Waging W.A.R. on Inequality

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“Do women have to be naked to get into the Met. Museum,” courtesy of the Guerrilla Girls

Over 40 years ago, in the mid-’60s, a young artist named Lynn Hershman Leeson borrowed a camera to document the Feminist Art Movement, now dubbed by historians as one of the most significant art movements of the 20th century. Though that time period is often described as the era of free love and liberation, women were given the right to vote only 40 years prior, and were still fighting for equality, even in the so-called liberal arts community.  As second-wave feminism began to pick up speed alongside the Civil Rights Movement, groups of women artists began to speak up against discrimination in the art community and beyond, through various creative mediums.
Hershman Leeson captured their voices and took their stories straight to the silver screen with her documentary film, !Women Art Revolution, which made its debut at the 2011 Sundance Film Festival. Narrated by Hershman Leeson (who is also the writer, director, editor and producer), the film features interviews with over 40 female artists, video clips and photographs accumulated over the past 40 years of the brave women who refused to accept the omission of their work based on sexist standards. As a performance artist specializing in media and based out of Berkeley, Calif., Hershman Leeson began to record her colleagues and friends, realizing that the work they were doing was significant. “It was a remarkable time, and I did not want to forget what people were thinking and what was going on,” she says.
Hershman Leeson recorded throughout the years, capturing footage of some of the pioneering moments of the Feminist Art Movement, which included protests against the many male artist dominated exhibits, the first feminist art education programs and a variety of breakthrough performances and installations. From the controversial Dinner Party exhibition created by feminist artist Judy Chicago in 1979, a room-sized piece with 39 place settings each depicting the vaginas of mythical and historical women, to the tragic death of “earth-body” performance artist Ana Mendieta, whose murder sparked a passionate protest in front of the Guggenheim Museum in 1988, Hershman Leeson successfully presents the previously untold history of the world-changing movement.

Storing the film in boxes under her bed and in the closet, it wasn’t until 2004 that she looked through the footage and realized it was the only documentation that existed of the movement. “I felt responsible because I was the only one with the footage. No one else could have done this,” she says. Going through hundreds of hours worth of film, Hershman Leeson had a difficult time choosing what to include in the final product, as it all seemed important to the history. Fortunately for the world, she decided to make all of her recordings (over 12,000 minutes worth) available online at rawwar.org.

How she funded the film is what made my feminist heart swell with pride, however. Unable to sell her art for over 17 years due to her gender, Hershman Leeson finally sold her art for 9,000 times the original asking price. “It is a metaphor: waiting created value for all of us. History caught up,” she says.

The interviews presented in !W.A.R. are undoubtedly the foundation of the film. Women such as performance artists Rachel Rosenthal and Miranda July, activist Nancy Spero and the infamous Guerrilla Girls make appearances, some as young artists speaking in the moment and others as matured women looking back, or both. “It was like an underground railroad. The women in America were just waiting to be released,” says artist and educator Miriam Schapiro in the film. Of course, not that most of you have ever heard of them. In fact, the film begins with a woman questioning passersby outside the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, asking if they can name three female artists. “Frida…” is about as far as anyone gets. By telling their side of history through this film, Hershman Leeson has begun our re-education.
Unlike the leaders of the feminist movements before her, suffrage leader Susan B. Anthony and Equal Rights Amendment writer Alice Paul among them, Hershman Leeson has seen the fruits of her labor bloom in her lifetime. !W.A.R. concludes with the 2007 WACK! Art and the Feminist Revolution opening in LA, the first exhibition of its kind. “Just look at the number of women in galleries and museums today,” says Hershman Leeson. “It is still a fraction of what it should be, but there are much more possibilities and options than there were then.” Although the credits are rolling, it’s not yet over. “Women achieving equality would have been a perfect ending,” she says. So now it’s our turn, sister.
Though we’re nearly 50 years removed from that era, it’s difficult to ignore the parallels between our generation and Hershman Leeson’s. Their Vietnam is our Iraq, their Kent State is our Occupy, their civil rights movement is our fight for gay rights. How did history repeat itself? Perhaps it’s because we were only told one side of the story, and the rest was kept in boxes under a bed—until now.
For more information on the film, visit womenartrevolution.com. To check out the extra footage along with more submissions from feminists around the world and even submit your own art(!), go to rawwar.org. Watch for DVD copies to be released through Zeitgeist Films in
March 2012.