RE/Sisters is a powerful, emotive, and fluid exploration of the intertwining relationship between gender and ecology, on show at the Barbican until 14 January 2024.
As you enter the Barbican, it seems like an immovable concrete jungle, a masculine structure, not the building to house an exhibition exploring gender and ecology. The Barbican is an icon of brutalist architecture designed by Chamberlain, Powell and Bon who transformed a site almost completely flattened by the Blitz. Whilst an iconic building, the Barbican Centre is also a world-class art and learning organisation, pushing the boundaries of the arts.
Once I had entered the building, I made my way to the third floor that houses the gallery space and was immediately confronted with a photographic piece by the feminist artist Judy Chicago. The image featured the head of a woman with leaves placed over her eyes and the words ‘We won’t play nature to your culture’ across the image.
The exhibition was organised over two floors with different rooms covering themes of extractive economies and liquid bodies, showcasing the work of around fifty women and gender non-conforming artists from different decades and geographies. The rooms contained a combination of film, photography, installation works and sound art. The works were an interesting combination of photojournalism and expressive performance art that all revealed, with poignancy, the ability for creative protest.
I was struck with how, since the 19960s, women have been consistently at the forefront of advocating for our planet, challenging the patriarchal exploitation of natural resources and the oppression of women and marginalised communities. Ecofeminism emerged in the 1970s and 1980s and brought together the issues of sexism, racism, colonialism and capitalism also focusing on a relationship with nature shaped by science. The exhibition “acknowledges that women and other oppressed communities are at the core of these battlegrounds, not only as victims of dispossession but also as comrades, as protagonists of the resistance.”
The works that revealed intimate connections between the female body and nature were the most emotive for me. Artists like Dionne Lee and Laura Aguilar positioned their bodies within their work, allowing for an exploration of our profound relationship with nature. This merging of the body with the natural world is also a powerful, political act challenging the typically masculine realm of land art.
Shanay Jhaveri, Head of Visual Arts at the Barbican, says she hopes the exhibition “in contrast to a rhetoric that is often cynical about environmentalism… offers visitors a thoughtful, optimistic and sometimes joyful way to consider the world’s current climate.” Whilst powerful expressions of resistance, the works were also playful, showcasing that joy is to be found in nature. One installation piece, Ziggy and the Starfish (2018) by Anne Duk Jee Jordan, mesmerises and immerses the viewer in an underwater world with shrimp cushions and suspended underwater creatures.
The exhibition revealed that women and gender non-conforming artists can be powerful and sensitive in their protection of the planet and their communities. The most powerful aspect of this exhibition was its exploration of the joyful relationship we can have with the Earth, rather than focusing on despair the exhibition encouraged hope.