But Is It Ecofeminist?

Saturday, October 10, 2020 12:31 PM | Anonymous

Helène Aylon (American, 1931-2020), The Earth Ambulance, 1982 ©Estate of Helène Aylon

But Is It Ecofeminist?
by Mary Jo Aagerstoun, PhD

Two exhibitions of art by women opened simultaneously in June 2020 within the menacing shadow of the COVID 19 pandemic, one in Santa Fe: Performative Ecologies, curated by Patricia Watts, at the new media gallery Currents 826, on June 9, 2020, and the other in New York City: ecofeminism(s), at the Thomas Erben Gallery, curated by Monika Fabijanska, on June 16, 2020. The shows’ appearances—the audiences mainly viewed the exhibitions online—also coincided with the righteous mobilizations and demands of Black Lives Matter spilling across the US in reaction to the murder of George Floyd by police. (1)

Neither ecofeminism(s) nor Performative Ecologies included works by Black women artists. A review of ecofeminism(s) in The Brooklyn Rail vividly underscored this absence. (2) The review’s author, Darla Migan, also asserts that an ecofeminism show foregrounding white women proved the ecofeminist movement and philosophy is “anti-intersectional” and “essentialist.” This point of view is not new and has stuck to the ecofeminist movement since its beginnings.

It was in this context that I received Patricia Watts’s invitation to write this essay on the two exhibitions for the online cultural platform, ecoartspace.(4) As I prepared to write the review I communicated with both Watts and Monika Fabijanska, asking them how they had chosen the artworks for their shows and why they had not included works by Black woman artists.(5) They both responded with reasons for the absence of Black women artists’ work and with statements of resolve that they intended to rectify this absence as they moved forward with their respective curatorial practices. They also offered detailed descriptions of their intentions for the exhibitions and their criteria for selecting the works.

Darla Migan's critique of Black women artists’ absence from ecofeminism(s) is legitimate and can be equally applied to Performative Ecologies. There certainly are Black women artists who address relationships with the environment in a range of ways and whose works might have fit (easily or uncomfortably) in either show. Among these are the philosophically dense abstractions and performances of Torkwase Dyson, the lyrical, landscape-based photo-narratives of Allison Janae Hamilton, and the community-embeddedness of LaToya Ruby Frazier’s 2016 Flint Project. The inclusion of Black artists’ perspectives in future exhibitions of art by women concerned with environmental damage and crises will be something to look forward to!(6)

While an in-depth exploration of whether ecofeminist analysis is an appropriate lens through which to consider works by Black women artists concerned with environmental issues would be welcome, this essay will not elaborate on the absence of their work in these shows, aside from asserting the legitimacy of the criticism leveled by Migan. This essay will consider whether the works in these exhibitions engage ecofeminism, the relationship they might have with essentialism and whether they can be seen as deploying ritualistic characteristics to oppose and resist.

As I began to think about all this, I wondered if the curators' intentions could be divined by considering their exhibition titles. Watts’s title, Performative Ecologies, seems gender-neutral, though all the artists in her show were women. She intentionally selected self-performative, ritualistic works where the artists appear alone (and sometimes nude) in landscapes, suggesting a possible essentialist valence that could connect with some of ecofeminism’s early tendencies to make strong, frequently celebratory linkages between biological women and the alleged feminine identity of Nature.

Fabijanska's title, ecofeminism(s), suggests the curator intended to foreground ecofeminist politics and activism in her show. Yet, in an email to me, Fabijanska states she did not intend the show to be "a piece of theoretical writing," because she expected her audience to be unfamiliar with either feminist or ecological art.(7) She wanted instead “to emphasize certain similarities and differences, to create the energy of pluses and minuses (think batteries): shapes, textures, sizes, colors, and content” to encourage gallery visitors to think deeply about what they were seeing.

Though Watts does not claim her exhibition engages ecofeminism, she has long pursued an interest in how artists (primarily women, but some men as well) place themselves in landscapes, alone, and in performative ways.(8) Emphasis on imagery of female artists, often nude, embedded ritualistically in landscapes, could suggest a fixed, universal—essentialist—relationship between Woman and Nature. At the same time, the artists’ intentions, or the works’ manifestations themselves, can also be seen as (directly or tangentially) political or activist.

Active opposition to all forms of oppression has been ecofeminists’ focus throughout the evolution of the movement and its discourses. Ecofeminists point to this focus as evidence of ecofeminism’s firmly embedded history of intersectionality. Could activist, resistant, or oppositional intent or manifestation influence whether a ritualistic work is interpreted as ecofeminist, but not essentialist, even when ritualistic and spiritual aspects are dominant? What makes a work spiritual or ritualistic? And how are we to interpret works that suggest activist intent but convey this in ritualistic ways?

