Feminist responsibilities: thinking about art history, epistemology and geopolitics

In the first of what we hope will become a more regular feature on the blog, we publish a response to an article recently published in Feminist Review. Here, Paniz Musawi Natanzi responds to Victoria Horne’s ‘Kate Davis: re-visioning art history after modernism and postmodernism‘ (free to access until the end of September) from issue 110. Victoria Horne will be responding in an upcoming blog post in the next few weeks – so stay tuned!

Feminist responsibilities: thinking about art history, epistemology and geopolitics.

In her article ‘Kate Davis: re-visioning art history after modernism and postmodernism’, Victoria Horne (2015) examines in a “feminist analysis” the artistic work of Scottish artist Kate Davis. Horne’s feminist framing challenges androcentric art historical discourses that marginalise the position and meaning of women artists’ artwork as a visual form of knowledge production.

Horne reveals through a “feminist logic” the marginalising power of “paternalistic structures” through which art history produces disciplined knowledge (ibid: 35-36). Characteristic of this approach are the strategies of “re-visioning”, which is the artistic re-framing and critical engagement with canonical artworks, and “re-citing”, which links matrilineal history to the present from a feminist perspective (ibid: 47). Looking at the post-second wave feminism era, Horne argues that by reframing and re-evaluating canonical artworks, women artists position their “political critique” (ibid). The visual statement characterises feminist art production and hence needs to be recognised by the discipline of art history (ibid: 35).

Despite her deconstructive approach Horne does not describe her own work as postmodern or informed by poststructuralism. Rather, she argues that the academic over-usage of deconstructive methods in analysing knowledge and power relations have replicated “metanarratives” that do not grasp the critical potential of women artists’ visual “political critique” (ibid: 35). If Virginia Woolf calls for the necessity of “a room of one’s own” for women writers, then Horne argues that women artists have produced artistic visual knowledge of their own since the 1960s that needs a visible place in art history (Woolf, 2000). By locating the relation between art, epistemology and politics of visibility, Horne’s article touches upon a widely ignored connection between feminist studies and art historical knowledge production: she invites us to “seriously” consider “art’s potential” to think “differently” about art history and “women’s labour” (Horne, 2015: 36). Horne’s thorough feminist examination of Davis’ “visual research” invests into “a form of feminist historiographical labour”, rendering visible processes of women’s exclusion and marginalisation from the past to the present.

Horne’s criticism of the systematic exclusion of “canonically or economically marginalised” women artists in art history also challenges “universalist perspectives” ignoring “the particularities of an artist’s encounter with and relation to cultural production and it’s historical legacies” (ibid: 38). Touching upon the “parallel complexity” that links white women artists’ art production experience with “African-American female artists” Horne equates the social, political and legal experience of colonialism, slavery and on-going racialisation with male supremacy, domestic violence and chauvinism (ibid: 43). Thereby, Horne fails to consider the accumulative and intersectional power of discrimination that creates space for the very epistemic violence she aims to challenge in her article.

In order to shape a responsible and critical feminist art historiography it is necessary to consider how “embodied epistemologies”, as the geopolitical feminist thinker Jennifer Hyndman (2004: 309-310) calls it, shape the “particularities” (Horne, 2015: 38-39) of embodied experience. In this case, black women artists’ experience cannot simply be reduced to a “parallel” but independently working universe. The racialisation of bodies is interwoven with processes of heteronormative gendering. Experiencing processes of gendering, racialisation, precarity, and ableism, and living in spaces with morbid infrastructures, on-going conflict and political violence all hinder women’s artistic production, and differ vastly depending on one’s local and geopolitical space of living. Hence, Horne’s idea of re-visioning and re-citing can only be applied to social formations that can refer to a disciplinary canon. How do we read contemporary women’s art that has no art historical canon of its own to refer to?

Exemplary for the pitfalls of universalising art histories is Afghanistan, where British and US-American colonisation and invasion has strongly influenced how fine, modern and contemporary art is being taught since the end of the 19th century. Decades of war since the end of the 1970s brought art production and its exhibition in public spaces to a general halt. So, is there an “Afghan art history”?

Contemporary women artists in Afghanistan received wide attention with the reconstruction of the Afghan nation-state and liberal peace building in the years succeeding the US invasion of Afghanistan in 2001. Not primarily for the quality of their art, but for the fact that they were female residents of post-Taliban Afghanistan. While the quality of the artwork has strongly increased throughout the past 14 years, the instrumentalisation of women’s art has not. The textual and visual work of Afghan-US-American artist and scholar Amanullah Mojadidi shows that engagements with the blue chadari (Dari-Farsi word for burqa), or the use of graffiti is “co-opted and instrumentalized” by western governments and donors (Mojadidi quoted in Montagu, 2014 [PDF]; see also: Mojadidi quoted in Burke, 2011) since women artists are perceived as symbols of progress and civilisation.

It seems unavoidable to consider the influence of local customs while taking into account to what extent and how Euro-American aesthetic ideals, drawing practices and topics have shaped Afghan arts in times of colonisation and continuing liberal-peace-building. The scope of “re-visioning” and “re-citing” has proved to be a narrow feminist strategy that presupposes an art historical canon to which modern and contemporary women artists can refer to. The “archaeological labour” (Horne, 2015: 50) that contemporary Afghan women artists have done seems to be more critical when not engaging with issues of gender since it is hard to tell whether the artist is pleasing the eyes of its funding patron or her own need to visualise embodied experience.

Complicating the approach to women’s artistic work shows the limits of Horne’s strategies of “re-visioning” and/or “re-citing” art history since these are not capable to look at art histories, but assume a world untouched by colonialized epistemologies. A feminist analysis of contemporary artwork needs to develop a strategy that does not replicate exclusive techniques. The next question should be how to read contemporary women’s art without marginalising non-white artistic experiences within and outside of Europe and the US.


Burke, J., 2011. Kabul’s graffiti guerrillas put the writing on the walls. The Guardian.

Hyndman, J., 2004. Mind the gap: bridging feminist and political geography through geopolitics. Political Geography, 23(3), pp.307–322.

Montagu, J., 2014. Contemporary Visual Art in Afghanistan: ‘An Art of Laughter and Forgetting…’ In: M. Crimmin, E. Stanton, S. Oxenbridge-Hastie and C. Wood, eds., Art and Conflict. A Research Enquiry supported by the Arts and Humanities Research Council and the Royal College of Art 2013-2014. London, pp.45–55.

Woolf, V., 2000. A room of one’s own. Penguin classics. London: Penguin.

Paniz Musawi Natanzi is a PhD candidate at the Centre for Gender Studies at SOAS. Currently, she is based in Tehran where she conducts her fieldwork on Afghan women’s visual knowledge production in Afghanistan, Iran and Pakistan in times of on-going insecurity and liberal-peace-building in Afghanistan. She holds a BA in Political Science from the Free University of Berlin’s Otto Suhr Institute (2013) and an MSc in Comparative Political Thought from the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), University of London (2014). Since 2012 Paniz has published amongst others in the German daily newspaper taz. die tageszeitung, the French revue l’imparfaite and has a forthcoming book chapter which is going to be published by Hurst & Co and Columbia University Press in 2016.


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