Voicing the Silence is an exhibition project addressing issues of gender equality in the home, on the legislative level, and in professional spheres such as the field of art. The project responds to the current conservative turn that has empowered patriarchal systems in many societies today. In recent years, legislative initiatives aimed at limiting women’s rights have been numerous: decriminalization of domestic violence in Russia, Turkey’s Istanbul Convention exit, and new laws restricting abortion in the USA and Poland. All of this exacerbates women’s existing economic vulnerability resulting from unequal pay and labor conditions in most countries, and demonstrates how governments systematically deny women their basic rights of agency and protection.
The exhibition also spotlights the historical achievements of women in their struggle for legislative recognition. We draw inspiration from the book The Social Basis of the Women's Question (1909) by influential Soviet feminist and politician Alexandra Kollontai, who proffered systemic solutions for women's economic and political independence based on gender equality. She embedded her revolutionary ideas into the institutions of family and marriage by supporting new principles of labor legislation, sexual education, and freedom of love. Kollontai’s progressive principles were later adopted by many social democratic societies. More than a century later, however, the global struggle for women’s equality continues in the face of uneven justice systems.
Voicing the Silence amplifies the positions of Russian and international artists, who contribute to the global feminist agenda through art. The exhibition, along with accompanying public programs, showcases ways of challenging social and gender norms, unveils state mechanisms that control women’s rights and reproductive decisions, and addresses feminist movements across different countries and historical contexts.
In her practice, artist Polina Zaslavskaya studies domestic behaviors and gender constructions as they are influenced by popular culture, architecture, and design. In her collages titled Basics of Contemporary Housekeeping, she traces the history of social order through the products and fashions on display in housekeeping magazines of the 1960s-1970s, which were supposed to “educate” a generation of soon-to-be housewives. Besides offering practical advice on how to cook, dress, and organize one’s household, these periodicals served as a manual on how to become an ideal wife and housekeeper, and created a cozy feeling of home for female readers. “Perfect” realities depicted on the magazine’s pages intentionally avoided unfavorable aspects of domestic life, work, and parenting. These glossy images would tell very little about how such constructed worlds and dreams might crash over “the bell jar" described by Sylvia Plath, who in her novels and poetry advocated for amplifying the voices of women, encouraging them to become writers and editors. After her tragic death she was proclaimed by the male-dominated literary world as mentally unstable. Studies on “The Sylvia Plath effect,” suggesting that female poets are more susceptible to mental illness, continue to this day.
Irish artist Sarah Browne also focuses her research on the fabrication of “special” psychological conditions of women in the early 20th century as they relate to notions of normality and pathology. In the film The Shambles of Science, Browne juxtaposes historical events of the period: the experimental vivisections of animals (namely, dogs) and the bodily violence inflicted upon suffragettes in medical correctional institutions. In drawing attention to the ways that both women and animals were violently mistreated, Browne reveals the philosophical and scientific assumptions about their capacities to endure pain.
The central narrative of the installation Act V- Reproduction by Amsterdam-based artist Sonia Kazovsky celebrates the life and work of Ana Mendieta, a Cuban artist in New York in the 1970s and 1980s. It is widely believed that Mendieta’s husband, renowned artist and “golden boy” of the minimalist art scene Carl Andre, was responsible for her death. At the trial, his defense claimed Mendieta was unstable, and using examples of her artwork, he claimed that she had jumped from their high-rise apartment on her own volition. Act V- Reproduction is a chapter translated into Russian from Sonia’s script Power Play - Fighting for Dead and Non-Existent Spirits published in 2019. This text, which is open for adaptation and collective reading, is a proposition to engage and subvert institutional and established narratives, to reconsider museum collections and question authorship. The work is an active reconsideration of existing artistic positions, some which have been overshadowed or instrumentalized.
The problem of the social roles and duties of women, which in most societies are still strongly connected with reproduction, is raised in the work of Ukrainian artist Alevtina Kakhidze. In her video titled 44, she reflects upon social expectations that can influence women’s choices, decisions, and well-being when deciding whether to bear children. The work addresses reproductive violence wielded by legislative and social norms against women who decide not to or cannot have children. Reduced to their interest in and biological capacity for motherhood, their value to the state is decimated. The theme of parenthood continues in Debris of Dreams by Masha Godovannaya, a video work exploring maternal fear. In this work, the artist recounts one of her dreams, noting that they can offer a strong ephemeral connection between a mother and a child. Using moving images, the work aims to release permanent fears that inevitably emerge in being a parent.
