(Book Review) Working with Feminism: Curating and Exhibitions in Eastern Europe

23 August 2022 - no responses

Although published in 2012, the questions and problems relating to feminist curating in Eastern Europe that the book Working with Feminism: Curating and Exhibitions in Eastern Europe brings forward, are still relevant.

The book compiles articles based on an international symposium titled Common Differences: Issues for Feminist Curating in the Post-Socialist Europe, that took place in May 2011 at the Estonian Academy of Arts. The point of departure for the event and the book was to bring together researchers from the region to discuss ‘histories of feminist exhibitions and curatorial strategies in those countries that shared a state-socialist past’. What is more, as one of the organizers of the symposium and the editor of the book Katrin Kivimaa emphasized, most of the articles bring forward the precarious conditions of curatorial work impacted by dominant (gender) ideologies in the context of globalization.

Through the theoretical insights and case studies, the question of how and “to what extent can the dominant models of exchange and transfer between globally and locally/regionally disseminated knowledge be undone and reconfigured”[1] is also brought forward. How to find a balance between global knowledge production and its dominating narratives and the specificities of the local contexts? What strategies could feminist curating offer in dealing with these challenges and disrupting the hegemonic structures?

What is also important, while dealing with these issues in the context of “Eastern Europe”, it should be remembered that as a region it encompasses remarkable differences, cultural and historical diversity. Although East Europe could be a useful concept to bring regional characteristics into the global focus, it has also signified unequal power relations and hierarchies in relation to Western Europe, for example, so the usage of the notion itself presumes critical reflection and analyses. In this short overview I will focus on two texts that deal with feminist curating as a political practice and tool for imagining counter-institutions and alternative ways of knowledge production.

Angela Dimitrakaki’s Feminist Politics and Institutional Critiques: Imagining a Curatorial Commons offers a theoretical insight into feminist curating as an anti-capitalist strategy that creates a common frsmework for curators. It means imagining autonomous counter-institutions, which does not mean the negation of institutions as such or creating new types of institutions into the old system.

Feminist curating means changing the ways we work.[2] In searching for pan-national and regional commonalities, the problems of Eastern Europe as a separate region also come to fore. Dimitrakaki suggests that we should not identify post-socialist Europe only with Eastern Europe but consider Europe as a whole as post-socialist. She emphasizes that a critique of capitalism is essential for the feminist position, as a betterment of women’s lives “will never happen under capitalism for the vast majority of women”.[3]

Therefore, the post-socialist Europe is, according to Dimitrakaki, “not a Europe of ‘equal’ European women but rather of women competing with each other, and with men (of not for men!), for access to resources – including resources pertaining to art.”[4]

Dimitrakaki points out how concentrating on regionality tends to “end up reproducing structures of difference as structures of oppression”[5] and that is why a continental approach gives a more solid ground for collaboration between feminists. So, the author asks, how to turn knowledge created through projects like Gender Check in the context of curatorial commons into a “shared oppositional knowledge beyond the region[6]?

In elaborating on the issues of feminist curating, Dimitrakaki has been inspired for example by the strategies of Kuratorisk Aktion from Denmark. By very consciously taking a non-normative (queer, feminist, anti-capitalist, anti-colonial, etc.) position, they have declared that their main goal is to curate critics, in a way that the boundaries between curating and activism are blurred. This means making curating itself an autonomous field in the arts, which complements different artistic positions in its specific form. This also means that a curatorial common approach requires in one part a distance from capitalist institutions and culture that takes art and art history as its point of departure. Instead, radical curating uses these institutions only as a tool to achieve its goals in creating a platform for a bottom-up feminism that is connected “to the plight of women rather than just female artists – in Europe and beyond.”[7]

Katja Kobolt’s essay Feminist Curating Beyond, In, Against or For the Canon? deals with the question of how feminist curating practices are related to and impact the canon formation processes, and what the main problems to consider are. Canon formation and curating are, according to Kobolt, open and heterogeneous processes that bear resemblance to political representation. According to Kobolt, politics is a process in which the particular is articulated as universal. Curating always is an act of choosing, preferring specific objects to others because of their representativeness. As feminist curators and theoreticians, we are always in some ways related to the canon formation. Through the process of selecting, who we work with and show, what themes we decide to deal with, means being part of the power structures. Therefore, the canon is not defined only inside the discipline of art history, but also outside of it – in the versatile discourse of the art system.

