The BAMPFA feminist artist retrospective both inspires and vindicates women artists
By Lou Fancher
A visit to the Berkeley Art Museum & Pacific Film Archive this summer adds balance and authenticity to rightful indignation around the historic silence regarding women’s contributions to art. Especially among artists who are people of color, non-gender conforming or slapped with the stigmatic label “feminist artists,” exhibits at major art institutions and galleries worldwide reveal centuries of neglect and slim pickings.
All of that obliteration of talent is thrown into reverse as BAMPFA emerges from a 13-month closure due to the Covid-19 pandemic. While maintaining enhanced safety protocols, visitors to the museum’s galleries have immediate reason to celebrate the return of the “Rosie Lee Tompkins Retrospective.” The compelling, provocative and visually stunning exhibit opened in February 2020, just weeks before the Bay Area public health shutdown was announced. With 80 quilts and other art pieces in a show co-curated by former Director Lawrence Rinder and Cocurator Elaine Yau, it is the largest retrospective, to date, of the Richmond-based quiltmaker’s highly acclaimed work. Selected from among 3,000 quilts created by African American artists and bequeathed to BAMPFA in 2019 by Bay Area art collector Eli Leon, the exhibit has been extended through July 18.
Opportunities to appreciate the pivotal role of women artists continue in several of five other current, or upcoming, exhibits. The major new exhibits include “Ulrike Ottinger / MATRIX 276,” with photography by the German filmmaker, visual artist and stage director running concurrently with a virtual series of her films available to rent from BAMPFA’s website. “Present Tense: Five Centuries of Colonialism in Latin American and Caribbean Art” is a student-curated group exhibition of Latin American art drawn from the collection that explores colonialism in Central and South America. It is part of BAMPFA’s Cal Conversations program, a series of exhibitions developed in collaboration with UC Berkeley classes. A third exhibit, “Beyond Boundaries: Buddhist Art of Gandhara,” presents rare Buddhist artifacts from the ancient civilization of Gandhara, which existed from the second through ninth centuries C.E. in the area today known as Northern India.
Julia White, senior curator for Asian art, says public response to the free reopening days in early May had people lined up and excited to view art in-person. “It was just gangbusters on the first Saturday. People were delighted to be in what they said was ‘their museum’ after months away,” she says. As curator working in collaboration with Sri Lankan historian, numismatist and UC Professor Osmund Bopearachchi, White says her role principally consisted of co-jointly selecting the Buddhist art and artifacts, and designing the Gandhara show. “We combined his intellectual understanding of the art and my experience in visual presentation,” she says. “That’s the kind of collaboration that is a natural and yet unique way to have a university campus and museum work together.”
The exhibit illustrates the complex crossroads of two cultures: the Hellenistic world of Greek and Roman art, and India’s native artistic traditions. Hellenistic and Roman artisans depicted the earthly rulers of the world and Greek Gods on alternative sides of coins. When gods from the Hindu and Buddhist world became integrated into their culture after Alexander the Great conquered Indian kingdoms during the third century, depictions of the Buddha were colonized and bore features of idealized Greek human body forms. “What sprung from this new representation of the Buddha was a transformation,” White says. “The idealized form evolved, and that is why we’ve included sculptures from Kashmir—where there is flattening of the surface, and the art is created on metal or bronze instead of stone, as it was in Gandhara. The pieces from Swat Valley; we see a decorative approach to the halo around the Buddha, and the details are more floral. The facial features are representative of a crisp profile.”
The fourth must-see exhibit is a major new survey of textile art by Kay Sekimachi, guest curated by Jenelle Porter. Although Sekimachi has exhibited worldwide to considerable acclaim, “Kay Sekimachi: Geometries” is the artist’s first solo museum exhibition in the City of Berkeley, where she has lived since 1930. Now aged 94 and still actively making art, Porter says Sekimachi can sometimes be found at BAMPFA on weekends, speaking with visitors. The exhibit includes nearly 50 works dating from 1965 to the present day, and therefore spans more than one breakthrough moment in the artist’s six-decade-plus career.
“Curating sounds sexy, and it is,” Porter says in an interview held while she is on vacation and away from her Los Angeles home. “But every show is limited by time, space and money. BAMPFA was very generous in asking me to do this exhibition. I thought about Kay’s work in terms of how it would appear in a contemporary art museum.” Porter has previously showcased Sekimachi’s work in two thematic exhibitions: “Fiber: Sculpture 1960–Present” at the Institute of Contemporary Art, Boston (2014), and “A Line Can Go Anywhere” at New York’s James Cohan Gallery (2017), which both focused on Bay Area artists working in fiber. Porter worked closely on the BAMPFA exhibition with the artist herself.
Contemplating the show led Porter to select acutely representative work that she says “let’s the art speak for itself.” Selected for their groundbreaking ideas as much as for their visual impact, the show’s exhibits include airy monofilaments that orbit Sekimachi’s mature artwork off of fiber art’s then-traditional wall presentations and into space. Alternatively, more geometric aspects of her work demonstrate line and controlled form and include works molded into sculptural forms or featuring flat, traditional over-under weaving. “I didn’t want to rewrite Kay as a generalist fine artist who has been overlooked. She is a weaver and has been successful in her chosen category since the ’60s,” Porter says.
Asked about Kiri IV, one of five tiny boxes made with kiriwood paper, silk tissue and including a chopstick, Porter says the nearly weightless box explores the solid geometries of a flat plane. Embellished with simple lines of cotton thread sewn into the surface, the dynamic sculptural aspect of the work’s folds and voids speaks to the overall exhibit’s purpose. “I wanted to show enough from each series that you get an idea of how she uses iteration to work through investigations of form,” Porter says. “There are five of those Kirkwood boxes, so you see how she takes one material and uses it, then turns it inside out, then finds another repetition or iteration. Kay’s whole mode is: use one material and one technique in how you make it, then create variations by layering, shaping off the loom—embellishments.”
BAMPFA’s highly anticipated exhibit, “New Time: Art and Feminisms in the 21st Century,” opens in August. It is a major survey exploring recent feminist practices in contemporary art. Assistant Curator Claire Frost says the show pushes against restrictive narratives and highlights approaches and perspectives by artists of diverse gender identities. The word “Feminisms” in the title emphasizes a plurality, as do thematic sections of the exhibition that reveal shared and contrasting conceptual qualities among artists from multiple generations and races within the work of the last 20 years. The boundary-defying art includes “subtle cheekiness and humor, joy and power,” Frost says, and includes all types of media.
Porter ventures into the challenging discussions about raising the visibility of women, people of color and LGBTQ+ practicing in the art field and asks why the Tompkins, Sekimachi and Feminism exhibits have taken so long to arrive. Answering her own question, she says, “The structures of white supremacy have kept the voices limited. It has a limited culture. When we can open more of it to all voices, you will see change. A young artist who is a person of color will see Kay Sekimachi, and think, ‘I can be an artist.’ I hear stories over and over that until someone saw work by a woman painter or a Black artist or queer artists, they couldn’t imagine themselves in that reality. Kay was interned during WWII and here she is, having a solo show at the Berkeley Art Museum. It’s a good story, but it shouldn’t have taken so long. Although I’ve seen a lot of change in 25 years, we have to keep moving. I don’t trumpet Kay’s work because of her age, her race, her presence as a fiber artist, or that she’s a woman. What’s important is that this person made this artwork, and this art is superb.”