Guest post by Mary Figueroa, Graduate Assistant Projectionist at IU Cinema.
“On November 8, 1971, twenty-three women arrived at 533 Mariposa Street in downtown Hollywood armed with mops, brooms, paint buckets, rollers, sanding equipment, and wallpaper. For two months we scraped walls, replaced windows, built partitions, sanded floors, made furniture, installed lights, and renovated the seventy-five-year-old dilapidated structure. Our purpose was to remake the old house into a place of dreams and fantasies.” – Miriam Schapiro, 1987
Over the past year nearly 3 million U.S. women have dropped from the work force — many leaving frontline jobs to care for busy households that now simultaneously function as schools, daycares, offices, gyms, and TikTok dance studios. In this context, questioning and resisting the idiom “a woman’s place is in the home” feels as relevant as ever. In short, I chose to screen Womanhouse for my Staff Select as a means of further exploring the one thing that absolutely no one is sick of — home.
In all seriousness, I am absolutely fascinated with the idea of “home” especially in relation to womanhood, mothering, and gender. The home has always, as an idea, come jam-packed with personal, social, and cultural meaning — a space of refuge, possession, security, shelter, identity, and rootedness. The American home harbors political power, multilayered meaning, and gendered expectations, sheltering not just domestic realities but national ideals. And public art, exhibition, and film allow for even the most private enclaves of the home to be scrutinized with these ideas in mind. In this sense, Johanna Demetrakas’s 1974 documentary Womanhouse does more than preserve the historic feminist art exhibition on film; it captures a small piece of the questions, conversations, and reactions behind the flawed yet evolving feminist movement of the 1970s and its relation to domestic life.
Often the ideation and creation of the 1972 Womanhouse installation/performance piece remains first and foremost credited to Miriam Schapiro and Judy Chicago (best known for The Dinner Party). As the project supervisors and leaders of the (first of its kind) Feminist Art Program at the California Institute of the Arts, Schapiro and Chicago certainly inspired and organized the twenty-three young artists. But from start to finish, the project was always meant to be a collective feat — an opportunity and a space for the Cal Arts student to collaboratively “identify their condition and status as women.” The 533 Mariposa Street house was not just a container for artworks, but a site for connecting with other women reevaluating their own experiences and relationships with gender. Schapiro, Chicago, and the women of the Cal Arts program referred to their cooperative planning sessions and contemplative conversations as “consciousness raising” circles. The group’s final consciousness raising circle serves as the backbone of Demetrakas’s documentary, allowing the audience insight into the artists’ altered perceptions and takeaways. This conversation, in which many of the women expressed how their artwork had allowed for personal reflection, serves as the inspiration for the discussion that will follow the IU Cinema virtual screening on March 2nd.
This conversation will be held with the curator and artists behind Call and Response: Creative Interpretations of Wylie House exhibition, which opened on March 5, 2020. Much like the artists behind Womanhouse, the creators behind Call and Response imaginatively crafted marginalized stories and positioned them within the realm of the home. Uniquely subverting the power of the historic house museum, Call and Response asks the audience to question the “common experience of home” and to instead reflect on the voices that remain largely absent within public history. By placing these exhibitions in conversation, my hope is to discuss both the value and shortcomings of the Womanhouse exhibit.
Art history professor Temma Balducci writes, “Womanhouse helped lay the groundwork for the exploration of gender construction through parody and exaggeration that continues to be important for feminist art,” while also acknowledging that, “with few exceptions, the artists who produced Womanhouse were themselves white, heterosexual, and middle-class. . . While attempting to speak for ‘woman,’ these artists were voicing the concerns more specifically related to their racial, class, and sexual positioning in the late sixties and early seventies.” As we enter Women’s History Month 2021, this upcoming IU Cinema program asks, How can we simultaneously problematize and celebrate the achievement of Womanhouse? And how can public art exhibited in the “private” domestic realm challenge oppressive expectations and barriers?
And, even if we can’t answer these questions on March 2nd, at least we’ll get to see some pretty outrageous art. Hope to “see” you there.
Join IU Cinema on March 2 for a virtual introduction and screening of Womanhouse, followed by an interactive Q&A. This event is part of the Cinema’s Staff Selects series and International Arthouse Series.
Mary Figueroa is a graduate student in the Master of Library Science/Master of Arts in History dual degree program at Indiana University. She is especially interested in the preservation of material culture and the interpretation of nineteenth-century American women’s history, and currently works as a Museum Assistant at the Wylie House Museum and a Projectionist at the IU Cinema.