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Terrains of the Body: Photography from the National Museum of Women in Arts


The Whitechapel Gallery in London, showcases the female body in one of its exhibition halls.

Partnering up with the National Museum of Women in the Arts in Washington, DC—the first international museum devoted entirely to art created by women—the East London institution presents works by seventeen trailblazing artists.

In the small gallery space, great individual and collective stories dialog with the photographic medium, exploring its capacity for storytelling, protest, and (un)covering. Spanning a period from the 1990s to today, the works reflect a key moment when documentary photography is contradicted by conceptual photography which expands and complicates truth and its interpretation.

The focus is on women. Bodies and photography become “terrains” of exploration and protest. Simultaneously a surface, a boundary, and memory, the female body is here reappropriated and explored through alternative histories from across five continents. By showing the limitations of the body, subjectivity, and its photographic capture, the artists are able to point to frustrations and their possible overcoming.

Reflecting multiple associations, the racialized, social body in Nikki S. Lee becomes political in Marina Abramović. In Kirsten Justesen, it further challenges the place of the object/subject of the discourse. It is poetry of the everyday and of the domestic space in Hellen van Meene; lost youth in Rineke Dijkstra; and document, history, and archive in Nan Goldin. The body is a changeable, malleable reality.

These explorations constantly come up against, while shedding light on, authority and norms established by a latent patriarchy. In the “Terrains of the body,” the women artists take control of their own representation. As both creators and subjects of the image, they challenge the self-portrait of a gender that tends to be essentialized through a lack of contextual information in the exhibition.

Anna Gaskell’s film Erasers opens the exhibition and brings it to a close. The story of the death of the artist’s mother is told by teenage girls, blurring the boundaries of individual testimony. Skipping from one girl to the next, the film (and, by extension, the exhibition) becomes a performance by women of women’s discourse, and generates, perhaps by forcing it, a unified voice traversing generations and territories.

Running in parallel to another exhibition at the Whitechapel Gallery devoted to the Guerrilla Girls, Terrains of the Body takes a stand amid a volatile political climate. Originally conceived in honor of the first female president of the United States, the exhibition now reflects a struggle for the equality and rights of the remembering body, celebrating solidarity and unity.

Julie Bonzon

Julie Bonzon is a Ph.D. candidate in Art History at the University College London (UCL).


Terrains of the body: Photography from the National Museum of Women in the Arts
January 18 to April 16, 2017
Whitechapel Gallery
77-82 Whitechapel High St.
London, E1 7QX

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