This summer marks the 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment: “The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex.”
But for some Blacks, Latinas, Native Americans, and Asians, those rights were denied and abridged and are still undermined.
“Artists are using this as a milestone to reflect back and look ahead,” said Susan Metrican, Curator and Director of the Arts at Brandeis University’s Women’s Studies Research Center. She organized “How Will They Know We Were Here? 100 Years Beyond Women’s Suffrage.” The show is online now and will open in the research center’s Kniznick Gallery on Aug. 20, contingent on the university’s reopening plans.
“How Will They Know We Were Here?” culminates a year of programming at the research center. In the wake of Black Lives Matter protests, it seems especially urgent.
“Now, the topic is a live wire, because things are constantly shifting,” Metrican said.
She chose to focus on that live wire, rather than “artwork that aestheticizes the topic of voting history,” she said.
That meant finding artists whose work nods to history but is rooted in activism. They deploy tactics aimed to awaken people to the fight for a better society, such as collaboration, distribution, performance, and engagement with the media.
Last year, Oklahoma textile artist Marilyn Artus started traveling to the 36 states that ratified the 19th Amendment to enlist women in each state to create a portion of “Her Flag,” an 18-by-26-foot behemoth with 36 stripes and a circle surrounded by stars that reads “Votes for Women.” In each state, stitching the stripe to the flag was a public performance.
“Thirty-six women artists all designed the project,” Artus said. “Ex-military, 20-year-olds to 80-year-olds, everywhere on the socio-economic spectrum. In Texas, we had a Russian immigrant.”
COVID-19 crimped her travel plans, but she still plans to be in Tennessee, the state that made the amendment official, on Aug. 18, the anniversary of that vote.
Another artist who works principally in textiles, Natalie Baxter, plays with and subverts the symbols and texts of power and patriotism.
After “Warm Gun,” her series of soft sculptures about guns and masculinity, got national media attention, an article appeared on conservative commentator Glenn Beck’s website, The Blaze.
Baxter read the comments.
“They were all very intense, and geared toward my gender, my sexuality, my role as a woman, and my sanity,” said the artist, who lives in Queens. “I decided that instead of letting the comments get to me, why not turn them into a series of works?”
These include “Clearly Confused VI,” a deliciously pink banner with yellow fringe that reads, “Clearly confused about her role as a woman.”
She also makes puffy, gold-striped American flags, delighting in the highly charged quality of the symbols. “Because they’re soft sculptures and humorous, you can engage in conversations you wouldn’t normally have,” Baxter said.
Amplifier, a Seattle-based design nonprofit that commissions posters for grassroots movements and makes them available for free downloads at www.amplifier.org, produces work seen as often in streets and classrooms as in galleries, such as Laci Jordan’s bold ballot box image reading “Vote for Our Lives.” The agency works with artists including Shepard Fairey and Hank Willis Thomas, and distributes graphics for Women’s March, Rock the Vote, and more.
“These are tools to participate in democracy,” said Cleo Barnett, Amplifier’s executive director.
The technologies of activism have changed since 1920, but the strategies have not.
“We’re talking about large-scale narrative changes,” Barnett said, “and that was a tactic of the suffrage movement — a culture shift. You need to change the consciousness of the people before there is a policy change.”
A century after suffrage, “How Will They Know We Were Here?” looks ahead.
“It poses the question, if we dare to think 100 years in the future,” Metrican said, “what evidence will be left behind that we pushed as hard as they did?”
HOW WILL THEY KNOW WE WERE HERE? 100 YEARS BEYOND WOMEN’S SUFFRAGE: Marilyn Artus/ Natalie Baxter/ Amplifier
Online now. In the gallery Aug. 20-Nov. 3. Kniznick Gallery, Women’s Studies Research Center, Brandeis University, 515 South St., Waltham. 781-736-8100, www.brandeis.edu/wsrc/arts/images/how-will-they-know/online-exhibition.html
Cate McQuaid can be reached at email@example.com.