Fashioning Masculinities, but undermining Feminine Power

It’s rare that one gets the opportunity to view so nakedly a contrast between the handling of art by and about women vs the world of men as I’ve had the last month, in the form of two extremely conflicting exhibitions: The V&A’s lavish, comprehensive, colourful, and fascinating Fashioning Masculinities, and The British Museum’s desultory, lacklustre, and almost insultingly sparse and directionless Feminine Power: the divine to the demonic. As someone raised by a veteran of what she lovingly referred to as “the rag trade”, and highly invested both in costume and in the construction of masculinity, someone who grew up in a family steeped in feminine power and fascination with the feminine divine, both of these exhibitions had the potential to be profound experiences, and in a way they both were: profoundly inspiring in one case, and profoundly disappointing in the other.

Examining my initial responses, I’m going to get into a little speculation as to what went wrong with the latter and right with the former, because I don’t think a subject so ripe for discussion and representation as the British Museum’s underserved exhibition gets such a paltry showing through mere lack of lack imagination or out of the paucity of the subject matter: far from it.

The Space

Fashioning Masculinities, rather like men in general, was allowed to take up space. Specifically, a recently-completed, large, high-ceiling space designed for impressive exhibitions (The Sainsbury Gallery); it was granted access to a huge collection, what looked like an impressive budget, and some ambitious discussion points: the relationship between masculinity and wealth; between clothing and sexuality, and shaping the body beneath, and the impact on that which idealised male forms had; on the provenance of clothing components such as dyes; on how Empire influenced ideals of visual masculinity and what role atrocities played in this; on non-European masculinities in clothing; on the future of masculine dress. It was colourful, creative, and loud; it closed with a huge mirrored room and an enormous video installation but contained this so that it didn’t spill out and distract from the rest of the exhibition.

Feminine Power was confined to the upper floor of the British Museum’s rotunda, the former reading room (known as the Joseph Hotung Great Court Gallery), very much the secondary exhibition space. While I have seen creative and densely-packed exhibitions in this space (the recent one on Peru, for example, was especially good), it is noteworthy that it is a smaller area to work with. The set-dressing of the exhibition was limited to some ceiling-hanging gauze intended, according to its designer, to evoke water (which she says is an element associated with femininity) and some austere housing for the exhibits. The informational standees dividing the space were a disaster of graphic design, and the large video screen at the end was confined to displaying tweets about the exhibition with an implied exhortation–rather like a daytime TV show–to “join the conversation”. At the start, video talking heads played on a loud loop their commentary on the exhibition, over and over, echoing across the whole space wherever one went, making it hard to concentrate on sparsely-presented, often very small artifacts.

On first sight, it seems like the writ-large example of how women’s arts are shunted to one side and underfunded, subject to an endless dialing-down of ambition until they become a weak distallate of their original intentions.

While a fantastic work of art, Lilith (the bronze female figure crouching on the wall pictured above) was poorly situated within the exhibition, undermining the impact of her image.

The Causes?

It is tempting when presented with such disparity to immediately cast the blame at the curators, to say that obviously Belinda Crerar and Lucy Dahlsen lacked the imagination or the capacity to create a compelling exhibition, and no doubt there are a lot of people who would point to this as evidence of how “women just aren’t very good at it”. As a knee-jerk reaction, the scarcity of pieces in the exhibition and their small size (with the exception of the Greek statue, or rather the Roman copy of the Greek statue) might lead people to think that there simply isn’t a lot of evidence for images of female power, or, at best, that they’d been destroyed by malicious actors over the years.

It’s important to look past our knee-jerk responses. Museums are, regardless of their role as public educational and research institutions, run like businesses. As with any business, and indeed any institution, underlying politics and connections are often at play. The wishes of financial backers have to be taken into consideration (as the climate protest group XR highlighted, this can result in what are perceived as conflicts of interest): in the case of these two exhibitions, one is sponsored by the international fashion brand Gucci, which is naturally highly invested in ensuring that more people are interested in fashion and in menswear specifically. Gucci are also able to source and loan additional items for such an exhibition. The other is sponsored by Citi, an investment bank and financial services provider. While extremely wealthy, there is no reason for Citi to have any particular investment in portraying feminine power well or in a memorable and illuminating fashion: it is enough to have been seen to sponsor something with this name.

Gucci’s sponsorship of the Fashioning Masculinities exhibition notwithstanding, the layout of the exhibition space (pictured above, mannequins in different undergarments are arranged in interesting groups on a raised dais which enables a clear view around the area) combines variety and accessibility.

The British Museum has been the subject of protests regarding associations with businesses considered to be major actors in the climate crisis, and noted on that occasion that all decisions involving the running of the museum are undertaken by the staff and trustees. So the choice of sponsor, in this instance, ought be immaterial.

