Artist and director Lynn Hershman's voice may be calm, even low-key, as she narrates her documentary history, !Women Art Revolution, but her message is anything but subtle.
Hershman says !WAR was her 40-year pregnancy; as a young female artist in the 1960s (and for the next few decades), she collected interviews and anecdotes of women's fight for equality in the arts world from fellow female artists who passed through her Berkeley living room.
And even after completing her documentary, Hershman admits there's work to be done.
"Name three women artists," challenges Hershman in the beginning of the film. Each individual she encounters on the streets of New York struggles, and Hershman builds her case -- for decades, women in the contemporary art world were often ignored, sometimes censored, and always undervalued.
Throughout the two-hour documentary, she showcases the work of Judith Baca, Judy Chicago, Harmony Hammond, Suzanne Lacy, Miriam Shapiro, and the Guerrilla Girls, to name a few. And through interviews taken in the '60s and '70s, and then again decades later, she provides a rare insight to each of their struggles in getting their work to be noticed, and taken seriously.
There are tears and rage as a few artists recall struggling with universities to educate students about female art, with institutions to feature women's artwork, and with the U.S. Congress and other members of the art community over scandals including the censorship of Judy Chicago's The Dinner Party and the death of Ana Mendieta.
And there is hope, as late curator Marcia Tucker recalls telling her then employer at The Whitney Museum of American Art the reasons he didn't want to employ a woman and couldn't take a woman seriously in the art world. When she was ultimately fired, she found a building, put up a few signs, and opened what's now the New Museum of Contemporary Art in New York City over a long weekend.
Hershman's documentary style is admittedly low-budget. She saved hundreds of hours of film, thousands of photos until she had just enough funding (and the right timing) to sit down and edit.
She argues that the primary evil in the development of women art in the U.S. was omission (from galleries, catalogs, auction houses, and all-too-often-discussion), which is why her documentary may feel at times a little drawn out or overly inclusive of an immense collection.
But ultimately, it is Hershman's voice, both in beginning and end of the film, that's brutally honest about the struggle of her peers, and herself, and that calls to arms a future generation of female artists (and encourages them to explore their own history).
!Women Art Revolution premieres Tonight at FilmBar at 7:30 p.m. and is running through August 13.
Read more about the film on the !WAR website and contribute to Hershman's continuing documentation of women's artwork at rawwar.org.
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