America is engaged in a culture war over feminism. Questions of equality that seemed settled to many people after the heyday of the 1970s women’s liberation movement have reared up again in recent years, fueled by the feminist blogosphere, the emergence of the #MeToo movement, and the increasing threats to women’s reproductive rights.
In the art world, an ongoing debate exists about women’s thematic and aesthetic concerns, with some contemporary critics still on the fence about the artistic merit of work that focuses too strongly on the feminine, from women’s daily concerns to their bodies. Additionally, some mediums that are traditionally associated with women’s domestic work, such as weaving and embroidery, have historically been dismissed as “craft” rather than embraced as fine art.
Judy Chicago’s groundbreaking Birth Project was a lightning rod for such criticism and controversy when it debuted in 1985, and it remains startlingly relevant today. The project consists of 100 tapestries and quilts, designed by Chicago and executed by 150 volunteer fiber artists. The pieces are vivid — both in color and in emotional and physical extremes. Women in these works are part flesh and part land. They exist in groups and in isolation, across different cultural contexts, giving birth, writhing, weeping, and even seeming to sing. There are no men among them.
In a Washington Post interview published in May 1985, writer Mary Battiata asked Chicago about the missing men. Chicago’s response sounds as current as a post on feminist Twitter: “Well, what about men? I mean, really! Give me a break! I wasn’t talking about men! What egomania!”
Chicago lives in Belen, New Mexico. More than a dozen needle works and a dozen drawings and prints from The Birth Project are on exhibit at the Harwood Museum of Art (238 Ledoux St., Taos) in a show that pulls from the collections of Harwood, the University of New Mexico Art Museum, the Albuquerque Museum, and Through the Flower, Chicago’s nonprofit feminist art organization, as well as from private collections. Judy Chicago: The Birth Project from New Mexico Collections is on display through Nov. 10. For more information, call 575-758-9826 or go to harwoodmuseum.org.