2020 marked the 50th anniversary of coeducation in college, the centenary of the ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment, and the 99th anniversary of the Tulsa race massacre. These stories that have been overshadowed by the pandemic – and as such are often forgotten – are at the forefront of the Sweaty Concepts exhibition at the Williams College Museum of Art (WCMA). The exhibition reminds us that the fight to “fully appropriate one’s space” is not a concept specific to the pandemic.
Sweaty Concepts shines a light on those who have fought for their right to ‘be’, describing ‘experiences across gender identity, sexual orientation, race and ability, which involve finding a place where it is not. ‘doesn’t already exist,’ as the WCMA website explains. The exhibition borrows its name from the notion of “sweaty concept” by feminist scholar and writer Sara Ahmed: a concept “which comes out of the description of a body which is not at home in the world”. The exhibition, taken from WCMA’s collection, is not united in form or method of expression – visitors see works ranging from graphite sketches by Nayland Blake on paper to iconic LED installations by Jenny Holzer – but are united in spirit. Sweaty Concepts is a chronicle of the struggles over the past half century to fight for space as a woman, Black, East Asian immigrant, sexual minority, Indigenous, religious minority and person with a disability.
Visitors to the exhibition first meet Kerry Stewart this girl bends over (1996), a fiberglass sculpture emanating from his presence in the center of the gallery. The Gravity-Defying Girl is both realistic and strangely unnatural. She embodies the uncomfortable nature of breaking the glass ceiling while also emphasizing the superhuman strength required to achieve and ultimately achieve equality.
Another remarkable work is that of Nancy Spero Androgynous bomb and victims (1966), in gouache and ink on paper depicting an androgynous figure fiercely exercising what appear to be streams symbolizing war and sexual violence. Immediately noticeable are the creases and wrinkles in the paper Spero used – a deliberate choice to move away from the male-dominated medium of oil on canvas. It responds to both the Vietnam War and the perpetual violence of the patriarchy, linking the image of exploding bombs to ejaculation. The painting is an aggressive and emotional rejection of violence and asks the viewer to notice the similarities (and sometimes congruence) between patriarchy and war.
May Stevens echoes this rejection of patriarchy and war by telling a story of individual struggle and oppression in Big Daddy Paper Doll (1970). Steven places the portrait of his “patriotic” father in the context of the paper dolls to respond to patriarchy and the then ongoing Vietnam War. A phallic paper doll with the clothes of a soldier, policeman, butcher and executioner represents the violent patriarchy and imperialism of the time, but is stripped of its power and recontextualized in the frame of a traditionally “female” paper doll. together.
Patty Chang Single Channel DVD Video Fountain (1999) coincides abundantly with feminism in the work of Spero and Stevens. Chang explores the intersectional nature of the oppression she faces as an East Asian woman living in the United States. The work clearly draws on Narcissus’ imagery and presents the struggle of an image to become whole again. By addressing beauty standards, the male gaze and representations of Asian women, Fountain describes the process of examining one’s identity through the uncomfortable and often violent gaze of others.
Still other works seem more relevant these days. that of Zoé Léonard i want a president (1992, reprinted 2018) is a deeply personal relay of desire for representation, highlighting the seemingly impenetrable barriers for LGBTQ + and economically disadvantaged people to influence the political decision-making process. After the historic US presidential elections of 2016 and 2020, Leonard makes us think about how much we have changed and how far we are from the world depicted in I want a president. The words, printed on skin paper and installed behind a transparent plate, it looks like they are written on the wall. Perhaps this resonates with the desire for the representation to fit into the foundations of our society, just like the way the text seems to fit into the fundamental structure of the building.
Through humor, anger, bitter sadness or nihilism, the artists pave the way for challenging societal power dynamics that perpetuate systemic oppression. They no longer ask questions like “Do I belong?” ” ” May I sit ? Or “Could you please respect me?” They are making statements, rejecting the forces that have kept them apart, proudly declaring their right to be here and to fully own the space. In this way, Sweaty Concepts is indeed a platform for historically under-represented voices to take a stand.
The questions posed in the exhibit could be asked of WCMA itself, its legacy and its future. As a museum within a predominantly white liberal arts college heavily influenced by a history of colonialism and slavery, WCMA must be especially vigilant about its relationship to oppressive systems. The museum‘The possession of Assyrian reliefs, donated for controversial and colonialist missionary work, and its relatively thin “African,” “Native American,” and “Eastern” collections both raise questions that the WCMA must answer.
However, Sweaty Concepts Undoubtedly brings back to the surface of discussions on the fight against oppression. Hopefully this is a statement – corroborated by WCMA’s attempts to reflect on its history through exhibitions like Remix the room, which reflect on the College’s relationship with colonialism and slavery – by the museum on its vision of becoming a home for all the different voices at the College, where not everyone will just be “To be” but also to prosper.