How The Whitney Houston Biennial Help To Push Feminist Art Forward



In New York’s abundance of art fairs and gallery shows, male artists have always tended to outnumber female artists. One show this Spring, however, sought to change this gender imbalance: The Whitney Houston Biennial. The exhibition, which was founded two years by curator and painter Chritsine “C.” Finley, has since doubled in the size of the space and the number of artists included. This year’s show features over 160 female-identified artists.

“For the first version, I imagined that if I was tapped as the curator of the Whitney, I would show three floors of women artists,” says Finley. “When I told this to my friend, the artist Eddy Segal, she immediately made a joke and said, ‘The Whitney Houston Biennial!’ We laughed like crazy but I also realized that I had to do it. We created such a wonderful platform for highlighting female artists, I knew we needed to keep going. I am already arranging for 2019!”

By this year, when Finley staged the show at a building on West Broadway, the original concept had evolved. Every inch of available wall and floor space was covered in art within the gallery space. From the salon-style hung paintings, drawings and photographs to the various video pieces and small installations, the show created a sense of organized chaos. It features a mix of painting, drawing, screen printing, video and found object works that require more than just a walk through. While it appears to be light-hearted, the exhibit (produced with the help of Chashama.org)serves as a vital deconstruction of the contemporary art world. Amidst the sea of art fairs, including the current Whitney Biennial (which gave Finely’s version its name), the show had a lot to offer.

The range of works touched on topics including body image, race, intersectional feminism and more. In addition to the works themselves, each artist was also asked to include the name and description of a woman pioneer who inspired them.

“So on the wall text next to each piece we have Joan of Arc, Beyonce, Sappho, Patricia McCormick, who’s a female matador, and many more,” said Finley. “Their stories are included in the exhibition which is a new element for this show.”

One video, entitled “Midnight Work” features the work of artist Chanel Matsunami Govreau. Also known as Queen Gidrea, Govreau is a performer, photographer and mixed media artist explores issues of gender, race, and identity within her work.

“Midnight Work” is an edited version of a dance class the artist took on Waacking. This style of dance, developed during the 1970s in LGBTQ club spaces, emphasizes making hand and arm gestures to the beat of the music. The video itself is focused on the women who participated in that particular class, with close up shots of their faces, exaggerated looks and hand gestures.

Govreau’s experience as a self-identified queer woman exploring these charged socio-political spaces within the context of this performance and others, is a complicated meta deconstruction. As a kind of intersectional feminist gesture within the video itself, this is taken a step further in the person that Govreau chose as her pioneer, noted feminist and critical race scholar, Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw. Crenshaw has also been credited with the development of intersectional feminism.

“This is for You,” a video piece by Francena Ottley, also takes on issues of race and identity, and features the artist doing various friends hair in an apartment setting. The video is accompanied by a sculpture entitled, “Seat of Heritage,” a children’s sized chair covered in braided hair. The works seemed to be referencing the larger complicated history of African American  hair and the representations of it but it is the artist’s investigation of these topics that give it more meaning.

The DIY feeling of the Biennial is reminiscent of the Armory’s “Spring Break Show” but seems to be angling to do something more. There is scrappiness and hard edge  that produces a larger sense of urgency. Perhaps it is in the overwhelming volume of work, the setup of the show, or the larger political climate we are currently in, but the Biennial underscores many of the voices, works and artists that often go unrecognized and this show is helping to give them vital recognition.

By creating a larger sense of community which does speak directly back to feminism in general and also third wave feminism specifically, Finley has curated a show in which women’s issues are at the forefront. Seeing the works of Justin Vivian Bond alongside those of emerging art students is encouraging to say the least; however, there is still a lot of work to be done. As Finley noted, plans are already underway for the 2019 biennial and it will be exciting to see what the next phase in this this exhibition will bring.