Staff Writer Sophie Jacobs reviews the RE/SISTERS exhibition which took place at The Barbican’s Art Gallery.
Featuring photography, film and poetry by women and gender non-conforming artists worldwide, RE/SISTERS: A Lens on Gender and Ecology explores the systemic links between the oppression of women and environmental degradation, focusing in particular on the politics of extraction, the labour of ecological care, the interconnectedness of bodies and land, and environmental racism – a type of inequality where people of colour face a disproportionate risk of exposure to pollution and related health conditions.
Although this exhibition is compact with empowering and hopeful messages, it occasionally loses sight of these messages, as demonstrated in Simryn Gill’s Eyes and Storms. This piece comprises a range of images, including open pit mines, dams and lakes, most of which are taken above the Pilbara region of Western Australia. The accompanying commentary depicts these images as ‘exceptional’, in that they ‘bear witness to and memorialise ecological destruction’. Although Gill’s photographs are undoubtedly powerful, the fact that they are taken from an aerial perspective evokes an alarming sense of beauty that closely corresponds with the sublimity one might find in photographs of the Earth or moon. It is this sense of beauty that ultimately undermines the political impetus of Gill’s work.
In addition to subtly aestheticising environmental degradation, Eyes and Storms deviates from the exhibition’s overarching objective: to shed light on the nefarious activities that connect gender-based violence with nature-based violence. Its compilation of empty landscapes not only omits discussions of gender-based violence but also neglects to place womanhood in relation to the environment.
That being said, this exhibition has numerous art pieces that provoke great interest, such as the photographs of protestors. Indeed, the section titled ‘Mutation: Protest and Survive’ documents the women of Greenham Common taking a radical stance against nuclear weapons, the Himalayan tree-huggers of Uttarakhand protecting their forests from commercial logging and the women of Flint, Michigan resisting environmental racism, most notably, the contamination of water. These protests illuminate the pivotal role women and marginalised populations play in advocating for environmental justice, a message which lies at the heart of RE/SISTERS – a play on words uniting women with resistance.
Another intriguing aspect of this exhibition is its exploration of the interrelation between women and nature. In Breaking the Fall, Dionne Lee photographs her hands sifting the soil, referencing her ancestors who toiled the land, as well as the history of slavery. Laura Aguilar’s Nature Self Portrait also conflates the female body with the surrounding environment. This black and white photograph shows Aguilar lying on her side, adopting a similar appearance to the surrounding rock. In imitating nature, Aguilar reinforces the interconnectedness of feminist and ecological concerns, which emerge hand-in-hand under capitalist systems.
What was most exciting about this exhibition was its embrace of a fluid, rather than a fixed, conception of “women”. Despite occasionally neglecting its central concerns, RE/SISTERS is an insightful show that, for the most part, effectively interrogates the intersections between art, activism, gender and social justice.