The Feminnale ran with the subtitle “Kormilitsi. Economic Freedom. Women”. Kormilitsi, a Russian word with multiple meanings, refers to both a “wet nurse” (a woman who nourishes a child with her breast milk, not necessarily a birth mother) and a “breadwinner” – the one who provides both nourishment and nurturing. Kormilitsa is also a feminitive version of kormilets, which refers to the patriarchal idea that it is the man of the family who is supposed to work outside of household and bring money in, while women are resigned to the domestic role of “hearth-keeper”.
Feminnale is a portmanteau word that collapses “feminist” and “biennale’” into one – an event of global ambition, not just of local significance. The Feminnale’s curators, Altyn Kapalova and Zhanna Araeva, describe it as an event that “takes place every two years in any inhabited or uninhabited (!) place of any country and includes events that are aimed at overcoming gender inequality and violence against women”.
The exhibition was dedicated to the memory of 17 women migrant workers who burned alive in a fire at a printing warehouse in Moscow in August 2016. Fourteen of the women were from Kyrgyzstan. This is why the event ran for 17 days until 15 December 2019, despite the controversy that surrounded it, attempts at censorship by the Ministry of Culture, and attacks from Kyrgyz nationalist groups.
The debates around Feminnale are about three core issues: gendered ideas of sexuality, the claiming of public spaces, and the contestation of the meaning of art.
The question of the nude
In her famous essay Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists? Linda Lochlin stressed the need for an institutional rather than personalised analysis of art history. Among other things, Lochlin points out one of the ways in which women were systematically excluded from training and excellence in art, namely the ban on women artists participating in live nude drawing sessions:
“There exist, to my knowledge, no historical representations of artists drawing from the nude model which include women in any other role but that of the nude model itself, an interesting commentary on rules of propriety: that is, it is all right for a (“low,” of course) woman to reveal herself naked-as-an object for a group of men, but forbidden to a woman to participate in the active study and recording of naked-man-as-an-object or even of a fellow woman.”
In other words, women were allowed into galleries only as nude models subjected to the male gaze or, in Hannah Gatsby’s words, as “flesh vases for their dick-flowers”. But never as artists. The issue at the Bishkek Feminnale was not the presence of the naked body per se, but the fact that it was women being naked on their own terms. Women’s art has historically been excluded from the definition of great art, devalued, denied resources and institutional access – and the Feminnale is an excellent illustration of that.
As if to prove my point, the male-dominated Kyrgyzstan’s Artists’ Union issued the following statement in response to the Feminnale, following an emergency meeting: “It was unanimously agreed that the performance has no artistic value, is secondary, using banal and outdated formal methods, which have long lost relevance”.
Since the 1970s, feminist art has sought to contest the patriarchal definitions of what art is, reclaiming art forms traditionally associated with “women’s work” as legitimate media. This tradition was reflected in artworks exhibited at the Feminnale, many of which used embroidery, work with textiles, common household objects, crocheting, and other techniques of crafts and tools of work traditionally performed by women.