of her presence. This led to photographs of herself, her head wound around with thick cord, at a public event; or, faceless, but wearing tiny, triangular black briefs, obliterating her genitals and thus drawing attention to them. Similarly reacting against « imprisonment » in her studio-home, she photographed her floor-boards which now open upon the sea. In this way the analysis of her alienation has been turned into an expression of freedom. She can now exercise her newly-won liberty in walks through her home town (Paris), thereby discovering the new urban environment with its ramifications such as the recently-built regional subway which connects Paris with its suburbs. While doing this, she is struck by various signs which remind her of her previously hidden face, such as large clocks in public places barred with thick bands of black paper indicating taht they have stopped. But these are just nightmarish memories. For Françoise Janicot the important thing is that she can now maintain the link between inside and outside, reflection and action.

This is equally true for the group which includes Aballea, Blum, Croiset, Mimi and Yalter. They have conducted a kind of inquiry into the life of a woman confined to La Roquette prison for a minor offense in 1966. Their basic material consists on the diary of the prisoner, some letters, and a few drawings. A number of nonfigurative drawings in red and black ink were done by the prisoner herself during her detention. Implicitly, these express the physical and emotional needs of a person deprived of liberty: her fear, her revolt. Other drawings, for instance of Snow White with a doe, done by another prisoner, assume the same liberating function. Snow White presumably represents the longing for the prince and for love, while the doe in the forest is associated with dreams of nature and liberty. The taped voice of the prisoner, raucous and slangy, confers a stronger meaning on her own drawings of deprivation. All these documents are shown here somehow in quotation marks. The photographs taken by one of the artists of the group are about the walls of La Roquette (no longer in use) and the objects once utilized by the inmates: a pitcher, a plate, a blanket, etc. Those memories of the prisoner which could not be reconstituted from reality have been drawn from imagination by another artist in the group. These drawings are of life inside the prison. It appears that the artists of this group have managed to enter the prison symbolically in order to share the space and time of the captive and by her participation in a nonelitist creative process facilitate her complete access to the outside world.

While the artists who express themselves through « textiles » are concerned with the acts (traditional and at the same time combative) of a great many women, the La Roquette group uses photographic and other contemporary means to give a profile and a voice to some of the most oppressed. In both cases, we are conscious of the physical presence of women who seek to transpose their desires into art forms in which the artist can refer herself to her own experience without neglecting the state of women in general or the importance of social questions. »