Kobolt considers curating in Eastern Europe as dealing with periphery in the context of the international art system. She considers working in this region as “curating beyond the canon”.[8] Feminist curating should critically analyze its subjects and objects of research: does being a feminist curator mean that one only works with women or queer artists or feminist artists, despite their gender? Does feminism in art mean a specific feminist agenda or production of a materiality which manifests itself in forms, media, and in the framework of production, representation and reception?

Very often, the context for curating is in stark contrast to what feminism as a political movement stands for. Feminist activism, theoretical, artistic, curatorial and other practices seldom turn canonical – they are not regarded as universal, hence political. According to Kobolt “(feminist) canon building and (feminist) curatorial practices are intrinsically interconnected”.[9] Curators are in one way or another ‘inspired’ by the canon, whether opposing it or ignoring it, they work with artists enhancing their visibility and canonize their practice. Feminist curating provides visibility to otherwise marginalized groups and offers a platform to practice art. Feminist canon building and curatorial practice have emphasized “the epistemic categories of the feminine body and of women’s experience, which promised to grasp and represent women as a homogeneous political category.”[10]

In the center of feminist criticism has been the introduction of new perspectives related to the analysis of the image of women or with gender differences. It is still productive to challenge the canon by reconceptualizing and revising the male-centered canon. “Ethnicity, race, class, desire, gender performativity, geo- and biopolitical power divisions have all been productive notions which made it possible to rethink gender in a more complex way, corresponding to differences between women and their agendas. On the other hand, they also introduced a productive re-questioning of feminism itself and its strategies of political representation.”[11]

Kobolt also suggests that both notions that are central to radical feminism – body and experience – still provide a fertile ground for a feminist intervention. These notions, re-conceptualized through the idea of a non-essentialist subject, are still loaded with culturally constructed meanings, which makes them relevant in the context of feminist curating and canon policy. Therefore, as different barriers still exist for women for a professional genealogy, Kobolt finds it adequate to organize projects that include only women artists and take their point of departure the question of subjectification and offer a platform for deconstruction, to criticize, to undermine and cross different identities.

Feminist curatorial projects which offer feminist art or women artists a platform, could be regarded as the politics of the counter-canon. At the same time, Kobolt points out that feminist projects are criticized as not having a strong enough counterweight, a proper cultural and political power. What is more, Kobolt still sees a tendency that many artists do not want to be associated with feminism, claiming that aesthetics cannot be linked to any identity category, e.g., gender.

Kobolt opposes this claim; according to her, aesthetics is not a timeless and universal phenomenon, but perceived historically-materially as something which is socially and culturally constructed. At the same time, those interests and agendas that are articulated as universal lead to political emancipation. Does this mean that these counter-canonical projects do not carry any weight?

Maybe we should think more of deconstructing the canon itself? Kobolt suggests that there is “no ‘proper’ feminist politics of the canon as well as no ‘proper’ feminist curating as such.”[12] But what is essential, as feminists we cannot claim universality without solidarity. As “it is solidarity which underlies the transmission and translation of knowledge and thus also the empowerment to translate singular into universal and private into political.”[13]


By Eda Tuulberg


[1] Angela Dimitrakaki, Feminist politics and institutional critiques: Imagining a curatorial commons. – Working with Feminism: Curating and Exhibitions in Eastern Europe, Tallinn, 2012, Tallinn University Press, p. 22.

[2] Ibid. p. 35.

[3] Ibid. p. 23.

[4] Ibid. p. 24.

[5] Ibid. p. 36.

[6] Ibid. p. 36.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Katja Kobolt, Feminist curating beyond, in, against or for the canon? – Working with Feminism: Curating and Exhibitions in Eastern Europe, Tallinn, 2012, Tallinn University Press, p. 43.  

[9] Ibid. p. 45.

[10] Ibid. p. 46-47.

[11] Ibid. p. 50.

[12] Ibid. p. 60.

[13] Ibid.

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