Scholar of ritual Ellen Dissanayake identifies particular characteristics of ritual.(9)  She posits that ritual is characterized by “unusual behavior that sets it off from the ordinary or everyday” and that the place where ritual is enacted is “made special” by such behavior. She argues that “[t]ime, space, activity, dress, and paraphernalia are all made special or extraordinary by unusual behavior, and so we can speak of ritual time, ritual space, ritual activity, ritual dress, ritual paraphernalia. . .” Works in both shows display various combinations of these characteristics.

For example, some artists in both exhibitions choose to perform in, or refer to, damaged and even dangerous sites or to perform potentially physically dangerous or risky acts. Such choices draw attention to these sites, clear evidence of political and activist intent. If attention is not drawn to a situation of damage, the damage may never be addressed.

Dominique Mazeaud (French American 1942-), The Great Cleansing of the Rio Grande 1987-1994 ©Estate of Dominique Mazeaud. Courtesy of the artist

One work of this type, in Performative Ecologies, is Dominique Mazeaud’s seven-year-long The Great Cleansing of the Rio Grande (1987-1994). Repetition and endurance are characteristics of ritual, and are foregrounded in Great Cleansing. Mazeaud’s cleanups occurred in regular monthly sequences, stretching out over years, during which her community became increasingly involved in the project. Community members joined Mazeaud regularly in urging elected officials to improve enforcement of anti-littering regulations.

Mazeaud's Great Cleansing also spawned activist involvement after the project ended. In one of these later activist interventions, in 2001, as an act of opposition to the war in Iraq, she sent a box containing “gifts from the river,” children's shoes and other "talismanic" articles collected during an earlier Great Cleansing, to one of New Mexico's US Senators. The items referred to the deaths of thousands of children during US bombings.(10) The act of placing objects together in ways that suggest the arrangement itself has power is consonant with Dissanayake’s observations that objects become ritualized when utilized for a particular purpose that is not the objects’ original one.

Fern Shaffer (American, 1944-), Nine Year Ritual (1995-2003), The Swamp, 9th Ritual, September 9, 2003, Cashe River Basin, Illinois © Fern Shaffer. Courtesy of the artist

Another multiyear work in Performative Ecologies, Nine Year Ritual (1995-2003), by performance artist Fern Shaffer, a self-identifying feminist healer, took place on a succession of seriously damaged sites. The artist wore a costume suggestive of an African shaman, and the piece demonstrates several aspects of ritual as described by Dissanayake. Among the more recent works in Performative Ecologies is Mary Mattingly's Pull (2013), in which the artist, who self-identifies as an ecofeminist, first documented all her possessions, researching every detail about each item's provenance and manufacture, then gathered and bound the items into several large "boulders" and ritually pulled them, alone, through New York City's streets. In this way, Mattingly activates ritual processes of temporality and endurance to bring to sharp visibility the weight of human overconsumption and its exponentially expanding impacts on all habitats—clearly an activist intent.

Mary Mattingly (American, 1979-), Pull, 2013 © Mary Mattingly. Courtesy of the artist

continues here


  • Friday, November 20, 2020 9:32 PM | Deanna Pindell
    Hi, MJ, I’ve been thinking about your essay on eco-feminism. First thought … Thanks for asking so many provocative questions! I had sort-of assumed that I understood what eco-feminism was meant to be, without having done a lot of reading on theory. Your essay gave me a much better understanding of the term as more of an umbrella than a definition.


I totally agree with you and Darla Migan in critique of the lack of Black artists in either show. After recently reading Ibrahim Kendo’s How to be an Anti-Racist (where he eloquently argues that there is a stark binary … either one is racist or anti-racist), I have to support Migan’s assertion that the decision not to include Black artists reinforces the idea that Ecofeminist Art is a white movement and a non-intersectional movement, even though Black artists might be doing relevant work. 

    There’s certainly a canyon of mistrust between Black women and the feminist movement in general … never mind male-identified people or other intersectional groups. Maybe it’s time to skip ahead, and retire the debate about “ecofeminist art”. Let it be historic and problematic, in the same way that we love the Impressionists even though they were mostly wealthy white men, with revisionist research changing the narrative over time.


The question of essentialism seems angrily undecided regarding EcoFeminist Art … is that true of ecofeminism as applied in other fields? Yet, if either of these two brilliant curators, Patricia Watts and Monika Fabijanska, did not include men then I guess that they’ve provided more evidence that the field ultimately IS essentialist and not particularly intersectional. Have there been any art shows that try to assert otherwise?

