An Interview with Isabel Waquil

by Georgina Ustik

claudia-barbisan-marianne

Cláudia Barbisan, Exposição Obscenidades para Donas de Casa (2014)

Isabel Waquil is the co-founder of the website “Mulheres na Arte Contemporânea,” or “Women in Contemporary Art”. Originally from Brazil, she has been based in New York City for the past few months, where she has been conducting interviews with members of the A.I.R. Gallery in order to explore the purpose and possibilities of a women’s cooperative art space. 

 

Would you mind first telling me about your website?

Yes, it’s called “Mulheres na Arte Contemporânea,” or “Women in Contemporary Art”. I really see the site as a platform for interviews of many kinds, not only one kind or one subject. All the interviews have in common that they are all women, and in some aspect they all speak about participation of women in the arts, but the interviews come from different projects. The website was created originally for a project called “The Studio is a Place for Dialogue,” which was proposed by Lillian Maus. She’s a Brazilian artist, and she had this project that included exhibitions, workshops, and a book of interviews.

She invited me to write these interviews, it is called “The Ladies Have the Floor: Dialogues on the Inclusion of Women in Visual Arts” and it has 10 interviews in Portuguese and English with women involved in the Brazilian art scene. We created the website to put the interviews and the book itself to be available for free download. We found it very interesting – people were assessing a lot. So we kept the website alive and I kept interviewing other women, even after the book.  And then, when I heard about A.I.R., I was very interested in this kind of institution, so I came here to do these interviews and to feed the website.

Does your website have a thesis? What are you trying to accomplish with it? What’s the main goal?

I think the main goal is really to be a platform, to be a place to congregate a lot of interviews, to be a base for many different contents. So, if you’re researching Joan Snitzer, you would probably find her interview there and that would be a way to get to the website and find other interviews of women. So, I really see it as a repository, a place to congregate a lot of interviews and to be a space to share these voices, to amplify these voices, to be a space for these women to talk and to speak about what they are doing.

If you plan on it becoming a sort of database, are you going to keep adding after you return to Brazil?

Yes, I’ll keep adding to it. Even after this A.I.R. project is finished, my plan is to keep interviewing people. Probably, if I don’t have a specific project, I will update the last interviews for now. Here in the U.S. I did 12 interviews in two months, so it was a lot. But my plan for the website is to be, exactly, a database. It has 27 interviews online already, in Portuguese.

In an article by Lillian Maus, she says that the articles reveal a political dimension. Can you speak to the political nature of the website? Is it intentional or do you think, when highlighting female voices, it is inevitably political?

I think she used this expression because when we were researching to do this book of interviews that started the website, we saw two things. First, this discussion that crosses gender and art was only just beginning in Brazil at that time, the end of 2013. Second, we didn’t find anything else like what we were planning to do – a book of interviews with women speaking about their work and their understandings of gender issues in the art world. So I think the book comes with this political aspect because of its uniqueness at that time. I also see the website with this political characteristic because it amplifies female voices and also it shows what these interviewed women think about gender inequality in the art world. So, basically, I think that when the website highlights female voices and female works and discusses these issues in a context where sexist practices still have space, it inevitably becomes political.

Do you have any political goals with the website? Is there anything politically that you hope to accomplish with this?

I think the main goal is to give more visibility to these women’s work and to discuss these aspects of gender in the art world. It’s really about listening to those women. Some of them, in Brazil, for example, don’t think that there is an outstanding gender inequality in the art world. So I hope to accomplish a greater discussion about these subjects. And it’s interesting – like some interviewees said to me about the importance of all-women organizations – I hope someday this discussion is outdated and no longer necessary. Then I think we will have achieved a higher level of equal rights. But, so far, I think we still need to talk about it.

You studied journalism in Brazil. Can you talk about your transition from journalism into the art world, and what led you to this?

I studied journalism, and then other works that I did during graduation were in cultural institutions, for example in Goethe-Institut, Ibere Camargo Foundation, Sao Paulo International Art Fair, Subterranea Studio Art Space. So I have always been working with these kinds of institutions and putting my journalism practices together with cultural subjects. And then I got closer to this women’s subject when I wrote the book “The Ladies Have the Floor: Dialogues on the Inclusion of Women in Visual Arts”. It developed into the website of interviews “Women In Contemporary Art,” and then I came to the U.S. to research A.I.R. Gallery and keep feeding the website.

Before you were introduced to the book, did you feel that there was gender inequality?

No. I had never stopped to think about it, but it was very in my face. For example, I was working in this art space where it was four male artists and one female artist managing it. The inequality wasn’t only the number difference, it was also about the dynamics that were playing out which I think, subconsciously, were based on gender. Then I started looking back to these other working experiences I have had and I saw that many times the staff of these institutions were full of women but the directors were often men.

Isn’t that funny how in industries that are mainly women, men are often still in charge, such as medicine or non-profit organizations?

Exactly.

You’re focusing on women because of this book that brought you here. Is the focus of your website women artists or feminist artists? Or, artists who happen to be women?

Women artists, for sure. Not all of them call themselves feminists. In the A.I.R. project, of course, most of the women I interviewed considered themselves feminists or at least were feminists at some point of their lives. In the U.S. I came to interview women from this specific gallery, the first women’s co-op gallery in U.S., so I think it’s natural that these women are more engaged in this discussion.

In Brazil, we chose these women because of their work, not because of their involvement with feminist questions. So the focus of the website is on women artists. But “feminist artist” is an interesting concept. Jane Swavely is President of the Board of Directors in A.I.R. and an abstract painter. Her artistic work doesn’t address feminist issues, but her work in the gallery for sure does, since they advocate for women’s visibility and empowerment. So, there is this funny difference between the artwork and the political nature of the personal views, and the movement in between.

