Me / Sherry Wiggins, On Their Shoulders (in my studio), 2021
I am beginning a new practice in the studio (and other places too)—I am learning to photograph myself with my new Sony camera. I have initiated this self-imaging practice with a conceptual and physical ritual—I have chosen 17 women artists: all are conceptual artists and or photographers and or performance artists using photography and film as a medium. I would consider all of them feminists, several are or were writers and theorists as well, all born before 1960. I stand on their shoulders; both figuratively and literally. I have been researching and looking at their work and also collecting books about all of them. I intend to choose a few of each of their works in photography and/or film and simulate or extrapolate on their works with myself as the subject. This is a long-term project that lies adjacent to my on-going project with remarkable women artists of the 20th century “Searching Selves.” This is both an exercise in self-representation and a homage to these amazing women’s work and contributions.
I have repurposed a space in my studio that is evenly lit in the daytime. I hung a black cloth on the wall and over a table. I then set the books of my 17 women artists (18 including myself, notice THE UNKNOWN HEROINE on the top) on the black table. I settled my naked shoulders atop the stack of books and shot multiple images of myself resting / posing on their / our books.
Following are short descriptions of the 17 women’s art practices with an image that exemplifies their work (for me). There is a spectrum of representation (of women and of self) that all these artists cast in their work and on whose shoulders I hope to follow and embody. These artists spur me on and inspire me / conspire with me.
Madame Yevonde was born Yevonde Philone Cumbers in London, U.K. (1893-!975). I have just discovered the work of Madame Yevonde. She was known for her use of color and her commercial and portrait photography. She was also a feminist and a suffragette in the early part of the 20th century. I am particularly interested in the series of portraits she made of British aristocratic ladies in the guise of various goddesses and mythical figures; now known as the “Goddess” series. These images appear to me as both beautiful and “camp” representations of the historical and archetypal feminine.
Claude Cahun was born Lucy Renee Mathilde Schwob in Nantes, France (1894-1954). My adoration, fascination and study of writer, photographer, performance artist Claude Cahun continues with a more intensive study of their “self” presentations. Cahun’s life-long representation of their multiple selves in photographs displays their continual questioning and performance of identity, gender and self. You can read more about Claude Cahun on my previous blog posts. https://sherrywigginsblog.com/2018/12/16/my-heroine-claude-cahun-posted-in-boulder-co-december-16-2018/
Maya Deren was born Eleonora Derenkowska in Kiev, Russia (1917-1961). Maya was born to a Jewish family; her father was a psychologist. They fled Russia for the US in 1922. Maya was brilliant and well educated; she received her master’s degree in English literature from Smith College. She was also beautiful and multi-talented —Maya Deren worked as: an avant-garde filmmaker; choreographer; dancer; anthropologist; film theorist and photographer. I love Deren’s self-presentation in her films. I have studied and mimicked her 1943 film “Meshes of the Afternoon” with my 2013 project “Me and Maya.” I would like to again look at her self- representation particularly in the 1944 film “At Land.” Deren projects a meditative and dream-like spell in her work—I am interested in exploring various states of mind and of the subconscious in my own work.
Anne Noggle was born in Evanston, Illinois USA (1922-2005). Noggle was an amazing artist/photographer whom I have only recently discovered. Noggle was an aviator in her early life and a WASP pilot during WWII. She then studied art and photography at the University of New Mexico in her forties and later taught photography at UNM. Noggle is known for her frank black and white photographic portrayals of older women and particularly of herself. As I question why I (a 66-year-old woman) am compelled to be photographed by others and now by myself, I look to Anne Noggle as a mentor and guide. I realize that the representation of older women continues to be taboo in our society—our physical, sexual, spiritual and even intellectual selves remain relatively invisible.
Helena Almeida was born in Lisbon, Portugal (1934-2018). I am forever influenced by the work of Portuguese conceptualist Helena Almeida whom, I have studied in depth. Almeida trained early as a painter and in her life-long art practice she used her body as the subject (her entire body, her feet, her face, her hands) in simple black and white photographs that she sometimes painted with blue or red paint. Almeida’s work crosses the boundaries of painting, performance and photography and film. I heart Helena Almeida; she was the original impetus for my work in Portugal with photographer Luis Branco. I have written about Almeida extensively on my blog: https://sherrywigginsblog.com/2015/08/24/i-have-started-my-research-on-helena-almeida/
Lorraine O’Grady was born in Boston, Massachusetts USA (1934). O’Grady is a conceptual artist, performance artist, writer, curator and critic. I am very sorry that I just missed her retrospective at the Brooklyn Museum “Both/And”. O’Grady came to her art practice in her fourties, after a career as a translator, intelligence analyst and even rock critic. O’Grady’s performative, video and installation work explores the cultural construction of identity and particularly that of black female subjectivity. She is also an art critic and writer. Her 1992 paper/essay “Olympia’s Maid-Reclaiming Black Female Subjectivity” was one of the first pieces of critical writing to focus on the black female body. I am excited to dive into her work and in particular her recently published collections of writings “Drawing in Space,” which also documents her amazing body of visual work. I love her early performance of the black beauty queen Mlle Bourgeoise decked out in a gown made of 180 pairs of white gloves.
