From hysteria to utopia: BAMPFA’s gutsy attempt to show the breadth of feminist art

The Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive’s latest exhibition, “New Time: Art and Feminisms in the 21st Century,” explores evolving notions of feminism and gender.

Ella Kruglyanskaya’s Singing Maids and Zanele Muholi’s Eva Mofokeng I, Parktown, Johannesburg.

New Time: Art and Feminisms in the 21st Century, the major survey of feminist practices in contemporary art at the Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive, is a timely, gutsy exhibition.

Timely? Current events from Texas to Afghanistan are harrowing reminders that girls and women are still oppressed, marginalized, objectified, exploited and subjugated everywhere on this planet. Traditional feminist goals of equity, agency, and self-determination are far from achieved. Hard-won victories for women’s reproductive rights are threatened with reversal in our own nation. Setbacks abound.

Gutsy? Wading into the highly politicized feminist arena takes nerve. Competing theories for the sources of women’s oppression duke it out in academia, on the streets (who gets to march? for what?), in the art world and everywhere else. Sensitivities about race, ethnicity, class and sexual orientation are contentious and raw. And the definition of who is female is evolving. Gender is increasingly regarded as a cultural construct that embraces cis-gendered, gay, gender-fluid, nonbinary, and transgender people who may, or may not, identify as women. 

If you’re an artist or art curator who cares about these issues, there’s a lot of material to work with. But it’s a minefield.


Amy Cutler, Margaret, 2011. Courtesy of the artist and Leslie Tonkonow Artworks + Projects. Photo credit: Zac Farber

New Time, the brainchild of former BAMPFA curator Apsara DiQuinzio, engages these complexities and hazards head on. The exhibition’s central question is a big one: How are feminist artists transforming the ways we see and construe the world?

DiQuinzio conceived New Time in response to the global women’s marches protesting the 2016 presidential election, when the highly qualified female candidate lost to a confessed male sexual predator who bragged publicly about his assaults on women. Those marches — fueled by outrage and existential apprehension, energized by the diversity and sense of solidarity among participants—inspired DiQuinzio to found and organize the national Feminist Art Coalition, a consortium of art museums around the country. Members of the FAC aimed to mount feminist exhibitions in advance of the 2020 election, but the pandemic intervened. (New Time opened on Aug. 28, and Witch Hunt, a sister show at The Hammer Museum in Los Angeles, will open Oct. 10.)

Andrea Bowers: Womxn Workers of the World Unite! (May Day 2015, Los Angeles, California), 2016. Courtesy of the artist and Vielmetter Los Angeles. Photo credit: Jeff McLane.

New Time (its title is taken from a Leslie Scalapino poem) assembles 140 works by 76 artists and artist collectives: local, regional, national and global. Most of the art on view dates from the last two decades, but earlier pieces are included for historical and aesthetic context. It’s an impressive, consciousness-raising show, crammed with surprising, revelatory works by a starry roster of established and emerging artists, diverse in race, ethnicity, nationality, age, sexuality, and gender identity, as well as in their artistic practices and the issues they address.

Senior artists who have shaped the trajectory of contemporary feminist art since the ’60s — Louise Bourgeois, Judy Chicago, Jenny Holzer, Lynn Hershman Leeson, Luchita Hurtado, Sarah Lucas, Mary Minter, Kiki Smith, Lorna Simpson, and Sturtevant — share space with younger artists who further their legacy: Kara Walker, Lara Schnitger, Simone Leigh, Zanele Muholi, Ella Kruglyanskaya, among many others. Bay Area-based artists include Nicki Green, Kenyatta C. Hinckle, Hershman Leeson, Michele Pred, Favianna Rodriguez, and Lava Thomas.              

Collectively, their work expands the definition of “feminism” to embrace the global, intersectional, inclusive and multifaceted concepts now informing that term. Hence “feminisms,” plural.

