BYT // Brightest Young Things

From a Dilapidated Mansion to a DC Museum: An Exploration of Women House

Women House art exhibition opening at Nation Museum of Women in the Arts with new curator Orin Zahra 03/06/18. Photo Credit: Nicholas Karlin www.nicholaskarlin.com

Frustrated by a lack of space to share their ideas and art, Judy Chicago and Miriam Schapiro took over a deserted mansion. The year was 1971 and they were the confounders of the brand new CalArts Feminist Art Program. After working with their female students, they realized they needed a place where they could push themselves. A place where they could work hard and, more practically, get familiar with power tools. They replaced 25 windows, laid and varnished 330 dowels and spent two months installing lights, sanding floors and building furniture. At the end of it all, they had created a place where their students could make and show art with abandon. The mansion at 533 N. Mariposa Street had been transformed. It wasn’t a dilapidated building anymore. It was Womanhouse.

In the restoration process, their 23 students had subverted the traditional feminine ideas of “housemaking”. By taking on masculine jobs in the feminine space, they had flipped those ideas upside down and built an outlet for their artistic dreams. Chicago and Schapiro invited a few prominent female artists to show along with their students and in the winter of 1972, they opened the doors to the first Womanhouse exhibition.

More than 40 years later, the National Museum of Women in the Arts (partnered with La Monnaie de Paris), is keeping the dream alive. Women House is their sequel to the landmark art exhibition, and in the spirit of the original, it’s a varied and fascinating study on different women’s relationships to the home. Taking it from a LA mansion to a fine arts museum dedicated to women makes the return that much sweeter. “The whole point was that they felt like they didn’t have a space that was truly their own,” say Orin Zahra, an assistant curator at the museum. “[Judy Chicago] fought for this kind of thing her whole career. This is what she was rooting for, this is what she wanted her students to have.”

The exhibition may have been initially conceived by La Monnaie de Paris, but NMWA, the only museum in the US to get the traveling exhibition, is making it their own. “In Paris, it was in a historic building. They had to build walls on top because it was historical property,” says Zahra. “It was very interesting to see how they changed that historical space into a contemporary art space… For us, we do a lot of contemporary shows. Our space accommodates these works of art really well.”

I’ve never noticed the architecture of an exhibition more than when I was walking through Women House. NMWA’s jigsaw puzzle-esque collection of rooms allows the art to bleed into each other. While admiring Miriam Schapiro’s dark and fantastical Dollhouse, you’re immediately drawn to the right where an entire wall is taken up by a startling projection of a hammer hitting a wall over and over again. From there, you wonder into a room where tents are made out of clothing… or are they clothing made out of tents? There are eight different themes in Women House, an attempt to explain the similar  imagery that runs through the pieces, but you should consider each artwork on its own. One of the key ideas presented by the show is that different women have different relationships with the home. There is no single viewpoint and the space lends itself to that idea. It easily leads you from one artwork to the next, regardless of the contradictions.

“Our space has its own quirks and somehow they just work,” explains Zahra. “It can be difficult to the do the actual logistics of the installations because you’re like, I wish I just had one 90 degree angle, but those quirks of the architecture add something to a show thats supposed to be quirky and funny and ironic.”

And the show is surprisingly funny. A dark humor blooms out of many of its pieces, as if they’re daring you to laugh. Like Birgit Jürgenssen’s Ich möchte hier raus! (I Want to Get Out of Here!), which features her dressed up as a middle class housewife. Jürgenssen was a master of disguise, dressing herself up as silver screen stereotypes like the vixen or the bombshell, but in Ich möchte hier raus! she wears a simple dress with a lace collar. Looking straight into the camera, she takes the position of a mime, resting her hand on an imaginary glass wall. On her collar, she’s written the words “I want to get out of here!”

“She’s trying to show this domestic space is a cage for her and it’s oppressing her, but it’s done in this humorous way,” says Zahra.

In the same way Jürgenssen transforms the dress of a housewife into the uniform of a prisoner, many other pieces in the exhibition take ordinary household objects and impart them with new meaning. Mona Hatoum’s art is perhaps the best example. She’s collects regular kitchen objects, like graters, strainers and garlic presses and runs a live current through them, making these innocuous objects deadly. “The idea is that the kitchen is supposed to be what we grew up with, the place we saw our moms and grandmothers,” explains Zahra. “It’s supposed to be this nurturing and comforting space. It’s supposed to be very feminine. And [Hatoum] is like ‘I don’t know about that. I don’t know if I can naturally fit into this kitchen space.’ So now it’s got live electricity going through it and it’s suddenly something dangerous.”

The exhibition is filled with these type of dark and satirical pieces that cast long shadows on the home, but many artists also portray the house as a refuge. For them, it’s not a place were traditional gender roles reign supreme, but a place where they can escape from the cruelty of the outside world. “We have those kind of things to show that the home isn’t an oppressive cage to everyone. Especially in places where there might be a lot of hate crimes outside, the home is a shelter against that,” explains Zahra.

Photographer Zanele Muholi captures some of these concepts in her portraits. “Particularly she’s interested in the representation of black women and challenging these dominant images of black women as hyper-sexualized or submissive,” says Zahra. “Instead she has really beautiful portraits of black lesbians and we have one where there is a female couple in their kitchen embracing one another.” For the couple, their home is a respite from homophobia.

Similarly, Sue Williamson photography explores the displacement of an Egyptian fishing town. The citizens of the town took to their buildings and wrote on the walls, filling them with lines about their love for their homes and how much they didn’t want to leave.

“It was men and women, fishermen and their wives who participated in the project so it was really kind of a beautiful way of showing what community and home means to them.”

These varied portrayals of the home is one of the ways Women House sets itself apart from the Womanhouse of the 70s. While the first exhibition focused on a small group of women going to CalArts, Women House is far more international, showcasing work from 36 artists from around the globe. “We pushed for more diversity of ideas and representation,” says Zhara.

Cross into the Women House and you’ve entered a timeless space where stereotypes from the 1950’s meet problems from the present. Like The Twilight Zone, it’s a liminal space, where hopes and fears coexist. Where the effortlessly funny meets the acutely cruel.

Women House is at NMWA (1250 New York Ave NW) from March 9 to May 28. 

Words by Kaylee Dugan, Photos by Nicholas Karlin