The board of trustees of the British Museum very publicly includes Professor Dame Mary Beard DBE, FSA, FBA, whose responses to the exhibition and thoughtful expertise on those areas of the exhibition concerning her speciality (Classical Europe) were much in evidence. The board also contains many other women: Dame Elizabeth Corley DBE, Ms Clarissa Farr, Ms Muriel Gray FRSE, Dame Vivian Hunt DBE, Baroness (Minouche) Shafik DBE, Ms Priyanka Wadhawan,
Professor Dame Sarah Worthington DBE, QC (Hon), FBA.

It is tempting to suggest that surely, surely with this many women in positions of decision-making power, the uninspiring and depressing execution of the exhibition cannot be the fault of being shackled by male interference.

However, as anyone who has worked on any group project can tell you: it only takes one man to screw up the work of countless women. Again, this is only speculation. But it certainly wouldn’t be a surprise. And board of trustees or not, in a large institution many indivduals are capable of being very territorial about their own specialities and areas.

There is another possibility, one which does not rely so much on pettiness or gender conflict: too many requirements.

There was an emphasis in Feminine Power, absent from Fashioning Masculinities, on community responses and involvement; while Fashioning Masculinities featured work from a variety of designers and designer statements tying pieces to non-European masculinities, and while this exhibition prominently featured shapewear used by transmasculine people among its section on shaping the body, there didn’t appear to be any pressing need to include “voices” in the exhibition in the same way that Feminine Power had. Indeed, Fashioning Masculinities was all about the image projected by men of various kinds, whereas Feminine Power placed great emphasis on the words and voices of contemporary women.

Contemporary imagery was often included in the Fashioning Masculinities exhibition, but always within context. Pictured above is Haitian politician Jean-Baptiste Belley as imagined in a photographic self-portrait by Omar Victor Diop; dressed in period clothing, and armed with a football, drawing in countless references to past and current conceptions of masculinity and black masculinity in a European-colonialist-dominated world.

The inclusion of items pertaining to witch persecution in the exhibition were accompanied by photographs of the women from the modern UK pagan community who had been consulted (although there is no direct and continuous link between persecution of women as witches, many of them practicing Christians, and the modern UK pagan community, many members thereof have a strong feeling of connection with the persecution era); responses and consultations were also noted from the appropriate communities in relationship to the Hindu goddess Kali-ma, and the inclusion of the character for Maryam, one of the most reverred and holy women in Islamic teachings.

Indeed, responses and commentary, interpretations and emotions from the chief “talking heads” at the beginning of the exhibition made up most of the text on display.

Conversely, in Fashioning Masculinities, artists and designers responsible for specific works on display commented on their work, on their goals and influences, but exhibition-goers were encouraged to reach their own conclusions on what their responses ought to be, and photographs of those consulted were not included. Neither were any talking heads: while there were video installations, they were of relevant performances, and of performers, including drag kings.

I mention drag kings because the treatment of gender variance in these heavily gender-oriented pair of exhibitions was also very, very different. While Fashioning Masculinities looked exclusively at the construction of masculinity through appearance, and included assigned-female-at-birth drag kings, construction garments worn by transgender men, and men’s suits worn by cisgender women such as Marlene Dietrich as illustrations of the artifice of masculinity, Feminine Power‘s broader and less well-defined remit created difficulties in addressing any one area of gender construction with any depth. Birth and gestation (historically the root of feminine power is the capacity to generate life), fertility, and presumed heterosexual love were given the same vague, half-hearted elucidation that justice, nurture, and spiritual wisdom were. And while a gesture was made in the direction of the Boddisativa Guanyin’s “transition” from being represented as a a male figure in India and, under the name Guanyin, as a woman in Chinese Buddhism–with one of the repeat contributors saying that it was her preference to refer to Guanyin as “they”, a non-binary pronoun–other overwhelming feminine power relating to gender variance was left out. Ishtar’s inclusion made no mention of sacred third gender/possible trans woman priesthood, and the Anatolian mother goddess Cybele and her self-castrating, effeminate eunuch mendicant priesthood who gave binariest ancient Greeks such horrors about the corruption of manhood by a powerful foreign goddess…. was completely excluded.

Only the faintest mention of Ishtar’s gender flexibility is made in the placcards accompanying the display of the Queen of the Night relief (pictured above, a stone relief of a talon-footed woman trampling lions accompanies two informational placcards. One notes briefly that “In art she was portrayed in female form, but in hymns she was sometimes praised as both female and male”).

As a lifelong proponent of feminist and woman-centred art and history, which I quite literally learned on my mother’s knee, I can only hope that the disappointing execution of an exhibition subject so ripe for exploration as feminine power, heralded as the first of its kind, does not also act as an excuse for making it the last of its kind. As to Fashioning Masculinities… more like this, please.

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