Growing up in the ‘90s, paper routes – along with hundreds of other roles and occupations – were for the boys. The ‘90s wasn’t that long ago, but we’ll chalk at least one up for 2020 because we’ve finally cracked that glass ceiling a hundred ways to Sunday. And so, “Paper Routes” is an apropos title for the first of two exhibitions at the National Museum of Women in the Arts (NMWA) this winter, as it connects and showcases 22 women artists from around the world all working in paper as a primary medium.
“Paper Routes” is an installment of the NMWA’s Women to Watch series, on display through January 18. International and national outreach committees and guest curators coalesced shortlists of artists working in the chosen medium from their regions. From these lists, NMWA curators selected the artists whose work is now on view, both virtually and in-person.
By interacting with the pieces, visitors can traverse the routes the creators have taken as artists, women and the myriad of other identities they hold. At the same time, this diversity of experiences is, of course, what shapes the ways these artists have responded to traditional associations with and uses of paper.
“When you see so many works made out of the same thing, essentially, it’s really awe-inspiring to see what artists come up with,” says NMWA Associate Curator Virginia Treanor. “The level of skill involved in all of these works is astonishing.”
The floor-to-ceiling wallpaper made from hand-cut tissue paper fashioned into intricate lacy patterns by artist Elisabetta Di Maggio, for example, leaves a “resonance of the undervalued work historically associated with women – delicate, monotonous work like sewing,” Treanor notes.
Di Maggio’s work hangs in complementary contrast to her peer Angela Glajcar’s freely floating, geometric paper cubes. With inward spiraling torn edges implying infinite chasms, these cubes – with no melodrama of interpretation intended – could easily represent a woman’s work never ending.
Installing these pieces, and others in the exhibition, without having the artists present was painstaking. But Treanor says it engendered a new kind of collaboration and participation between creator and curator. Virtual visits with the artists and a curatorial video are also new elements of the exhibition, included to enhance the visitor experience during the pandemic when many are not able to see the pieces in person.
In this way, “Paper Routes” really is traveling, building physical connections between the artists and the public. During this time of strife, the exhibition also forces the question: In what other ways are women making space, building connections, and continuing to be the carriers of culture and the guardians of tradition?
And this is exactly the question Melani Douglass had been considering five years ago when she founded the Family Arts Museum, “an institution celebrating family as fine art, home as curated space and community as gallery.” A year ago, she brought the concept to her role as NMWA’s director of public programs and began curating “RECLAMATION: Recipes, Remedies, and Rituals,” which opens at NMWA on January 18.
The interactive, multi-genre, participatory digital exhibit amplifies the idea of the home and home life as curated creations, preserving an integral space within the shared human experience. “RECLAMATION,” part of the NMWA’s Women, Arts, and Social Change initiative, was not initially conceived as a virtual show. But it quickly became apparent to Douglass that the timing of its launch was somehow very in tune with the zeitgeist.
“It was always about [the] home food community, and the social justice aspect that happens around the table and how we get to connect,” Douglass says. “For us to be able to launch it in the middle of a time [when] everyone is forced to reconnect with the home has been an interesting alignment.”
“RECLAMATION” is both performance and living archive, examining food as a creative medium for visual art and a connective tool for exploring intergenerational and intercultural experiences. Each of the nine interdisciplinary artists shares photographs, videos and stories about what the kitchen table means as an object, place and center of domestic life. Through intimate glimpses and uncovering of traditions, the exhibition seeks to recontextualize women’s roles as providers and healers.
“We’re taking tidbits about food history and all these interesting ways they connect, and amplifying them to find even deeper relationships,” Douglass adds. “We’re asking, ‘What is the art we all have in our individual families?’ and then bringing all of that together to be this digestible mirror of ourselves.”
“RECLAMATION” will also feature content submitted by the public, inviting them to upload recipes, stories and images that will be interwoven with the artists’ work. There will be a recipes archive with a searchable virtual pantry of ingredients, each one linking not only to relevant uploaded recipes but also to a series of personal histories and artwork that illuminates the origins of home remedies.
This winter, the NMWA invites us to reflect on how and who we nourish, and how we honor survival. And how do we, and our stories, travel the paper routes of the world to keep our species alive in the face of disaster, and on whose backs are those stories carried?
“Paper Routes” is on display in-person and online at the NMWA through January 18. “RECLAMATION: Recipes, Remedies, and Rituals” is active from January 18 to December 31. Learn more about these exhibits at www.nmwa.org and follow on Instagram @womeninthearts.
National Museum of Women in the Arts: 1250 New York Ave. NW, DC; 202-783-5000; www.nmwa.org
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