Herland: In Search of a Female Utopia, Catalogue Essay

Herland: In Search of a Female Utopia, 2019, The Women’s Library, Sydney

Herland: In Search of a Female Utopia is more a question than a title for this exhibition of Women artists. It’s a question that doesn’t necessarily echo a singular answer. It is a question answered by many voices; some of whom may be heard loudly whilst others are softer in volume, but each voice is an essential part of the greater whole. And we are the summation of our parts.

If you asked me to describe what a feminine utopia looks like I’d admit to being stuck for words. I hope that with great feeling it would be a peaceful place where everyone, regardless of gender, sexuality, lifestyle and cultural background, would feel safe and included. After that it’s difficult to say because one of the main contentions with a utopia is the singularity of an individualistic ideal. What may work for me may not necessarily work for you. However, in creating a space in which to explore these singular and idiosyncratic ideas we, in turn, conceive a form of utopia, a promised land of conceptual bliss. This utopia is ephemeral, fixed into a single time period and in this particular case it exists inside four solid walls but it allows us to contemplate a possible future.

Feminist pop culture and science fiction have generally presented the perspective that a female utopia is a society free from the dominance of men. Whether this scenario is due to Womenkind departing from the mainstream to found a new society, the men are dying or have died out through disaster and disease or Women’s physiology has evolved to a point where men are no longer requisite for human procreation and male babies are no longer born, it remains a favoured thematic of serious and not-so-serious films and novels. One of the better known examples of a female utopian society and a part of the stimulus for this exhibition is the early feminist novel Herland written by Charlotte Perkins Gilman in 1915. Herland – named by the three male protagonists of the story who discover a lost civilisation of Women – is a veritable paradise free from the evils of war, crime, hunger, vanity and waste. The vegetarian inhabitants of Herland have evolved physically and intellectually beyond the need for men and they are flourishing in a harmonious autonomous society free from the world of men. As Lindy West exclaimed when reviewing the 2015 edition, “Sisters are doing it for themselves and they’re doing it better.”

In the period that Gilman was writing, contextually speaking, it’s a reasonable assumption that a Women only society could present a much more attractive prospect to the conditions in which Women found themselves at the time. It’s important to take into account that this was published 5 years before Women had the right to vote in the United States and that the rights of Women were severely limited in terms of their own autonomy and agency over their daily existence. But I would argue that in today’s context the notion that we can only achieve a balanced society through means of gender exclusion alone would suggest that we lack the necessary skills to set positive and inclusive changes into motion together and so this is where Herland makes its departure from Gilman’s Herland.

Although Herland is an exhibition solely consisting of Women artists, it is not a suggestion that an ideal future is exclusively female. It is a space in which a diverse amalgam of Women’s voices do not have to resort to methods of protest and revolt alone in order to be heard. The Slovenian curator and the director of The Museum of Modern Art in Ljubljana, Zdenka Badovinac, wrote that “No single place can claim exclusive rights to emancipatory knowledge, which is important to the entire planet”, and I tend to agree. But Badovinac also acknowledges that certain spaces have more potential for knowledge and alternative ways in which to instrumentalize it. Herland as it has come to be realised, is such a space, with the potential to answer the questions that the concept of feminine utopia asks. What do Women require? How do we get to it? What is our role in the many possible emerging futures? And how do we reconcile our melange of essential needs and desires?

These questions, among many others are simultaneously asked and answered by the voices of 33 Women Artists whose diversity of backgrounds, experience  and lifestyles – culturally and artistically speaking – serve to demonstrate the enduring demand for Women’s voices to be heard above the cacophonous commotion of inequality, in particular the inequality of the art world. And as curatorial activist Maura Reilly has emphatically stated “If you don’t believe that the art world is sexist and racist, it’s time for you to come out from under your rock.”

Art has often found itself the focus of utopian ideals or it could be said that art is a form of utopia in itself. The issue with the particular brand of utopia which has been touted around for centuries is its singularly male standpoint. I’ll unimaginatively brand this standpoint as the His-story of art, which had until the 1970s actively overshadowed the Her-story of art. Onward from the 1970s until present day, Women artists have been passionately fighting for recognition and an equal footing with male artists. This footing on which Women artists now find themselves has achieved a significant shift. We now know that in fact there have been Great Women Artists, it’s just that they were likely to be working away on their own, time permitting, interpreting the world from their own unique standpoint, engulfed by their own lack of autonomy in the patriarchal food chain and unable to exhibit their work for a variety of unjustifiable reasons.

In view of gender inequality it could be argued that curating or participating in an all-Women art show could be seen as favouring Women-identifying artists over male artists. Whether this is interpreted as a demonstration of Women’s superiority or that Women’s art requires a separate space in which to be viewed puts certain limits on the scope of the audience’s perception. I would argue that putting Women’s art into its own sphere not only allows under-recognised artists the opportunity to publicly exhibit their work but also provides a counterpoint to how the art of Women should be seen and experienced, curatorially correcting how Women have been represented in the His-story of art. An important part of rearranging the hierarchy of art is to create a shift in the position of Women artists through the allowance of more work made by Women to be exhibited, examined and celebrated. If the art market is only allowed to observe a conservatively narrow slice of the pie/work made by Women, how can we contemplate further progressive shifts in the art world paradigm? I will state for the record that that is not a rhetorical question.

Herland in this sense, the sense of positive advancement and inclusivity, has sought not only to represent the work of women artists, their views and experiences but also to subvert the past and present positions of Women artists. This is achieved by asking them directly to question and affirm their perception of the present whilst proclaiming at all volumes their own particular objectives for a more balanced and inclusive future. It is an honour to be a part of this unique celebration of Women, Women artists and artwork alike and I feel, with a deep sense of reverence to the work of these Women, that the conception of utopia, a feminine utopia, begins right here, right now. So gather yourself, it’s time to go. Welcome aboard.