Hamilton Herald Masthead


Front Page - Friday, September 18, 2020

Embracing the ‘F-Word’

Hunter Museum shines light on underrepresented female artists

Nandini Makrandi is standing within Hunter Museum’s expansive temporary exhibit gallery, discussing a painting by Susan Hauptman, a female artist she suspects many people might not know.

Then, like a professor who challenges her students with a pop quiz, Makrandi asks what seems to be a simple question: “Can you name five female artists who aren’t Georgia O’Keeffe, Mary Cassatt or Frida Kahlo?”

As Hunter’s chief curator, Makrandi could rattle off a long list of names, but her question is rhetorical – not because it’s simple but because she knows most people won’t be able to answer it.

“I bet you could name five male artists, no problem,” she suggests.

Makrandi hopes Hunter’s revelatory new exhibit, “The F Word: We Mean Female!” remedies the public’s lack of familiarity with women artists. Consisting of about 30 museum-owned pieces, some of which are rarely on view due to their size and complexity, “The F Word” includes works that utilize a variety of subjects, styles and media but are connected by the gender of their creator.

While each display includes a placard containing information about the artist and the piece, the exhibit aims to reveal this common thread not through biographical details but the themes inherent in the works.

Makrandi points to the Hauptman painting, a mostly black and white self-portrait of the artist, who’s posed in a lacy party dress with a dog and a baseball at her feet. Despite her decorative attire, a short-haired Hauptman offers a deadpan stare void of sensuality.

“Traditionally, when men painted women, they depicted them as sensual objects, but women tend to not depict each other that way,” Makrandi explains. “They push against male stereotypes of beauty and embrace an almost anti-beauty sentiment that’s shifting the standard.”

A neighboring piece by Miriam Schapiro, “In Her Own Image,” employs a mix of fabric and paint to fashion what appears to be a vibrant, elaborate kimono. While its placement next to the Hauptman work accentuates its bright colors, it also carries subversive undertones, Makrandi suggests.

“It’s a queen–like robe that hints at power,” she says. “Then again, it also looks like a quilt.”

Makrandi laughs at her casual deconstruction of the Schapiro piece and adds that she welcomes people to appreciate “The F Word” on a purely aesthetic level. “This exhibit has many layers,” she notes. “You can have a visual experience and not dive any deeper.”

Visitors who do delve into a particular piece will notice enlightening details, Makrandi says as she strolls around a corner to a portrait of the artist Edward Avedisian by Alice Neel.

A painter of people, landscapes and still lifes, Neel is considered one of the great American painters of the 20th century and a pioneer among women artists, Makrandi says. Yet to the casual eye, the painting might look unfinished.

But therein lies the key to unlocking the themes behind Neel’s work, she adds. “Neel tended to not do portraits of people with pretty clothing and all their ephemera; she focused on the face and the emotion and left everything else to the imagination. She was interested in the psychological aspects of portrayal.”

Since 2000, the Hunter has obtained 93 pieces by women artists for its permanent collection. The acquisitions were part of a deliberate effort on the part of the museum to better support and empower women artists.

“Female artists are underrepresented in museum collections, including ours,” confesses a placard placed near the entrance to the gallery that introduces the exhibit to visitors. “We have actively sought to correct this over the last two decades, making it one of our priorities and slowly increasing the number of women in our collection.”

Makrandi has worked for the Hunter for 16 years, which allowed her to see most of the pieces that make up “The F Word” become part of its collection. She says this has given her an intimacy with the works she enjoys sharing.

“When you’re with a museum a long time, you develop a history with each piece. I know what led to us acquiring a certain work; I also had a conversation with the artist and know what she was thinking. Sharing that experience with other people has been meaningful.”

When the 100th anniversary of women’s suffrage in the U.S. appeared on the horizon, Makrandi began to contemplate the Hunter’s collection of pieces by female artists and how the museum was unable to display many of them on a regular basis due to their physical attributes.

“Rise,” a 2006 piece by Brooklyn artist Lesley Dill, is a sprawling installation featuring a crimson female figure seated meditatively at the base of an expanse of banners inscribed with visionary accounts she collected as part of a project called “Tongues on Fire: Vision and Ecstasy.” One banner says, “I have left my body twice.” Another reads, “My insides melt into light.”

Due to its scale – a massive 20 feet tall by 50 feet long – the Hunter is unable to keep “Rise” on display at all times. The piece also contains fabric, which Makrandi says is sensitive to light and will quickly fade.

But Makrandi wanted to get “Rise” and other pieces on view, and saw the anniversary of women securing the right to vote as an opportunity to temporarily display them together and provide visitors with an unprecedented experience.

As Makrandi and associate curator Natalie Mault Mead poured over the Hunter’s collection, about one-third of the pieces they chose incorporated fabric. From this media, one of the themes of “The F Word” emerged.

“Fabric is associated with clothing, which in turn can be associated with doing laundry, mending and sewing, all of which women were expected to do,” Makrandi explains. “Then, in the middle of the 20th century, women started saying, ‘I’m going to turn this thing people associate with me into art.’

“It was a radical idea, and as a result, we have all these profound pieces that changed the context of fabric and women.”

An untitled piece by Nashville artist Alicia Henry continues this theme. Unlike Hauptman’s lacy garb and Schapiro’s royal kimono, Henry’s untitled work consists of black fabric crudely cut into the shape of a dress. Makrandi says the ostensibly simple piece poses disturbing questions.

“Henry uses natural, very plain, dyed materials and stitches them together to look worn,” she begins. “Unlike ‘In Her Own Image,’ which is elaborate and pretty and perhaps hints at wealth, this one is more working girl; it hints at the things African Americans might have had to deal with over the generations.”

The dress is topped with what could be a clown’s face with a big nose. Another face is visible behind the mask.

“There are literal layers and metaphorical layers,” Makrandi continues. “Is it about Black face? Is it about stereotyping? Henry poses a lot of questions, and you have to think about what’s going on.”

As curator of “The F Word,” Makrandi sees a matrix of invisible threads connecting the various works and stretching across the two spacious rooms that make up the Hunter’s temporary gallery space. These threads connect works that share ideas, themes and experiences, tying Henry’s roughhewn dress to Surabhi Saraf’s video-based work, which is located in a dark corner at the far end of the exhibit.

Titled “Fold,” the piece is composed of a grid of 96 small videos featuring Surabhi folding laundry. Although laundry is generally viewed as a female domestic activity, the artist takes the simple and mundane act of folding a piece of fabric and transforms into a complex choreographed pattern.

“In the beginning, all of the videos are in sync, but as then they start to diverge,” Makrandi explains as she watches the piece on a large, high definition television screen. “It’s like a dance for her; there’s a rhythm to it.”

After each video has somehow deviated from the others, Surabhi stands up and walks away and the frames empty one by one.

“She’s challenging the idea of laundry being women’s work,” Makrandi says. “I’ve seen people stand here and watch it for long periods of time. It fascinates them.”

The provocative title of the museum’s exhibit also intrigues people. Makrandi says this was intentional. “’Female Artists from the Hunter’s Collection’ would have been a snooze fest,” she laughs.

“The F Word: We Mean Female!” will be on display at the Hunter through Jan. 10, giving local art enthusiasts and casual connoisseurs ample time to view the exhibit.

Makrandi says she hopes people will gain an appreciation for the Hunter’s collection as well as the work the museum is doing to help women artists. She also hopes visitors will leave believing they have seen amazing works of art.

“I don’t think it matters if a man or woman made them, but I do hope there’s more appreciation for women artists. You should come away from this realizing there’s whole world of women artists out there.”