 

How did you choose the women that you interviewed? For both projects.

For the project in Brazil I chose them with Lillian Maus, who was organizing the project. From a list of about 30, we came up with these 10 women – they are curators, artists, managers and researchers. It’s a very diverse group, not only artists. Then, I did 6 or 7 interviews with women that were passing by the art space Subterranea Studio, where Lilian and I were working together. And for the A.I.R. project I chose the artists with JoAnne McFarland, she is the Director of Exhibitions and Operations in the gallery, so she helped me with that. I explained to her the project that I wanted to interview artists with different involvements with A.I.R. to get different perspectives, and she helped me create this body of 11 interviewees. Then, with the help of Joan Snitzer, I talked to Judith Bernstein, which was great, as she was also in the gallery’s founder group.

Was everybody excited to talk to you about these kinds of things?

Yes, yes. They all were.

What kind of following are you getting on the website? Is there a way that you’re tracking viewers?

Yes, I see that social media is a huge part of this. Every time that somebody shares something from the website, the views get very high. I’m still working on some aspects of the site and also translating everything into Portuguese as well. I think it will be very interesting for people in Brazil to read about A.I.R., the first women’s cooperative in the United States. It’s a lot of work but it’s very important for me to get it all translated. When I have all of this finished, I’ll work on spreading the website around again, getting in touch with press and things like that. In 2014, when we did that after the book release, we had 10.000 views and 2.000 viewers by the end of the year. That also shows that some viewers visited the website more than one time.

What do you personally think is the purpose of an all-women’s co-op, like A.I.R., and do you think there’s still a need for spaces like this?

Yes, for sure. I came here specifically to be only with A.I.R. A lot of people asked me why I didn’t go elsewhere, but the reason is that I find this organization really amazing. I was very curious. I thought it would be very hard to understand the purpose of a women’s organization, since in my city in Brazil we had nothing like that in the art scene. But actually it was really easy. It makes a lot of sense! It’s really about empowering women and not only giving them the space to show but also to talk.

They have monthly meetings which are very important. In these meetings they speak, discuss, and really are questioning their place and what is the fight for women today, which is a huge question. I always ask this question in the interviews. Of course, there is no concrete or uniform answer, but I can see that they are debating a lot about that – how to make the institution more inclusive, who are the minorities today, and things like that.  It’s really a supportive group. It’s very important for their careers, too.

One of the questions that I repeated a lot was to ask about A.I.R.’s role their careers. And in this early analysis I’m doing, I came up with 3 main responses to this question: 1. Community Aspect, like “What [we do] really is creating an environment of safety where we can discuss really really difficult things” (Interview with JoAnne McFarland, 5/30/15), 2. Orientation, for example “A.I.R. gave me a structure to understand what I was going to face as women, as artist.” (Interview with Joan Snitzer, 6/2/15) and 3. A place to show, “I think also that I wanted to relieve the constant sort of stress of looking for exhibitions and find something that would be more consistence.” (Interview with Maxine Henryson, 6/13/15)

Of course that there are many other issues to be discussed, like how the co-ops are being validated in the art world today and things like that, but mainly I think there is still a need for places like that.

Could you talk about, or compare, the Brazilian art scene and the American one, in terms of gender from what you’ve discovered in these interviews?

It’s difficult to compare because it’s such different contexts, but of course, these comparisons naturally happen. I am always thinking “Brazil context vs. U.S. context”, but actually I’m here in NYC only for 3 months and to work specifically with A.I.R., so this is also something that I have to remember of when I talk about it. I’m sure that if I had interviewed women from Texas or Kentucky it would be very different perspectives. In Brazil, the same thing – I interviewed 17 women and most of them are from middle class, white, highly educated backgrounds. So, it is a group of elite. I don’t have a very broad group of interviews, although they are diverse in a professional sense, like artists, curators and professors.

But, that being said, what I noticed and what I discussed with Bruna Fetter, one of the interviewees and a researcher of art theory, is that in the Brazilian art scene, there are many women running galleries, especially in Sao Paulo, so we see women having positions of economic power in Brazil, but political positions, like in cultural departments of governments or being directors of museums and public institution, these are positions mainly dominated by men. But for the interviews I could see that women feel that they have a lot of space in Brazilian art scene. Maybe there is this feeling because the circuit there started to develop later, when women were already fighting for their rights, or because art, in the past, art was considered a women’s hobby, a women’s thing. But, even if there is this feeling, it does not mean that things are better in Brazil.

It is important to say that Brazilian society is still very conservative and lately the religious point of view is having more and more space in politics. It’s really scary. For example, in 2013 we had Marco Feliciano, a racist and homophobic Evangelic pastor elected for the Government Human Rights Commission, or this other congressman, Eduardo Cunha, who is the current president of the Chamber of Congressman and is also an Evangelical with very, very conservative political point of view.

So I see the Brazilian context paradoxically. There is all this very sexualized and objectified culture around, but at the same time a fortification of conservative politics and regress in human rights, even though in the last years we achieved a lot of good things as a society. I mean, it is all very complex, a lot of things to consider. Just like in United States, which has a very complex context as well. I think it’s always worth trying to compare as long as you keep in mind the differences and you don’t generalize.

 

So, do you feel you’ve accomplished what you’ve wanted to, with this project so far? What are some things you’ve discovered?

My main goal was to understand the meaning of organizations focused solely on women, and I really did understand their importance. I think it is still necessary to have initiatives like A.I.R. I also have created a good body of content for the website and hopefully it will spread around and start or continue discussion. I’m excited to bring these back to Brazil and see what can be developed from it. I think that it’s a project that I have planted a lot of seeds, so now I have to see which seeds will grow.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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