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What Makes Art Feminist? Janet Mock And The Brooklyn Museum Weigh In

ellen gallagherELLEN GALLAGHER, installation view at La Triennale—Intense Proximité, Palais de Tokyo, Paris, 2012 via gagosian.com

Overcoming obstacles, redefining their fields, taking risks and creating spaces for others are what defines a trailblazer. Honoring women who make significant impact on the arts, culture and philanthropy, the Brooklyn Museum hosted Trailblazers: Women in Art. This year’s ceremony was a part of the 10-year anniversary of the Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art entitled A Year of Yes: Reimagining Feminism at the Brooklyn Museum, a year-long celebration and presentation of ten powerful exhibitions by women artists whose works provide diverse articulations of feminist expression. This year’s honorees included Sarah Arison, president of the Arison Arts Foundation — a private grant-making organization that provides support for emerging artists — Miyoung Lee, a trustee of the Children's Museum of Manhattan and Whitney Museum and an avid collector; Lowery Stokes Sims, who was on the curatorial staff of the Metropolitan Museum of Art from 1972 to 1999; Ellen Gallagher, an artist that examines race, gender and sexuality identity; and Janet Mock, the New York Times best-selling author of Redefining Realness and host of MSNBC’s So POPular, a weekly series about popular culture, identity and representation. Against the backdrop of everyone’s favorite feminist album this year, Beyonce’s Lemonade, each honoree was invited to the stage to participate in a moderated conversation about their work, passion and lives.

unnamed copy copy copy copy copy copy copy copyPhoto by Elena Olivo for Brooklyn Museum

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Women have been creating art for centuries, but art isn’t feminist exclusively on the basis that it was created by a woman. So what makes art feminist? Feminism strives to end the discrimination, exploitation, and oppression of people due to their gender, sexual orientation, race and class. Feminist art not only reflect women’s lives, but Elizabeth A. Sackler noted, “it seeks to expand feminist thinking from its roots in the struggle for gender parity, to address broader social justice issues of tolerance, inclusion and diversity.”

Art, often times, can be seen as a major form of response to the world. It sometimes seeks to draw attention to a certain aspect, start a conversation or to even celebrate an aspect of the world. Therefore, feminist art and the artists that create it have the amazing opportunity to transform our culture and society. Artists are storytellers and narrators. But so many of these stories that include women, people of color and people with various sexual identities have been underrepresented in art platforms. It’s not that these narratives don’t exist. In many cases, they haven’t been in the forefront of conversations in the art world. It’s important to bring awareness to issues and narratives from women, trans people, and people of color that have been overlooked in the past and reevaluate a history that has usually been written by white men.

Since the 1970s, Lowery Stokes Sims has fostered diversity and opportunity for artists. A specialist in modern and contemporary art, she is known for her particular expertise in the work of African, Latino, Native and Asian American artists. In addition to her curatorial projects with the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Lowery Stokes Sims served as executive director and president at the Studio Museum in Harlem from 2000-2007.She came into the art field at such an amazing time. When discussing formative influences during the ceremony, Lowery gave credit to her mother, who valued the importance of the arts. Her mother took her to all of the museums and operas to expose her. She is undoubtedly a trailblazer making room for other women and women of color to follow.

unnamed 1 copy copy copyPhoto by Elena Olivo for Brooklyn Museum

During her one on one conversation, activist and author Janet Mock discussed the power of storytelling as a whole and how she learned to write herself into history after searching for some semblance of reflection in books when she was younger. She talked about a need to tell her story, but she is very conscience of her privilege every time she steps forward to tell her story.

After the ceremony, I had the opportunity to chat with Janet Mock and follow up with her about the panel conversation. I was pretty struck by her choice to identify as someone with privilege, as a black trans women. She said, “Even as a black trans women with particular experiences, I know that other black trans women don’t necessarily have those same experiences. Being cognisant of the fact that just because I’m trans and sometimes 'told' that I represent an entire trans community. I’m very cognisant of the access that has enabled me to be seen and heard on the levels that I have been."

unnamed 2 copy copy copy copyPhoto by Elena Olivo for Brooklyn Museum

I asked Janet Mock who are some trailblazers that have a paved a way for her. “Black feminist writers — Alice Walker, Audre Lorde, Maya Angelou and activist like Sylvia Rivera and Marsha P. Johnson.” For her courage and candor as a writer, Janet Mock is definitely on my list of trailblazers.

A Year of Yes: Reimagining Feminism at the Brooklyn Museum kicks off with Beverly Buchanan’s Ruins and Rituals. The exhibition includes sculptures, paintings, photography and a video installation. The exhibit will investigate her dialogue not only with materials and movement, but also with race, gender, class and identity.

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Jacy Topps is a New York-based writer and PR executive. She writes primarily about fashion, NYC, music, LGBT culture and wine. Her love for Lifetime movies is bordering on an obsession. When she’s not attending fashion events in NYC, you can find her sipping wine and binge watching Gossip Girl on Netflix. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram @jacytopps.

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