Women’s Art vs Feminist Art. Categories and Contradictions in Art Practices of Armenia
Public Lecture by art critic, curator and director of ACSL Susanna Gyulamiryan
Series of Lectures by 6 invited female professionals from the fields of contemporary art, social science, journalism, civil activism, etc.
‘Akanat’ Art Gallery, Yerevan, Armenia
(December 2, 2015)
Women’s Resource Center Armenia has prepared feminist lecture series/feminist forum on initiative and financial support of Heinrich Boell Foundation. Interdisciplinary lectures are prepared and presented by lecturers, experts and activists of different backgrounds (art criticism, social activism, journalism, writing, ethnography, etc.). The lectures have been collected and published as a book entitled ‘Manifestation of Women’s Movement in Armenia at the end of 20th Beginning of 21st Century’ (Download the book).
The lectures were held in Yerevan during September-December, 2015 with free to attend. Curator, art critic and head of ACSL Susanna Gyulamiryan was invited as one of lecturers with a topic ‘Women’s Art versus Feminist Art. Categories and Contradictions in Art Practices of Armenia’.
Other topics and authors of lecture series:
- September 17: Myths about ‘Dangers’ of Feminism: the Perception of Feminism in Armenian Society (Anna Voskanyan, Social Work Expert);
- October 1: ‘Feminism on Hold: How Divergent Concepts and Economic Interests Created a Disabling Environment for the Emancipation of Armenian Women’ (Nvard Manasyan, Education Expert);
- October 15: ‘Manifestation of Women’s Movement in Armenia at the end of 20th Beginning of 21st Century’ (Anahit Harutyunyan, PhD in linguistics, author of the book ‘The Century of Distinguished Women’);
- October 29: ‘Women in Politics and Political Language/Texts in Armenia’ (Ruzanna Tsaturyan, Ethnographer);
- November 5: ‘Ways of Being a Feminist: Angry or Glamorous Feminists, Feminist Killjoys, ‘Feminazis” (Tamar Tskhadadze, Philosopher);
- November 12: ‘Women and Armenian Mass Media’ (Anna Gevorgyan, Expert in Iranian Studies);
- December 2: ‘Women’s Art versus Feminist Art. Categories and Contradictions in Art Practices of Armenia’ (Susanna Gyulamiryan, art critic, curator and head of the Art and Cultural Studies laboratory – ACSL).
Abstract of the lecture by Susanna Gyulamiryan
The preeminence of male-chauvinist interpretations of female art endured for so many long years since the earlier Soviet time that it established a massive grip on the pages of Soviet-Armenian cultural historiography. In turn, the Soviet female Armenian artists either believed in this, or ceded in passive non-action to the myth of the divine creator, that the “painter” is a real man or a pariah endowed with an inherent gift of genius as a fundamental precondition for practicing art. This “state of the art” perpetuated its unquestioned legitimacy up until the second half of the post-Soviet 1990s; a period that marked the abandonment of the grand Soviet narratives and prohibited topics, and saw the introduction of translations of feminist/gender studies, which in their lively and heterogeneous (albeit contradictory at times) conceptual insights allowed deconstructions within the traditional apparatus of thought and in the methodological presuppositions underlying the prevailing art history discourses. This momentum also opened a door for some particularly interested (and unluckily, only a few) artists, curators, cultural critics, and art historians in Armenia to pursue a new agenda of cultural and critical (self) analysis and (self) determination which, among other things, was also calibrated around the conceptual female and gender nexus. The contemporary artistic scene in Armenia, perhaps much in line with other post-Soviet countries, welcomed these attempts as being exceptionally heretical; and yet, these transitory years nevertheless became the period when a newly emerging contemporary art scene in Armenia was formed. In Armenia, during those years, the underlying theme in the works of men and women alike was the break with existing traditional art forms, and because these forms tended to preserve the status quo, breaking with them was itself viewed as radical movement. But the main part of works of progressive Armenian female artists were often anchored on a single axis – the contraposition of the feminine to the masculine, in a kind of essentialist strategy. Female artists did not make strong references to “feminism” in their art. Instead, their growing self-awareness was congruous with the viewpoint of the Modernists, the historical avant-garde that, by refusing to respond to the expectations of the observer, created an act revolutionary in itself. On the other hand, after the downfall of the Soviet empire, female artists made active efforts to achieve full-fledged participation in the artistic life of contemporary art. In those years, the international art community had only just started paying attention to post-Soviet contemporary art, and female artists actively strove to gain access to full participation and equal representation in local and international galleries and institutions. This process was, in one way or the other, positive in that it marked the beginning of women’s struggle in the field of art to gain equal rights with men in terms of overall creative legitimation, representation of artistic works, and engagement in broader artistic practices around the world. In spite of the fact that the female artists’ position in Armenia is not so much as producers of feminist art (In fact, many female artists remained quite remote from feminist discourses and feminist art), but as a specific category of art producers who decline the works of traditional female artists as being androcentric and treading upon the heels of generally accepted aesthetic conventions echoing the man-genius, my experience as a curator in the contemporary Armenian artistic context has allowed me to observe a phenomenon I find quite interesting. It is a kind of uninformed or ‘unconscious feminism’ that prevails in the works of female Armenian artists, who never supply their work with feminist commentaries or definitions, but their works could be interpreted in absolutely feminist terms. The phrase may sound like an oxymoron, at the least, but the visual texts of the artists often repeat the kind of “feminist strategies”. Here a question may raise: “can we define the women’s art making as feminist when the artists themselves don’t position themselves as feminist artists?” However, it is important to briefly mention the difference between “art by women” and “feminist art”. The works of the mentioned artists may fall more into the first definition, but it is nonetheless important to underline that there is indeed art by women that works within, in peace and concord with, the patriarchal society; and there is art that works against the patriarchate, and what is apparent in the these kind of art works, is the articulation of a “difference”, the difference of the specifically female subjectivity and the subversion of the traditional representation of the female. In contrary, as an exceptional example of the “conscious feminist’ art and female radical thinking in contemporary art practices of Armenia, I would like to mention the Queering Yerevan initiative established several years ago in Yerevan. The topic of queer identities is particularly taboo in Armenia, and this was a courageous move going beyond the universal concept of the otherness of all women, disregarding other forms of female subjectivity, such as lesbian.
In the corpus of my lecture there will be an attempt to group the women’s art in Armenia into four categories in the typology of women’s art making with formulating and dividing them on essensialist, separatist, feminist approaches with specific relation between strategy and action, and here I was inspired by feminist theorists Judith Barry and Sandy Flitterman-Lewis.