Writing 1: ‘Still I Rise’ by Jessie Cohen

Jessie Cohen is a London based British-South African freelance writer and Communications Consultant to Goodman Gallery.  Jessie is a YCC member contributing a text in response to the YCC funded project ‘Still I Rise’.

“You may write me down in history
With your bitter, twisted lies,
You may trod me in the very dirt
But still, like dust, I’ll rise
[…] Out of the huts of history’s shame
I rise
Up from a past that’s rooted in pain
I rise
[…] I rise
[…] I rise”

– Extract from Maya Angelou, Still I Rise, 1978

 Echoes of rage, poise and uncompromising defiance anchor Still I Rise: Feminisms, Gender, Resistance – a fiercely ambitious historic exhibition which takes its title from Maya Angelou’s iconic seventies poem that was deployed by Black Power and Feminist movements in the late twentieth century.

Still I Rise is curated by Irene Aristizabal, Rosie Copper and Cedric Fauq and realised across two epic back-to-back ‘acts’, not parts or iterations – acts, alluding to an unfolding drama and to the possibilities that can emerge when art and activism meet. Act I ran at Nottingham Contemporary from October to February this year and Act II is currently on at the De La Warr Pavilion in Bexhill-on-Sea until May.

The exhibition is one of the first to comprehensively refute the notion that feminism has emerged in the form of haphazard waves since the start of the twentieth century. This idea was first planted in popular consciousness in 2011 by Caitlin Moran who wrote in her seminal book How to be a Woman: ‘I suspect it's around the fifth wave that you stop referring to individual waves and start to refer, simply, to an incoming tide.’ As it turns out, a jibe at this reductive mainstream mechanism for measuring feminist movements is a little simpler to articulate than is to demonstrate. Still I Rise guides viewers through almost 200 years of feminist and intersectional queer thinking, spanning the 1800s to today. The exhibition presents a composite flow of voices, not only from the West but from Africa, Asia, South America and the Middle East.

At Nottingham Contemporary, the exhibition is partially informed by the city’s history of resistance movements which is explored in relation to printmaking, craft, speculative fiction, direct action, performance and ecology. At the De La Warr Pavilion, the exhibition is weighted more towards design and architecture in an effort ‘to reflect the building’s origins as a manifestation of a socially progressive agenda’.

In spite of these emphases, I find myself most compelled by works that speak more corporeally to questions around gender and sexuality – of which the exhibition is packed. Standout pieces include Ad Minoliti’s interactive installation which plays with the idea of post-humans and cyborgs, seeking to queer space and challenge gender roles. Another great piece is an early 1990s video work by Glenn Belverio / Glennda Orgasm who uses humour to disrupt percieved ideas of gender and coined the term ‘drag queen feminism’.

 But it is American artist Judy Chicago and French Guianese artist Tabita Rezaire who capture my attention most profoundly. Chicago’s featured pieces Smoke Bodies (1972), Smoke Goddess/Woman with Orange Flares (1972) and Smoke Hole #2 (1970) were created in the early 1970s, when the artist was working in a starkly male-centric moment in the California art scene, which led her to want to create ‘openly female-centred art’, as she described it.

Chicago’s digital prints capture site-specific performances in which brightly painted nude female bodies appear – as if dropped from space – within an ardd desert landscape. Plumes of coloured smoke rise from the land’s surface, mirroring the striking greens, purples and pinks of the female forms.

For the artist, smoke has a ‘softening’ effect on our environment which has fallen victim to ‘the masculine gesture of knocking down trees and digging holes in the earth’. Through her smoke interventions, the exhibition catalogue explains, Chicago ‘sought to merge with the landscape rather than destroy it’. One can perhaps go further, interpreting this desire to merge with the Earth with in an attempt to radically rejuvenate it and in so doing to posit the meeting of two powerful forces hitherto unpotentiated.  

While Chicago’s images are alluring, it could be argued that the artist peddles a somewhat dated position, unwittingly repeating patriarchal stereotypes by which the female sex is aligned with notions of an earthy, natural ‘essence’ and a ‘soft’ disposition. This essentialist position on gender has since been debunked by Queer Feminist theorists like Judith Butler whose key writings emerged in the 1990s, persuasively arguing that gender is not essential to our being but is instead a social construct.

Rezaire also sets out critique patriarchal power structures in an attempt to inspire healing and renewal, but does so in a more millennial fashion. For her video work, SENEB (2016), the artist-come-digital-healer positions her body at the centre of the screen. Imbued with an exaggerated sensual presence, the work tows a thin line between parodying the exoticised black female ‘other’ and inhabiting the role with diva-esque gusto and self-love.  

In the artist’s words: ‘SENEB is a house of extraordinary babes invested in healing. SENEB comes from the ancient Kemetic word/symbol meaning health […] or rather ‘to be sound’ ‘to have soundness’ […] SENEB is about harnessing the power of vibration to heal our wounds – may they be physical, emotional, technological, historical or spiritual.’  

In her practice, Rezaire engages with Bantu healing cosmologies – an African spiritual philosophy which she argues to be the (unacknowledged) basis for Western quantum physics. While Rezaire’s body is at the centre of her practice she speaks from a position of a collective, presenting SENEB as ‘a community of people engaged with African and Diasporic healing technologies, an energy centre for us to remember, feel (re)connect, share and vibrate high so as to nurture our health, energy and wisdoms.’

To anyone hoping to find another easily digestible show on Frida Kahlo or the suffragettes, Still I Rise does not deliver. The exhibition resists pressure to provide a dominating individual or even national narrative, instead favouring artists and collectives whose practice incorporates collaborative modes of resistance.

The exhibition invites viewers to engage with the messy vastness of generations of art and activism – and, with a delicate nudge out of your comfort zone, it prompts new forms of engagement and learning. Indeed, on journeying through this enchanting web, we are not directed to take a particular route, but rather encouraged to follow our own queer feminist compass. The induced feeling of wild panic tempered by self-empowered calm seems to re-enact the charged dual state activated within Angelou’s poem: with declarations of vulnerability, she is stilled by her conviction and able to rise up against tides of oppression. Here, perhaps on acknowledging complete overwhelm, one can locate an inner clarity – a stillness – from which it is possible to dive in and join the oncoming tide.