The International Association of Women in the Arts

Representatives of the ten women’s art organisations which currently form the International Association of Women in the Arts (IAWA) came together for a five day conference at the Frauen Museum in Bonn (October 1st–October 5th). This was IAWA’s fourth conference. The theme chosen for the exhibition and conference, “Art beyond Barriers”, optimistically signalled IAWA’s purpose in bringing women artists together surmounting the barriers between nations of language and geography. Sixty women representing twenty different women’s arts organisations and eight journals from six EEC countries attended.

Seven of the IAWA groups also participated in their first exhibition, held at the Frauen Museum (October 1st-November 23rd). Here, the same theme was imaginatively and diversely interpreted to address both the physical and social barriers women face in a range of contexts using a variety of mixed media in the work exhibited. The whole event was made possible by the support of “More Art for Bonn”, as it formed part of the second of Bonn’s Art Weeks. The German Green Party provided funds when the Ministry of Youth, Family, Women and Health withdrew.

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The conference became a valuable forum for many other women artists groups, not yet members of IAWA, from Women in Profile from Glasgow to the three hundred strong Women’s Section of the UIm Art Historians group, Ulmer Verein, to Schwarze Schokolade (Koln/Berlin) and to the feminist visual arts magazines Lichtblick (Hamburg), and AnSchlage (Vienna).

Representatives of eight of IAWA’s constituent groups ceremoniously opened the event from the roof of the Museum by unwrapping from around their bodies lengths of satin in red, blue, orange, and green which hung like flags over the front of the Museum for the whole event. Those attending then entered the Museum to watch two separate performances by Atty Bax (SVBK) and Maria Pohland (INTAKT). Welcoming speeches were also given by Riet Van Der Linden (IAWA’s President, SVBK), and Marianne Pitzen and Ulrike Mond (IAWA’s Secretary) of the Frauen Museum.

Over the three main days of the conference eighteen women spoke about their different organisations and diverse cultural work; debated the relationship of art, art history, and technology; and IAWA’s annual general meeting was held. Learning about the work each group attending was able to do; how they came together and the ways in which they organise and fund their projects was the most fascinating part of this event. The different strategies each employed within their own countries provided inspiration as well as insight into women’s cultural initiatives in Europe. The majority were founded in the early eighties.

All aim to promote women artists’ work in a culture which continually ignores, devalues, or excludes women from major art forums. All organise exhibitions as a means of offering visibility to women artists’ work, though only a few run their own gallery. The majority have archives, libraries, or collections of material on women artists’ work as a resource for all women (and men) about both contemporary and historical women artists. Some actively encourage women to undertake new research projects under their organisation’s remit, from investigating works by women in museum collections; to finding out about women artists lives; to positioning the group’s exhibitions as a product of a longer theoretical or historical debate. Many have member’s newsletters. A number of these have grown and developed into established journals which publish original writing by women and instigate debate about women’s art practice.

All seek to improve the conditions in which women artists work or the opportunities available to them through negotiating at government level as a pressure group or professional body. All negotiate for project funding from local, regional and/ or national sources. Many receive public funding on a project basis only and each constituent group within IAWA remains seriously underfunded for wages, administrative tasks and basic running costs. Each group therefore relies heavily upon the voluntary effort of comparatively small numbers of very dedicated women to develop.

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The differential access to resources for their own group, for nation-wide projects, and for exhibitions abroad formed a significant barrier to the level of participation each group could undertake in Bonn. Eva & Co were the only organisation who received a public subsidy to send work and representatives. All other groups were forced to rely on individual representative’s own sources of income to participate. (A third were represented by only one woman).

There is not space to say everything that could be said about the rich diversity of issues and means with which the included artists engaged. Most groups chose seven artists for the exhibition. Largely performance, mixed media, and installation work was shown. WASL sent the touring Self-Portrait exhibition of twenty-nine women photographers, brought together last year as WASL’s contribution to the Spectrum Photography Festival 2. Amongst the WASL exhibitors were Jo Spence, Rosy Martin, Mona Hatoum, Lill-Ann Chepstow Lusty. The barriers/codes of dominant representations of women were transgressed by their investigative and imaginative approaches to self-portraiture.

WAAG sent a selection from an earlier exhibition of their group on the same theme, which one Irish critic evidently unwilling to cope with his own prejudices had stigmatised as ‘Hate on Wheels’. Powerful struggles against the prejudices of accent, of disability, of religion, of misogyny were articulated. Pauline Cummins’ work (video/installation) dealt evocatively with her childhood experiences as a Catholic in Britain. Mary Duffy’s equally strong photo-text work Somebody’s Friend: PRIDE–Somebody’s Lover: PREJUDICE dealt with the prejudice towards herself as a disabled woman and her able-bodied lover.

In much of the work from INTAKT physical barriers were represented through the medium in a formal language and each work articulated the struggle to overcome or transform them. The work included Lotte Heindrich’s slide work Westwind-Ostwind, Fria Elfren’s installation Ich Gehe, Iche gehe … and the abstract computer graphics of Heidemarie Seblatnig.

Other works addressed the theme in terms of physical constraints or circumscribed spaces of women’s lives and their attempts to break out or pass through these barriers. SVBK’s seven contributors were selected from a submission of thirty. Each artist’s work was the result of much collective discussion and debate. In these works different states of transformation were suggested by the physical quality of the materials used with often minimal references. Moira Whyte’s In a Landscape was a spectacular glass four poster bed, fragile and tense, which reflected, from its ceiling on to the mirror on the floor, a landscape of rocks. (Could this be a metaphor for heterosexual relationships?). Inge Broska’s work (Frauen Museum),–trays of clay crumble-cake in various states of decay–highlighted a barrier to women’s achievement when confined to the domestic sphere.

GSMBK sent a greater mixture of work than any other group: from two abstract painters, Cristina Spoerri and Elena Lux-Marx, to the eerie bandaged sculptures of Valery Heussler’s Salesmen.

Eva and Co.’s pieces were like their magazine, both witty and engaging: from Erika Thummel’s made and found objects for a museum to Veronika Dreier’s Collection Van Goghwhere her reworking of his originals were juxtaposed with the glossy brochure of a firm which reworks his renowned colour and swirls as carpet patterns. Barriers in these works became categories of thought and attitude which divide things and people.

WASL hopes that its continued involvement with IAWA will increase contacts in Europe and provide greater cultural exchange and awareness of women artists on the Continent.

IAWA itself aims to promote cultural exchange between women artists in Europe and, as it becomes more formally established, intends to apply for EEC funds on this basis. IAWA plans to hold conferences in each of the EEC Cultural Capitals of Europe: in Glasgow (1990), Dublin (1991) and Madrid (1992).

WASL is currently working with Women in Profile to organise the 1990 IAWA Conference.

This organisation, since the announcement of Glasgow as Cultural Capital, is developing fifteen women’s projects in the arts in this city. Over 300 women are involved in Women in Profile, working on diverse projects for visual artists; numerous events, exhibitions, music; and dance, and a conference with Women 2000 entitled ‘Agendas for Change’. The Women’s Season for September 1990 promises to be an exciting and unmissable part of the celebrations in Glasgow.

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