VALIE EXPORT was born Waltraud Lehner in Linz, Austria (1940). VALIE EXPORT’s work is fabulous and brazenly feminist—even her name is a performance, she refused to stick with her father’s name and rebranded herself VALIE EXPORT (like the cigarette). I am especially influenced by her performative photography and body works. Her public performances of the late 60s and early 70s are brave, sometimes confrontational, serious but also kind of tongue and cheek – like EXPORT’s 1969 documentation of her performance “Action Pants-Genital Panic” shown below. For the performance, Export cut out the crotch of her pants and walked throughout a cinema/ theatre offering her crotch while pointing a gun at various people’s heads. I have written about Export on my blog: https://sherrywigginsblog.com/2017/03/13/why-the-body-why-valie-export-posted-in-boulder-march-12-2017/
)Anna Maria Maiolino was born in Scalia, Calabria, Italy (1942). Maiolino moved to Brazil with her family in 1960 (transplanted from Italy and Venezuela) and was involved in the Brazilian art movements of the 60s and 70s and has continued throughout her life as a significant and prolific artist. Maiolino works across a wide variety of mediums including; works on paper, poetry, installation, performance and sculpture. I admire her work tremendously. I love this relatively simple image below “Por um Fio / By a Thread.” Anna Maria is in the center, her mother to the left and her daughter then ten years old on the right.. It is a masterpiece depicting the continuity of the feminine (for those of us who are lucky enough to have a mother and a daugher alive at the same time). We are both tied by a thread and hanging on “By a Thread.”
Graciela Iturbide was born in Mexico City, Mexico (1942). Iturbide is a very well-known photographer whom I have only recently come to know about. Iturbide studied film in the early 70s with the intention of becoming a film director. She studied with Manuel Alvarez Brava, considered one of the most significant Latin American photographers of the 20th century, and realized that photography was her medium. Iturbide is known for her stunning black and white images—often her subjects are people of Mexico’s indigenous cultures. She focuses on identity, daily life, rituals and the roles of women. There are often dead animals involved. Iturbide’s work has been termed “anthropoetic” by critic Oscar C. Nates. Her work is magnificent. Below is one of her “self-portraits
Ana Mendieta was born in Havana, Cuba (1948-1985). Ana Mendieta is a mythic and influential figure in contemporary women’s art. Controversy still surrounds Mendieta’s tragic death at 36 years old as she fell 34 stories out of her NYC apartment window with her husband sculptor Carl Andre nearby. Mendieta grew up in Cuba in a wealthy family and after the revolution in 1960 her family sent Ana (aged 12) and her older sister (age 15) to the US—a traumatic dislocation that Mendieta suffered early on. Mendieta’s “earth-body” works from the 70s and early 80s have influenced countless artists. Mendieta stated in 1981: “I have been carrying out a dialogue between the landscape and the female body (based on my own silhouette). I believe this has been a direct result of my having been torn from my homeland (Cuba) during my adolescence. I am overwhelmed by the feeling of having been cast from the womb (nature). My art is the way I re-establish the bonds that unite me to the universe. It is a return to the maternal source.”
Carrie Mae Weems was born in Portland, Oregon USA (1953). Carrie Mae Weems is a profoundly influential artist—working as a photographer, as a performance artist with text and spoken word and with video since the early 80s. Weems is often the subject of her photographic works especially in her earlier works. No matter whom is the subject of the work; Weems draws us into the picture, always questioning. Here is a quote from Weems as spoken to Dawoud Bey: “… from the very beginning, I’ve been interested in the idea of power and the consequences of power; relationships are made and articulated through power. Another thing that’s interesting about the early work is that even though I’ve been engaged in the idea of autobiography, other ideas have been more important: the role of narrative, the social levels of humor, the deconstruction of documentary, the construction of history, the use of text, storytelling, performance, and the role of memory have all been more central to my thinking than autobiography.” I love her work and this work below particularly.
Nan Goldin was born in Washington D.C. USA (1953). Everybody knows something about the work of remarkable photographer Nan Goldin . . . I continue to love her portraiture work, from the beginnings to the present day—Goldin has photographed friends and lovers, herself, LGBT bodies, sexual and intimate encounters, battered bodies (including her own), beautiful sad and transitory moments. Her late 70s early 80s project “The Ballad of Sexual Dependency” is still heralded today. In her seemingly effortless images, Goldin manages to capture the supernal qualities of her subjects. And now Goldin (a recovering opioid addict herself) battles the opioid epidemic with her organization P.A.I.N.