Arranged thematically in eight titled sections, New Time suggests a narrative arc that loosely organizes the works into distinct topic areas. They are:

  • Prelude: Arch of hysteria: Artists respond to negative sexual stereotypes that historically blocked women from achieving full personhood in society.
  • Returning the gaze: Artists contest the tradition of heterosexual male spectatorship as the norm for representing the female figure, offering critical views of their own.
  • Time as fabric: Artists reinterpret historical narratives through feminist lenses.
  • The body in pieces: Artists work with fragmented representations of the female body.
  • Gender alchemy: Cis-gender gay, gender-fluid, non-binary and transgender artists depict bodies that resist traditional definitions of gender.
  • Womxn workers of the world, unite!: Artists explore themes of activism, domesticity, and labor.
  • Too nice for too long: Artists make their anger visible and audible.
  • The future is feminist: Artists advance their visions of a utopian feminist world as yet unrealized.

These categories give structure to the show, and help viewers to navigate it without being overwhelmed. Some seem more arbitrary and limiting than others, though. Art often wants to elude curatorial boundaries, and breathe more freely in the open air. Here are some pieces worth highlighting.

Kara Walker, Endless Conundrum, An African Anonymous Adventuress, 2001

Courtesy of the Walker Art Center

In her epic cut-paper-silhouette collage Endless Conundrum, Kara Walker mordantly suggests — via a carefully composed array of discrete vignettes — a capsule re-telling of the stories of American slavery, colonialism and the sexual exploitation and torture of Black male and female bodies. The piece also mockingly refers to the appropriation by white male European artists like Matisse, Picasso and Brancusi of looted art made by unknown African artists. Brancusi’s Endless Column is quoted visually several times and is the inspiration for the punning title. Walker’s Black figures seem to be holding their own, even possibly gaining the upper hand in this scenario, presided over by an African shaman figure and a joyful Josephine Baker-like dancer who is vigorously shaking off her signature banana skirt to allow freedom of movement. This ambiguous, darkly funny work, a veiled revenge fantasy, is perhaps the most memorable piece in the show.

Louise Bourgeois, Arched Figure, 1993

Courtesy of the Easton Foundation. Photo credit: Zac Farber

Louise Bourgeois’s dramatic Arched Figure slyly parodies a supposed physical symptom of that ancient male-diagnosed-and-perpetuated mythical affliction, female hysteria. This life-sized bronze portrays the “arch of hysteria” with a non-female, headless body as an androgynous manifestation of sexual ecstasy.

Laura Aguilar, Grounded #111, 2006

Courtesy of Laura Aguilar Trust of 2016

Nude self-portrait photographs by the late Latinx lesbian artist Laura Aguilar defiantly depict her sumptuous body not as an object of anyone’s desire, but rather as a monumental living form, deeply in harmony with California’s desert landscape. 

Sarah Lucas, Bunny Gets Snookered #13, 2019

Courtesy of the artist and Gladstone Gallery. Photo credit: Zac Farber

British artist Sarah Lucas’s deliciously louche soft sculptural assemblage Bunny Gets Snookered #13 is a riff on the agile Playboy bunny. One of a series by Lucas, it’s a ribald celebration of female limbs of prime interest to hypothetical patrons of the Playboy Club. Yet it definitely has a life of its own.

Zanele Muholi, Eva Mofokeng I, Parktown, Johannesburg, from Brave Beauties, 2014

Courtesy of the artist, Yancey Richardson, New York, and Stevenson Cape Town/Johannesburg. Photo credit: Zac Farber

Sensuous black-and-white photographic portraits of transgender youths, by South African LGBTQ+ activist artist Zanele Muholi, are intimate, tender, and lovely to look at. Homosexuality and same-sex marriage are legal in South Africa, though gay and transgender people are constantly endangered by hate crime attacks. Muholi provides sanctuary for these kids, offering a protected space where they feel free to perform their sexual identities for the camera.

(Note: Another standout in the “gender alchemy” group is Kalup Linzy’s hilarious video Conversation Wit de Churen II: All My Churen, a parody of the long-running (1970-2013), predominantly white-cast soap opera All My Children, in which the Black gay male artist plays all the roles, including himself as the protagonist, his mother and his grandmother.)

