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Simpson Center for the Humanities

New Geographies of Feminist Art: China, Asia, and the World

Through an examination of the role of women artists, the past and future of feminism, and the visual representation of gender and sexuality, Sonal Khullar (Art History) and Sasha Welland (Gender, Women, & Sexuality Studies) aim to reorient scholarly discussion of contemporary art towards nonwestern centers, from Mumbai and Shanghai to Tokyo and Jakarta. Together they have been organizing an international conference, New Geographies of Feminist Art: China, Asia, and the World. It takes place at the UW November 15-17, 2012. With support from the American Council of Learned Societies, the conference focuses on the transnational circulation of feminist aesthetics and politics.

A specialist in contemporary Chinese art, Welland thinks that traditional art historical discourse has limited the interpretation of artwork by Asian women in two significant ways. “They are either understood to be marginal participants in a male-dominated scene or their work is understood to be derivative of Western feminist art,” she explains. “Such interpretations not only deny them the critical reception accorded to their male peers, they also fail to recognize the deep, nuanced, and influential engagements of these artists with national and transnational art movements, institutions, and socio-cultural formations.”

Khullar, who specializes in modern and contemporary Indian art, agrees. “The heroic actions of male artists, from Cai Guoqiang and Ai Weiwei to Subodh Gupta and Atul Dodiya, garner the lion’s share of attention in the international art world. That focus eclipses the contributions of women, such as Pan Yuliang, Yayoi Kusama, N. Pushpamala, and Kimsooja, to modern and contemporary Asian art. When women artists receive attention, such as during the 1995 United Nations Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing, recognition tends to be short-lived,” she says. “In addition, their work is often categorized as ‘women’s art,’ limiting the ways in which their art is received and discounting their impact on society.”

The conference brings together feminist art historians, anthropologists, historians, and Asian and cultural studies scholars, as well as artists and curators. Participants will investigate gender as a central form of power in the representational politics of contemporary Asian art, and the conference’s modes of inquiry will be grounded in a comparative framework. With presentations on art in the People’s Republic of China, Singapore, Taiwan, India, Indonesia, Japan, Korea, and Vietnam, the conference rethinks the history and theory of feminist practice.

Shu-mei Shih (Asian Languages & Cultures, University of California, Los Angeles) will deliver a Katz Distinguished Lecture in the Humanities as the opening keynote address. Her talk takes place on Thursday, November 15, at 6:00 pm in Kane 220. While at the UW, she will also lead a colloquium on the racialization of area studies and ethnic studies. This colloquium takes place on Wednesday, November 14, at 3:30 pm. Ted Mack (Asian Languages & Literature) will be teaching a microseminar for graduate students in conjunction with her visit.

For the New Geographies conference, Artists Hung Liu (San Francisco), Wu Mali (Taipei), and Navjot (Mumbai) will present their work and engage each other in a roundtable discussion. Conference sessions explore six interlocking themes: the city and the country, art markets and art worlds, sites and structures.

New Geographies is timed to coincide with Elles, a major exhibition of feminist art hosted by the Seattle Art Museum (SAM) from October 2012 to January 2013. Organized by the Centre Pompidou in Paris, Elles narrates the history of modern and contemporary art exclusively through the work of women artists in the museum’s collection. The conference initiates a critical dialogue with this exhibition, aimed at rewriting national art histories and global feminist art history. Participants will tour the exhibition with SAM curators, bolstering the links between the museum and the university. Such interactions reshape and reimagine artistic and curatorial agendas in the Pacific Rim and beyond.

Welland and Khullar will edit a hybrid print-digital volume, based on conference presentations, outlining new directions in artistic and curatorial practice. It will be published in illustrated print form and in an interactive digital format, which will include multi-modal elements—video art, documentary footage, and interviews—as well as a searchable image database. The publication, intended for audiences in the academy and the art world, will catalyze a new field of transnational inquiry into feminist art.

“Feminist scholarship is not just about creating knowledge for knowledge’s sake but about changing inequitable status quos, within the university and in the larger publics we participate in,” Welland states. “In this sense, the feminist goals of this conference require interdisciplinarity, across academic disciplines such as art history, anthropology, and area studies, but also in the sense of praxis across academic, curatorial, and artistic realms.”

Working across disciplines enables scholars to see connections—and disjunctions—across national boundaries. Khullar says, “As a discipline, art history privileges the art object, visual form, and aesthetic theories. An interdisciplinary approach brings the social, political, and economic dimensions of artworks into focus.”

New Geographies of Feminist Art is sponsored by the Simpson Center for the Humanities, the College of Arts & Sciences, the Henry Art Gallery, and the Gardner Center for Asian Art and Ideas of the Seattle Art Museum, with generous support from the American Council of Learned Societies, funded by the Chiang Ching-kuo Foundation for International Scholarly Exchange.


Image: Navjot, Mumbai Meri Jaan, 2004, 13.36 minutes, video installation, four-channel projection, color, sound, loop. Permission of the artist. Photo: © Prakash Rao and Rakesh Somalwar. From New Geographies of Feminist Art: China, Asia, and the World