Hella Feminist imparts a holistic, fresh, and community-focused approach to understanding feminism and gender
29 July 2022 - 08 January 2023; Oakland Museum of California
BY NAVYA POTHAMSETTY
The Oakland Museum of California (OMCA) launched Hella Feminist in late July, an exhibit exploring the fight for gender equity with a San Francisco Bay-Area focus. By incorporating perspectives often excluded from knowledge production and preservation, the exhibit challenges dominant historical and cultural conceptions of feminism. From the show’s curation to its creative partnerships, Hella Feminist imparts a holistic, fresh, and community-focused approach to understanding feminism and gender.
“There’s some really incredible artwork in this exhibition,” said Hella Feminist co-curator and OMCA Curator of Art Carin Adams. This includes portraits by Los Angeles-based, Bay Area-raised Shizu Saldamando, who paints her friends and creative peers. Her subjects are often from Latin-Punk and queer communities. The Western canon’s influence on our education limits what most Americans consider “appropriate” for fine art galleries. By painting identities that aren’t typically seen in fine art museums, Saldamando hopes to broaden our conception of who belongs and creates art and culture.
In addition to thought-provoking art, the Hella Feminist exhibit forces us to question the dominant historical narrative of women’s rights. For example, a White protester in a 1976 Women’s Suffrage sign holds a poster reading: “American ladies will not be slaves.” A reinterpretation of this graphic, and of historical materials like this, is necessary to qualify the narrative of feminism—rights were won, but not for everyone equally.
“There’s always been schisms, there’s always been tensions within feminism,” explained consulting curator Erendina Delgadillo. “This reminds visitors that there’s always more perspectives in your moment than your own.”
The contemporary, social justice-focused re-interpretation of historical artifacts is just one way that the Hella Feminist curators emphasize that true femnism is intersectional. Intersectionality describes how different forms of inequity and discrimination—such as racism, sexism, and ableism—overlap in a person’s lived experience. People may not see the world through an intersectional lens, explained co-curator Lisa Silberstein, but it’s part of the whole exhibition—and viewers will see that in what we and our collaborators chose to present.
Hella Feminism’s intersectional paradigm goes beyond identity. To demonstrate the different ways gender affects us, the curators organized the exhibit into three realms: mind, body, and spirit. In the “Mind” section, viewers are introduced to an intersectional re-interpretation of feminist history. In the “Body” portion, they’ll explore how gender equity affects one’s health and bodily autonomy. Lastly, they’ll reach the “Spirit” section. It’s what Adams refers to as “Hella Feminist’s emotional arc”: a space for viewers to process and reflect. It features a massive, collaborative art installation called Museuexclusion Excorcism, a crowd-sourced tapestry curated and assembled by Tanya Aguiniga. By including non-traditional media, like a breakup text screenshot, the amalgamation challenges our ideas of what “belongs” in museums. It also prompts a reconsideration of our relationship to emotion: feelings are often invalidated and relegated to the realm of irrationality. The “Spirit” section of Hella Feminist challenges that.
In addition to fostering reflection, Hella Feminist encourages community-building and solidarity. Collaboration is integral to the gender equity fight. With multiple interactive components, visitors can learn from and contribute to others’ understanding of feminism. “There's an opportunity for people to release what they’ve been carrying over the past couple of years,” explains Silberstein, “and find camaraderie or community in the exhibition.”
In one room, visitors are met with a wall full of East Bay feminists’ portraits. These figures range from well-known individuals like Angela Davis to local groups like the Radical Monarchs, an activism organization for girls of color. Not all them are celebrities—and that’s the point: to recognize how our friends, peers, and neighbors are fighting for social justice. Of course, political and large-scale change is important: but the strength to do and support that comes from strong, passionate, individuals. Visitors who see themselves in those fighting for feminism are more likely to feel emotionally connected to gender equity—and more likely to act.
Perhaps the most direct way that visitors can connect was added to Hella Feminist after the Roe v. Wade decision. Accompanying a video of interviews with people who offer pregnancy termination services, the exhibit features a phone number that visitors can call.
“People can share their support, or share their own stories about reproductive health and abortions,” explained Delgadillo. In addition to reading about the threat to bodily autonomy, hearing another human voice on the line connects people to the emotional weight and implications behind the Supreme Court Decision. This is crucial especially for visitors who have never grappled with the risk or trauma of pregnancy, It’s just one of the many ways that Hella Feminist connects people: not just to the knowledge of the past, but to the emotions of the present and the potential of the future.