Ella Kruglyanskaya, Singing Maids, 2014

Courtesy of the Emanuel family collection. Photo credit: Zac Farber

Latvian-born, LA-based Ella Kruglyanskaya makes big, boisterous, paintings. Her cartoonish Singing Maids depicts, with bold brushstrokes, a pair of voluptuous young women, each grasping a broom, tightly stuffed into housemaid uniforms whose severity is contradicted by their brightly colored tights and sturdy high heels. They’re apparently performing a song-and-dance routine for some unseen spectator, or maybe just for themselves, which has sabotaged their housecleaning efforts. Dust spills from the dustpan held by the woman on the left, while the one on the right scatters more dust with her broom. Although their faces are blank and expressionless, the shadows they cast on the wall behind them suggest that internally they are screaming in frustration, entrapped by the conflicting demands of their impossible-to-reconcile roles as housekeepers, entertainers and Sirens.

Lara Schnitger, The Young Are at the Gates, 2017

Courtesy of the artist and Anton Kern Gallery, New York

Born in the Netherlands, LA-based feminist activist artist Lara Schnitger uses textiles in her often subversive installations, sculpture and participatory public performances. This graphically jazzy fabric collage on canvas features a hip-looking lineup of stylish, tough young people glaring at you, the viewer, with accusatory expressions. “THE YOUNG R @ THE GATES,” it proclaims. The subtext is a tacit challenge: “WHAT WORLD ARE WE INHERITING FROM YOU? AND WHAT ARE YOU GOING TO DO ABOUT IT? YOU’RE DOOMED. WE’RE NOT.” 

Too bad there’s only one Schnitger piece in this exhibition. She’s a force.

Anohni et. al., I—The subjugation of women and the earth is one and the same, from 13 TENETS OF FUTURE FEMINISM, 2013 

Photo credit: Walter Wlodarczyk

Some of us might hope that the future is female and feminist, if it’s our brand of feminism, of course. In 2013, the New York-based feminist artist collaborative group of Anohni, Kembra Pfahler, Bianca Casady and Sierra Casady produced a series of 13 disks made of rose onyx, each engraved with a tenet for the female future they envisaged, which they wrote together. Seven of these exquisite disks conclude the exhibition.

According to DiQuinzio, writing in the exhibition catalog, “The tenets reimagine a world no longer in the service of a patriarchal social order and instead carve out space for new ideologies that are archetypically feminine.”

Who knows if their vision is attainable or even entirely desirable? But given the mess men have made of our world, it’s worth considering. Seriously, ASAP.

Luchita Hurtado: I Live Here, 2021. Photo credit: Zac Farber

Like any huge, and hugely ambitious, group exhibition, New Time raises questions about its conceptual framework and its omissions. Could the show have been more focused? Told a tighter story based on broader categories? Shown fewer artists with more in-depth examples of their work? Paid less attention to hysteria and more to anger and utopian visions (the latter grouping seemed the thinnest)? Rethought the “body in pieces” section, including placement of the only works explicitly about maternity (all three of them), in that space?       

Further, should New Time have made room for notable local feminist artists whose absence is puzzling, such as Stephanie Syjuco and Deborah Oropallo — both Bay Area-based and internationally known? (Syjuco lives in Oakland and is a tenured professor at UC Berkeley; Oropallo is a Cal alum.)

And why the glaring dearth of digital and electronic work by some of the numerous outstanding contemporary cyberfeminist artists — forcing Lynn Hershman Leeson’s animated dollhouse, not the strongest example of her oeuvre, to bear that burden on its own? Shu Lea Chang and Hito Steyerl immediately leap to mind . . .

These are questions that came up for me. Other viewers will have their own, as they should. If an exhibition of this scale, complexity and daring isn’t provocative, it has failed.

New Time is essential viewing. We’re fortunate to have it on our Berkeley doorstep. It affirms that feminist expression and resistance to repression are vibrantly alive and powerful in the hands and imaginations of visual artists today: heartening news in these disheartening times.

While you’re at BAMPFA

Do seek out the array of Guerrilla Girls posters in the museum’s entrance hallway, the installation of Luchita Hurtado’s profoundly moving final work before her death in 2020, commissioned for BAMPFA’s Art Wall in the entrance lobby, and the lively posters by Oakland-based social activist graphic artist Favianna Rodriguez on the lower floor, where you’ll also find Moyra Davey’s video Les Goddesses.