Sophie Calle was born in Paris, France (1953). Calle is an ultimately cool and smart conceptual artist; photographer, installation artist, writer and prolific book artist. Calle constructs seductive narratives (mysteries, diaries, love letters) with text and image. Though we never quite believe the story, we are always draw into her fictive spell. Here is the text/story that goes with the image “Room with a View” which I am showing below:
“Some nights you can’t put into words. I spent the night of October 5, 2002 in a room set up for me at the top of the Eiffel Tower. In bed. Between white sheets, listening to the strangers who took turns at my bedside. Tell me a story so that I don’t fall asleep. Maximum length: 5 minutes. Longer if thrilling. No story, no visit. If your story sends me to sleep, please leave quickly and ask the guard to wake me… Hundreds turned up. Some nights you can’t describe. I came back down in the early morning. A message was flashing on each pillar: Sophie Calle, end of sleepless night, 7 :00 a.m. As if to confirm that I hadn’t dreamt it all. I asked for the moon and I got it: I SLEPT AT THE TOP OF THE EIFFEL TOWER. Since then, I keep an eye out for it, and if I glimpse it along some street, I say hello. Give it a fond look. Up there, 1,014 feet above ground, it’s a bit like home.”
Cindy Sherman was born in Glenridge, New Jersey USA (1954). Who doesn’t know about Cindy Sherman? —her photographic self-portraits (late 1970s to 2020s) where she transforms herself into myriad guises are amazing. Though she is my age contemporary and a kind of conceptual colleague, I have always steered clear of Cindy Sherman, I am not quite sure why. Of course, her skills in identity camouflage, masquerade and performative “self-portraiture” and her conceptual references to art history, feminine identity, not to mention her photographic skills are astounding. Still, I am not quite a fan girl. However, her early “Untitled Film Stills” from the 70s and early 80s where she recreates herself into various anonymous women of film are my favorites in the Cindy Sherman genre. And I think it is time for me to re-examine Sherman, after all.
Shirin Neshat was born in Qazvin, Iran (1957). Shirin Neshat is known for her remarkable work in film, video and photography. Neshat was raised in Iran in a wealthy Muslim family, her father a doctor and her mother a homemaker. She learned traditional Muslim religious values through her maternal grandparents. She also attended Catholic boarding school in Tehran. Her family encouraged her education and worldliness—Neshat left Iran in 1975 to study at U.C. Berkeley where she received her BA, MA and MFA. She remained in the US and her serious and multi-faceted art practice began in the 90s with “The Women of Allah” series. In this work she overlays portraits of Muslim women with handwritten Persian calligraphy, (sometimes inserting a gun in the picture as well). “The Women of Allah” and other work from this period examines notions of femininity in relationship to the Islamic fundamentalism that came to the fore with the Iranian Revolution of 1979. Neshat is also a prolific and award-winning filmmaker; “Turbulent” (1998), “Rapture” (1999) and “Women Without Men” (2004) have won her multiple awards. Neshat is also a critic in the photography department at Yale University. I have always admired her work and I want to learn more!
Francesca Woodman was born in Denver, Colorado USA (1958 – 1981). Woodman is another heralded figure in the history of women artists. Tragedy and mythos surround her work—she was a prolific young artist who committed suicide at age 22. She is my contemporary, born three years after me and we were both living in Boulder, Colorado in our teenage years. She went on to attend the Rhode Island School of Design. I knew her parents, artists Betty and George Woodman, who both taught at the University of Colorado where I went to art school when I was older and had children of my own. Anyway, in her short life Francesca was a remarkably productive and talented soul— her black and white self-portraits are dreamlike, stunning, melancholic and evocative. The work has influenced generations of young women photographers. Perhaps because I have entered this arena of “self-imaging” at this late stage in my art life, I have come to look at Francesca’s work with fresh (but older) eyes—there is much to be seen in her remarkable body of works. I wrote about Francesca’s work on my blog post: https://sherrywigginsblog.com/2019/03/29/another-heroine-francesca-woodman-posted-in-boulder-co-march-28-2019/
Laura Aguilar was born in San Gabriel, California USA (1959 – 2018). I have only recently learned about Laura Aguilar’s remarkable body of photographic work. Aguilar was the daughter of a first generation Mexican-American father and her mother is of mixed Mexican and Irish heritage, she was also born with auditory dyslexia and was a lesbian. Her self-portraiture focuses on her own identity as a differently abled Chicana lesbian who was obese as well. She also created a large body of works/portraits within the gay and lesbian and black and brown communities that she was a part of in California. Her self-portraiture work in the landscape is remarkable, subtle and beautiful. Charlene Villasenor Black, a professor at UCLA said: “[Aguilar] challenges the idea of the female nude—one of the most important genres in Western art—as the passive object of the male gaze. It’s very clear that she’s aware of the tradition, and she’s able to repeat certain elements from the canon in such a way that shows us how unstable that meaning is and to question these essentialized ideas about women.” Link: https://www.artnews.com/feature/laura-aguilar-who-is-she-1202684828/ Aguilar died in 2018 at the age of 58 from complications related to diabetes.
Looking at these remarkable women artists work is an important part of my art practice and I hope to continue to work “on their shoulders” in the coming months, possibly years in my own performative photographic work. Hugs . . .