Natalia Nikulenkova’s new project, Captured Bodies, develops practices of care and the creation of “safe spaces” for current and former female juvenile prisoners in Russia. The performance, which is the result of her long-term research, is based on the diaries of young inmates, and its script was created and staged by the artist in collaboration with them. It was inspired by their personal stories, in-depth interviews, and questionnaires. By addressing the construction of social norms and deviations, the work focuses on the impact of the penitentiary system upon the behavior and self-expression of youth who have been captured by it.
Another aim of the exhibition is to highlight various feminist practices across different countries and years, and analyze their impact. The presentation by Petra Bauer and Rebecka Katz Thor, And All is Yet to be Done. Images From A Journey is an artistic reflection on the process of how socialist Swedish and Soviet women made connections in the 1920s, when their rights in their home countries started to become more equal to those of men. Inspired by the revolutionary shift towards gender equality in the young Soviet state, a group of women from Sweden traveled to the USSR to learn from its experiences, while also photographing the environments that they visited. The work is a historical and psychological journey discussing how the early women’s movements employed traditionally feminine activities like sewing or cooking. Bauer and Katz Thor posit whether such activities can also be a form of contemporary resistance, bearing potential for new forms of collectivity and solidarity.
In the late 1970s and early 1980s in the Soviet Union, feminist ideas were much less part of public discussion than they were in the 1920s. The research project Leningrad Feminism, curated, organized, and composed by Olesya Bessmeltseva and Philipp Venghaus, tells the silenced story of a group of Soviet feminists who were persecuted by the government for self-publishing a magazine about conditions of women in the USSR. The magazine initiated the underground women’s press movement, which during the Iron Curtain era was one of the most effective sources of self-education, information exchange, and intellectual dialogue with Western peers. The magazine depicted the everyday lives of Soviet women, contradicting official narratives, and addressed issues of domestic violence, brutal conditions in women’s prisons, and the neglect of women in birthing centers and abortion clinics.
Behind the slogan “Don’t Even Mind Us” (in German: “Lasst Euch Nicht Stören”) is a durational research project by artist Nika Dubrovsky and anthropologist David Graeber. It examines the coalition of women in former East Germany whose retirement pensions are substantially lower than those of their West German counterparts simply because they have divorced. Initially, 800,000 women never received a pension for their essential domestic and familial duties and were deprived of support they would have been entitled to in East Germany. The situation, an outcome of deceptive government bureaucracy, has forced many of them to live their elderly years in poverty despite living in one of the richest countries in the world. Today, there are roughly 300,000 of these women left. For 30 years, they have fought for their rights by approaching every possible political and legal channel—even managing to garner the support of the UN. The German government has remained adamant in denying the appeals, essentially waiting for the claimants to die. The project brings public attention to the sexism endured by these elderly women that has been fueled by ideological expectations of “traditional” family life. It is also a story of how they formed an autonomous and durational network of solidarity and friendship in advocating for their due rights. To help the movement gain momentum, Dubrovsky and Graeber founded the art group “The Yes Women” which brings together creatives, academics, and activists to address the issues of gender inequality in Western democracies.
The exhibition also examines contemporary examples of feminist gestures and their intersectional nature in complex multinational and multiethnic contexts. The online reading session Voicing the Archive that accompanies the show as a public program event is inspired by the archival and activist work of the Haifa Feminist Institute in Israel (HFI). The HFI is a non-governmental feminist establishment of the activist group Isha Le’Isha (“woman to woman” in Hebrew) and home to the first and only queer-feminist archive in Israel. Among many important materials kept by the HFI are the court trial records of domestic violence cases, whose victims are primarily Russian and Palestinian women. These were written by volunteers of HFI, who were trained to enter the courtrooms and formulate their own extra-institutional, subjective accounts. The reading initiated by artist Ofri Lapid, based on her research of the archive, will engage with the position of the outside observer in the court system; a position which undermines formality and promotes a subjective and critical approach toward justice. The collective reading session will consist of narrating excerpts from documents, reading interviews with the archivists and discussing literary allusions to Maggie Nelson and Ruth Behar.