In 1975, the Winnipeg Art Gallery had grand plans to celebrate International Women’s Year with an exhibit about the female form. The show, Images of Women, included 75 artworks, many of which were nudes created mostly by male artists.
It was, to say the least, a tone-deaf response to a United Nations designation meant to promote the advancement of women and eliminate gender-based discrimination across the globe.
Local artists were livid. A feminist art show, entitled Woman as Viewer, was organized in protest and the ad hoc Committee for Women Artists group pushed the gallery to make space for the exhibit. Woman as Viewer became the first feminist art show displayed at a major cultural institution in Canada.
Artist Bev Pike revisited the landmark exhibit for the latest issue of Herizons Magazine and will be discussing her research and the history of feminist art in Winnipeg during this week’s First Fridays Online Art Talk, moderated by the Free Press’s Alison Gillmor.
"One of the reasons I wrote this piece is to show activists and other people that the big art galleries haven’t budged much at all since the bad old days when women were excluded from these institutions," Pike says. "(The WAG’s) permanent collection was 19 per cent work by women in 1975 and it’s risen, it’s skyrocketed all the way up to, as of last fall, 22 per cent. That’s a deliberate marginalization of women’s art. It’s not accidental; it can’t be."
Although the door was opened a crack for Woman as Viewer, organizers experienced pushback from all angles while mounting the two-week show.
Combing through the WAG archives, Pike unearthed a memo from gallery installers concerned that an artwork composed of several small penis sculptures would offend the public. The catalogue printer refused to finish the job because of its inclusion of a male nude and the gallery’s director at the time, Roger Selby, expressed concern that work by female artists would be subpar.
"He really had that attitude that you still see today, where authority figures think that a marginalized group is justifiably marginalized because they’re not that great," Pike says.
Despite the attempted gatekeeping, the public came out in droves. The exhibit opened the door for future feminist art shows and emboldened artists such as Pike, who moved to Winnipeg from Alberta 30-odd years ago. She was drawn to the city by its tight-knit feminist art community and became "radicalized" through her involvement in Mentoring Artists for Women’s Art (MAWA), which formed in 1984.
"It’s made me a real sourpuss," she says with a laugh. "Back in ’75 there was the idea that, yeah, we want to fight for women, but we should work with men, we shouldn’t hurt them or alienate them… and now, I think that’s garbage — it’s not working.
"They have access to prestigious exhibits in a way that women never have had… we don’t have to cater to (men); we can be strong in our own community."
Pike is known for her huge paintings of underground grottos. Her goal as a feminist artist is to take up as much physical space as possible.
"My work is eight feet high by 20 feet wide. I’d like to double that," she says. "It could be argued that that’s part of feminist progress, to take up space and insist we have the right to do that."
She also writes feminist satire through her Agony Aunt advice columns: "One way to feel better about living in a discriminatory society is to snipe, frankly."
Visit firstfridayswinnipeg.org for a link to Pike’s Art Talk, which will be livestreamed at 7 p.m. on April 2.
Eva Wasney is a reporter for the Winnipeg Free Press.