    Is ecofeminism more prone to essentialism than plain old vanilla feminism due to the central connection to ecology and the idea of nature? Is essentialism a positive trait or a biased flaw? I set about polling my favorite audience, sample size of one: my millennial daughter. She feels that essentialism is widely embraced among her millennial peers, who don’t seem nearly as defensive about it as the male cohort in my own age-group, a generation older. 

    Do ecoart and ecoartists even need to debate the term eco-feminism? I actually really appreciate Tricia’s more narrow emphasis on performativity, leaving the ritualistic and spiritual aspects of the artwork clearly aligned with the curatorial identity of the exhibit. 

    Segue to queer theory … and I know next to nothing about this other than being invited to work in Australia by Eben Kirksey, and the art was devoted to a theory of Multi-species Intra-activity, based on queer theory by Karen Barad, a queer feminist and physics professor. That just sounds like such a pretentious mouthful, but the taste I gathered was fascinating.


Barad's idea of queerness and intra-activity based in quantum physics has parallels to anti-oppression work of all kinds, with an added layer that all agents are co-evolving each other, rather than being acted upon. A soft sort of analogy would be that classical feminisms is like classical physics: concrete beings with agency, whereas Multispecies Intra-activity would be analogous to quantum physics, with all of the agency embedded in process rather than beings.


I’m not so articulate about this but I feel like there’s something really valuable about the overlap between queer theory and other oppression theories. When we applied Barad’s ideas to multi-species intra-relationships and ecology, I felt a personal breakthrough. It’s a different way of looking at the ecological crisis, and what we might have after the Anthropocene, if we survive it.


Anyway, I’ve gone on too long. 
Thanks for the invitation to ponder and share thoughts, I hope others join in.
Warmest virtual hugs, Deanna
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  • Monday, November 23, 2020 6:19 PM | Pam Longobardi
    I think this is a salient essay. Your artists of color are excellent additions. It is a problem that ecofeminism has a largely white 60+ orientation...Mattingly is a refreshing addition. But then I consider myself an artist activist, so that is truly my POV.
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  • Monday, November 30, 2020 2:48 PM | Aviva Rahmani
    Thank you for expanding the conversation around ecofeminism and ecoart. In a zoom just now, the writer Brendan Keily commented that, "... racism is violence," conflating world view and impacts. I regard ecofeminism and ecoart as equally the resistance to that violence ina trajectory from racism to ecocide.

    The comments that follow are intended to address the discourse on what is ecofeminism today that emerged from considering the two shows.
    “…what has feminism been but a politics associated with the rights of people identified as women through their experiences, which are in turn based on supposedly immutable, or at least determinable, anatomical, psychological, and intellectual traits?” -Amelia Jones (A Companion to Feminist Art 2019).

    I think the discussion of these two shows and the meaning of ecofeminism is a long overdue revisitation of ecofeminist ideas. However, there are a number of fallacies in the trajectory of these arguments I will address briefly. The first is that contrary to Amelia’s text, exactly the reverse is true. That is, the essentialist arguments are NOT sited in the body of a woman. Rather, a woman’s body is the symptomatic field of engagement for a proxy war between fascist patriarchies and a more inclusive society, which would include Native American as well people of color. Donna Haraway does a good analysis of how these dots connect in, “Primate Visions” (1989). Jones references a small clique of feminist thinkers and only seems to use the topic as a springboard for her own theories rather than a careful look at the actual ideas.

    The second fallacy follows from that first error, that because siting the conflict in a woman’s experience of her body, it is a priori a delimited conversation. In fact, if we presume that ecofeminism is a critique of fascism, then the conversation has barely begun. What is wrong about shifting the argument away from the problem of siting the conflict on womens bodies, ie., to a Queer construct is mistaking the scapegoat (women) for the intention (fascism). That is not a comment on Queer thinking. It is about mistaking another symptom for the cause. The cause in all these cases is toxic patriarchalism that shades into fascism. Ecofeminism leverages an analysis of gender discrimination combined with what we know about ecocide, the ultimate result of fascism.

    I would go further in my observations on the two shows, without making comments on Watt’s show because I did not see it. I carefully observed the Ecofeminism(s) show and can comment on that show. It is very consequential that Fabijanska included several Indigenous artists. Many Indigenous artists have complained in private that Black Lives Matter often omits “Red” lives. Of course, in an ideal world all discriminated groups would be included bur Fabijanska was very clear about taking the timely opportunity to present this show as a first sketch, with much more to be said. The political implications and risk of the timing of the opening after lockdown cannot be dismissed or ignored.

    In addition, what Fabijanska got right, is looking deeply into what the ecology part of ecofeminism is about. There are endless artists who comment on the environment. Very few actually address the deeper systemic questions that are evoked by the term ecofeminism and challenge underlying issues that predispose us to authoritarian tyrannies.
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