Jodi Bieber’s 2019–2020 exhibition at Syker Vorwerk — Centre for Contemporary Art is titled Making Feminism. What does ‘Making Feminism’ mean? The question is not only due to the action that the title describes, i.e., turning a term charged with meaning into action. It is also about the term itself, as it has an extremely broad meaning. What does feminism mean? In general terms, it can be defined as a social movement. But it is also a political stance, as well as a theoretical positioning and a personal concern. Its theoretical and practical interpretations are so different that it is more accurate to speak of feminisms.
Their basic concern, however, remains unmistakable: equal rights for women and girls. Consequently, one can define its goal as the political, economic, personal and social equality of the sexes. It is true that the term ‘woman’ is characterised by its theoretical complexity, so that it is difficult to agree on a normative unit that stabilises it. However, the subject that the term characterises proves to be extremely concrete, as is the oppression that women face on a daily basis.
The insight that society, culture and art are closely intertwined has long been part of general knowledge. Thus, feminist concerns — whether understood as a political programme, as a critical discourse, as a category of identification, or as a personal attitude — are not only a matter of utmost social importance, but also a matter of self–empowerment. And this can serve as a starting point for artistic production.
This is exactly what the work of the South African artist Jodi Bieber — who has become one of the most important photographers of our time — shows. In her work, she deals with socially relevant topics and draws attention to inequalities, whether in South Africa — the artist's country of origin — or worldwide. In doing so, she always claims to be a female photographer, taking photographs in a male–dominated world. In addition to the formal coherence and conceptual stringency of her photographs, her work is characterised by another feature: the artist’s empathetic approach, her empathy with the subject in front of the camera.
Jodi Bieber — Making Feminism thus means an artistic dialogue with individuals from the point of view of equality and self–determination. The exhibition consists of three series, created over the last 14 years: Women who have murdered their husbands from 2005, Real Beauty from 2007–2008 and Quiet from 2014. The spacious premises of Syker Vorwerk allow for an accentuation of the content and a formal restaging of the series, which were presented in Bremen as part of the exhibition Works on Gender.
The contextual framework of the three series is contemporary South African society. Women who have murdered their husbands arose from the need to address violence against women in a domestic context. They are portraits of women imprisoned near Johannesburg for killing their husbands. Jodi Bieber photographed both the figure of the women and a still life with their personal belongings in the prison dormitory. Before the photographic act itself, she conducted interviews with the convicts. The interviews revealed a very different perspective from the one that legitimates their condemnation. These are women who became murderers under the most brutal conditions of physical and psychological violence in a domestic context.
Real Beauty deals with another circumstance that women in general are exposed to: the body ideals of the beauty industry. The starting point of the series was the marketing campaign ‘Real Beauty’ launched in 2004 by the body care brand Dove of the multinational corporation Unilever. In contrast to the neo–liberal self–optimisation subtext of the campaign with its ideology of female beauty, the artist advocated a self–determined representation of beauty. She invited women to refer to the term ‘beauty’. After capturing their statements in interviews, Jodi Bieber photographed the participant women in their underwear in their private spaces, creating a moment of private self–determination in the use of their own bodies. A moment of self–determined representation of female corporeality.
Jodi Bieber created the counterpart of the series a few years later with the series Quiet. In this cycle of pictures, the artist dealt with the construction of the male body. Her concern was to relativise the common stereotypes of masculinity, to create images that locate masculinity beyond the attributes ascribed to it. Accordingly, she photographed introverted men in their underwear. Average men who show themselves quietly and vulnerably in their private spaces, refraining from the social compulsion to deliver a performance of masculine unambiguity.
Landschaftsverband Weser-Hunte e.V., Arbeitnehmerkammer Bremen.
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