The Academic Feminist: Leah DeVun on feminist art and womyn’s lands

Leah DeVunWelcome back, Academic Feminists. This edition features an interview with artist and historian Leah DeVun. Leah lives in New York and teaches women’s and gender history at Rutgers University. Her artwork has been featured in Artforum, Capricious, and LA Weekly and her scholarly work has appeared in Radical History Review and GLQ. “The L Word” fans may recognize her from her work as a commentator on the DVD of the Showtime series. Here, Leah discusses the connections between her scholarly work and her art, for example, by looking at the history of the womyn’s land movement and asking what it can tell us about current efforts to imagine communal ways of living. Leah concludes by discussing the legacy of feminist art and invites us to check out a host of contemporary artists who are working from a variety of feminist perspectives.

How do you see your work as an historian being shaped by feminism? Who have been some of your main feminist influences?

I’ve been strongly influenced by feminism ever since I was a teenage riot grrrl growing up in Seattle, Washington, and learning about feminism for the first time from musicians like Kathleen Hanna, Lynnee Breedlove, and Donna Dresch. My influences tend to span the disciplines, from scholars like Caroline Walker Bynum, Joan Scott, Londa Schiebinger, Gayle Rubin, bell hooks, Donna Haraway, Audre Lorde, Griselda Pollock, and Peggy Phelan, to artists like Dorothy Allison, Ana Mendieta, Valie Export, Kiki Smith, Catherine Opie, Carrie Mae Weems, and Tee Corinne, to name a few. For me, queer feminism is about challenging fixed boundaries and identities, so it makes sense to draw on as many ways of approaching gender and the body as possible, both inside and outside history and academia. 

Some of your photographic work, especially your work on womyn’s lands is marked by a connection with the historical nature of these spaces – for example, a lot of people think about womyn’s lands as being specific to a particular era; they don’t know these spaces still exist! What did your visits to these places tell you about the construction of women’s spaces today?

My photographs often explore the continuing impact of history on the present. Womyn’s lands, for those who don’t know the term, are radical all-female communes, usually located in rural areas. Many of them started up in the 1970s, at a time when people were going “back to the land” to create revolutionary, utopian communities that rejected patriarchy and capitalism. But the lands haven’t disappeared, and the people who live on them have fascinating stories to tell, as well as opinions about contemporary issues that we don’t always get to hear, often because we don’t take the time to move past stereotypes about what previous generations of feminists think. Even though people tend to dismiss them as part of the past, womyn’s lands are especially relevant now, when conversations about development, gentrification, consumerism, and sustainability seem to be everywhere. I hear a lot of young people talking about creating non-traditional households through intentional communities, collectives, land trusts. But we don’t hear much about the history of womyn’s lands, and the ways that they’ve already wrestled with some of the thorny problems of communal living, as well as what it means to reject mainstream society and try to build an alternative outside of it (and whether or not that’s even possible). Beyond that, questions about women’s space and who can, or should, occupy it – and even what it means to be a “woman” – are debates that we’re still having, especially in the midst of creating trans- and racially inclusive politics and institutions – and I might add that those are conversations that the womyn’s lands’ inhabitants are fully aware of and still engaged in. We often view the problems of our own time as completely new, but if we look at history we can usually find continuities across time that can help us to think critically about our ideas, and maybe even imagine different ways of living.

For my photographic series about womyn’s lands, I was interested in documenting the lands as they exist now, but also in recreating scenes from their origins using young queers/feminists as models, and emphasizing this resonance between past and present. I was especially inspired by the independent feminist magazines that were circulating at that time, like Sinister Wisdom, Dyke, Country Women, and Womanspirit. They reminded me of the queer-punk zines that were a part of my youth network, and I can see a connection to the feminist blogs and websites – like Feministing – that are performing some of the same functions today.

You are going to be speaking on a panel at the Brooklyn Museum on the impact of feminism on contemporary art. I hope that our readers living in and around New York will attend, but for those who can’t, describe some of those connections. And who are some other artists that folks interested in feminist art should be on the look out for?

“The Future is History: Feminist Legacies in Contemporary Art” is an intergenerational dialogue about the continuing impact of feminism on emerging artists, and also about established feminist artists and the institutions they’ve created. The participants (and hopefully the audience) will discuss what the “legacy” of feminism is, why we should care about it, and what might be gained by talking about it across generations. Several of the artists involved use intergenerational feminist and queer histories to ground their work, like Reina Gossett’s documentary film project about the collective STAR (Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries) House on the Lower East Side, or Katherine Hubbard’s multimedia performances about unsung feminist artists. Other presenters, including Daria Dorosh (co-founder of the feminist arts space A.I.R. Gallery), will talk about the preservation of landmark buildings significant to the history of feminism, and they’ll also address the ways in which even conventionally successful female artists still face historical erasure. There are of course so many other amazing artists working today, but Xaviera Simmons, Melanie Bonajo, Lorna Williams, Allyson Mitchell, Petra Collins, A.L. Steiner, Leslie Hewitt, Elle Pérez, Jeanine Oleson, Pinar Yolacan, Heather Cassils, Katarzyna Majak, LaToya Ruby Frazier, and Fastwurms are some of my current favorites.

Extra Credit!

In addition to the above linked materials, you can find more information on the topics discussed below. If you’re in Brooklyn, you can see some of Leah’s photography and hear her speak on the connections between art and feminism at the Brooklyn Museum on Thursday, March 27. Add additional links in comments and, as always, please send suggestions for future Academic Feminist interviewees here.

for FeministingGwendolyn Beetham is lucky enough to live within walking distance of the Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art.

 

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