Material Girls

Material Girls

Dunlop Art Gallery, Regina

January 30 – April 5, 2015

Doris McCarthy Gallery, Toronto

February 3 – April 9, 2016

It’s said that Japan’s Lolita culture originated as a means of deterring men—an aesthetic too strange and unpalatable for the male gaze.  Lolita fashion and culture is excessive; over the top, overwhelmingly pink, brimming with girly cutesiness, and most importantly: it’s not for you.  This exacting, hyperfeminine aesthetic and unceasing commitment to girliness is a subculture constructed by women for other women.  Today, we see this rhetoric experiencing a revival in modern feminism, with the themes of shameless, girly self-celebration and unified female resistance beginning to emerge.  The exhibition Material Girls is a collection that exemplifies these themes.  Weaving together a harmony of identities, stories, and histories, Material Girls collectively revels in the redefined female identity: undoubtedly feminine, but on our own terms.  Bold and unruly in both its message and aesthetic, Material Girls presents us with the kind of DIY, homegrown feminist activism seen on youth and pop culture hubs like Tumblr or even Instagram: girly, unrefined, relentless.

Each work is an instance of defiance when presented with the monotonous, traditional (read: patriarchal) conventions and expectations of femininity.  Sarah Anne Johnson’s chromogenic nude and masturbating portrait (Happy Bubble [2013]) demystifies the age-old “taboo” of female pleasure sans homme.  Women’s bodies are not simply outlets for male gratification, we (quite literally) love ourselves, and are proud of it.  Likewise focusing on the assumptions made of the female body, the piece Velvet Crease (2012), a cheeky name for Deirdre Logue’s three-part, close-up video installation of a hairy and glitter-doused vulva, is a feminist action in a similar vein to dying one’s armpit hair or smothering grown out roots in glitter.  “Why does this make you uncomfortable? Why can’t I be satisfied with my natural body as it is?” Logue seems to ask in response to the unwritten expectations for female “maintenance.”  Logue takes this feminist act further by questioning the discomfort felt when female bodies, and particularly genitalia, are presented outside of a sexualized context.

Sanaz Mazinani is likewise critical of the presumptions placed on her as an Iranian-born North American woman— is she a sex object or terrorist?  She remarks on this dichotomy with images of a bikini-clad Paris Hilton and a female suicide bomber in her massive, kaleidoscopic, sculpture, Together We Are (2011).  Mazinani’s voice as a women of colour stands among the many featured in Material Girls, all collectively reforming their cultural narratives.  Artists such Korean born Ran Hwang pays homage to her roots, referencing the massive sweatshop and the fast fashion industry ubiquitous throughout Asia – an industry predominantly fuelled by the labour of women.  In her piece Two Love Blossoms (2013), Hwang describes the laborious assembly process to be “zen-like,” meticulously creating flower blossoms solely comprised of buttons and pins. 

The contemporary feminist embraces her femininity, while rejecting preconceived notions of what that should or should not entail.  Arguably, the contemporary feminist is also a material girl in the sense that she is indulgent in herself, whether that be in her own femininity, or by advocating for her autonomy as a woman.  Material Girls presents a single facet of contemporary feminist art, but it’s girly, raw, and unapologetically kitschy aesthetic and intersectional message is a combination that unquestionably connects to the growing multitude of next-generation feminists.