It’s a woman’s world at Bozar’s Summer of Photography


The fifth Summer of Photography festival in Brussels zooms in on gender issues and artistic emancipation

Focus on feminism

For women, photography was different, says Gabriele Schor, the Austrian curator of Bozar’s new exhibition, WOMAN: The Feminist Avant-Garde of the 1970s, which stands as the centrepiece of the fifth biennial Summer of Photography festival in Brussels.

According to Schor, when women took up photography and other new media in the 1960s and ’70s, it was an act of artistic emancipation. “For the first time in the history of art, the ‘image of women’ was being created by women,” she says.

WOMAN, a collection of 450 works – mostly photographs – by 29 European and American female artists of the 1970s, sets the tone for this year’s festival, which takes a penetrating look into the world of gender and how it is performed and experienced in different societies.

Spearheaded by Bozar and in collaboration with 36 partners, Summer of Photography spreads across 20 locations in the Brussels-Capital Region, representing more than 85 artists.

The works vary widely, from Schor’s look at Western photographers in the 1970s to contemporary images that look more globally at how women are represented through art. For instance, in Where we’re at! Other Voices on Gender, 25 artists with African, Caribbean and Pacific backgrounds explore their personal experiences of gender and sexuality, while Power & Play at De Markten collects works from former Soviet states to examine how artists reflect on the position of women in those countries.

However, all share a common aim: To hold up a mirror to society and reflect the dialogues that surround gender today. 

Debate around gender

Most of the exhibitions focus on issues concerning women and feminism. But others explore other themes in gender, such as the vulnerability and camaraderie displayed in Flemish photographer Stephan Vanfleteren’s poignant portraits of the national football team at Botanique and the gender-bending themes in Pepa Hristova’s Sworn Virgins, also at Bozar.

We wanted to get people questioning what they think they know

- Christophe De Jaeger, Bozar

“Every day in the newspaper you see a debate around women, but what is that debate? Is this the debate we should be having now? Is the feminist discourse from the ’70s really relevant today or do we need something newer, broader?”

Schor points out that “when you go to a traditional museum, you see a lot of women in the paintings and sculptures, but who painted them? They were painted by men. Men controlled how we saw women.”

This, she says, is why it was very important when, in the 1970s, female artists took up photography. “Because it had no history – in particular, it had no male history.”

Beginning with the avant-garde

By calling her collection avant-garde, Schor establishes the 1970s as a time of radical change in the art world for women. “There was a break in art history, where women artists took up the medium of photography and used it,” she says. “They were not interested in a perfect print. They wanted – needed – to say something.”

Women were not interested in a perfect print. They wanted to say something

- Curator Gabriele Schor

So we as visitors watch them say this. Walking through the exhibition, one sees these artists dressing up, disguising themselves, transforming their genders, their professions, their ages. By doing so, they question the clichés of their sex, the roles they play and the assumptions about what is “natural” for them to be or to look like.

Whether is it the provocativeness of Flemish artist Lili Dujourie, the reflectivity of the talented yet ill-fated Francesca Woodman (she died aged just 22), or the playfulness of Cindy Sherman and Birgit Jürgenssen, this decade saw the same themes and methods of expression appearing among female artists across the West.

“It was the first time that women in the arts, even those who did not know each other, were doing similar things, sharing similar ideas,” says Schor.

A new artist in the old world

If WOMAN puts photography into a context of the accomplishments of Second Wave feminism of the 1970s, then Ash Bowland’s Female Gazing lets us observe the results Schor’s pioneers have had on today’s generation of artists.

Bowland, a Flemish artist from Brussels, directly engages with her feminist predecessors, creating Female Gazing – at the InBetween Gallery in the Brussels district of Elsene – in response to feminist theorist Laura Mulvey’s term the “male gaze”, coined in 1975 in her essay “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema”.

While Bowland agrees that the “male gaze” – the notion that the way men look at women often defines women in a society – remains important, she says that in her experience as a young artist today, how women look at other women can be just as defining.

I am trying to feel out where the lines lie between the male and female gaze

- Artist Ash Bowland

“When we talk about the female gaze, we often talk about women looking at men, but I think it is important that we also talk about women looking at women,” Bowland says. “What I try to do with the images is show a situation where men and women are together, and then I think about the position of the woman. It is about creating the question: How do I look at women?”

The 24-year-old artist, fresh out of Brussels’ Sint-Lukas art school, says that right now in her work she is happy to remain a student. She consciously chose “gazing” over “gaze” for the title of her project to emphasise that her work comes from a place of investigation.

“I am not making any statement,” she says. “I am trying to feel out where the lines lie between the male and female gaze. It is more of an exploration.”

However, Bowland is sure that the road to confronting the imposition of gender in one’s life and work can be a difficult one. “When you are young, you are looking on the one hand for your own femininity and your place in the world, and on the other hand you have to confront – if you choose to – those who try to get you down because you are a woman.”

Art, Bowland says, offers one solution: “We have the perfect weapon to face those trying to bring women down: the practice of image-making.”

50 years of change

While exhibitions like WOMAN and Female Gazing can stand on their own, having some knowledge of the history of women’s movements certainly helps take more away from the festival programme.

In the history of feminism, you can see that is has always been a movement of the young

- Curator Hildegarde Van Hove

Without quickly enrolling in a gender studies degree, getting a sense of the history and accomplishments of feminism and women’s movements in your own backyard is a good place to start. In 50 Years Fighting for Equality, the library and documentation centre RoSa aims to provide just this.

Located in the Flemish Equality House, RoSa’s exhibition presents a retrospective, looking back at the major events of women’s movements in Belgium and how they have changed society.

While it’s perhaps more academic than other exhibitions in Summer of Photography, what RoSa lacks in original artwork, it makes up for in context and explanation. The goal behind 50 Years is clear: To place feminism and women’s rights in context.

Since its founding in 1978, RoSa has been documenting the history of local women’s movements. Today, its specialised library holds the artefacts and documents that illustrate how far women’s rights have come in the past decades.

It is these artefacts, says 50 Years curator Hildegarde Van Hove, that provide the key to giving people a sense of history as they confront questions about the roles of gender in society.

Women in Belgium

A lot of RoSa’s task is correcting negative stereotypes about feminism and women’s rights often held by the public. “Many people think that feminism is made up of humourless, dissatisfied old women,” says Van Hove. “But in the history of feminism, you can see that it has always been a movement of the young. This is especially true today. The groups carrying out actions for women’s rights are more diverse and more colourful than ever.”

The exhibition moves from the 1966 three-month strike of female employees of the FN Herstal weapons factory, fighting for equal pay, to the mid-1970s campaign of Dutch and Flemish feminist activist group Dolle Mina. They were fighting for the “right to get lung cancer”, as women were forbidden to smoke in workplaces while men were not. By the end, you’ve landed at the struggle for the rights of transgendered people today.

Above all, Van Hove hopes that the audience will take away these achievements from the exhibition. “I would be satisfied if they got the message of what the women’s movement has accomplished over the last 50 years ­– it is a whole lot and it is important to appreciate that.”

Summer of Photography, until 31 August, Across Brussels

The Summer of Photography festival at Bozar in Brussels zooms in on gender issues and artistic emancipation

LinkedIn this