What is the importance of International Women’s Day for the cultural industries in 2023?

What is the importance of International Women’s Day for the cultural industries in 2023? A conversation with Petra Heck and Ewa Scheifes of the art programming team at Stichting NDSM-werf.

Throughout this article you will find images of art installations by and about women at the NDSM wharf.

March 8, a day where equal rights and opportunities, freedom and militancy of women* are central worldwide. Tremendous progress towards gender equality has been made throughout history, but we are still far removed from the end goal. Little by little, however, change is starting to set in, partly because of individuals who safeguard these values in their work. But what do you actually encounter as a curator and/or program maker when you are committed to an inclusive and just cultural sector? As soon as I sit down with Petra and Ewa and all of us have a good cup of tea in front of us, Ewa starts off: “What equality and inclusiveness mean, and what interpretation is given to it, is different for every cultural institution. The performance by Sarah van Lamsweerde at the Stedelijk in 2020 is a ghood example of this, which explored together with the visitors how sharpened senses enable you to look “through” the works on display. I see that we at NDSM are more concerned with accessibility from a broad perspective. We have been working from the foundation since 2020 from polyphony and accessibility; who feels welcome in the public space, who is allowed to be there?”

“Woman/women* is used here as a collective term for all women and gender diverse persons.

“Since we relate to the public space,” Petra continues. We literally program outside and feel these questions about diversity and inclusivity are necessary to ask. Through projects we question the public character of public space, it is actually about making a multitude of different voices heard. We ask artists which underrepresented persons or themes deserve more attention. in the context of developments at NDSM, how do you ensure that you do not develop exclusive (public) spaces where only large conglomerate nestle and cater to a certain group of people. Public space is largely created and programmed by the white straight male, which ensures a specific standard that needs to be questioned sometimes. For example, we are now working with Afaina de Jong of AFARAI on a design for a ‘square / installation’ at NDSM in which she looks at various challenges regarding public space from a feminist perspective. She wants to relate to that normative, white, male image of public space and the furnishing thereof.”

I often see the creative industriesr as a leader,” says Ewa, “with room for experimentation, which can be a driver for change, but can also confirm old systems. I can see that, for example, in how books such as those by Mounir Samuel Je Mag Ook Niets Meer Zeggen evoke a lot in people and in the sector. Is our language inclusive enough and shouldn’t we think about new ways to communicate, or use new or better words? This translates practically into exhibition texts, themes and ways of working.”

“I find it difficult to see that so many dogmatic ideas have also been maintained in the cultural industries. I agree with Ewa that the cultural sector also operates from systems that are in dire need of change. Fortunately, this is now much more recognized and some change is slowly taking place, which, by the way, does not go without a hitch. It is important that we see these changes, for example new language use, as enriching and not as limiting or hindering. And I think it’s very good to see that female artists who have been ‘forgotten’ are now once again getting the attention they deserve and sometimes received in the time they were active. Like Suze Robertson whose relevance was long unknown to me.”

Then I ask my two interlocutors whether international women’s day is still necessary according to them. Ewa is the first to comment on this: “I often wish for many things that they are longer needed: feminist march, international women’s day, protests against racism, extinction rebellion, but we live in a reality where I think we should be happy that people don’t settle for the current status quo and take to the stage for change. Unfortunately, there are many reasons why March 8 remains necessary; femicide and assault worldwide, the wage and orgasm gap, the unpaid work that is often done by women (tip, check the studies of Women Inc.)”. “And is often not seen as unpaid work,” adds Petra, “but is as ‘care’”. Ewa nods: “just to name a few examples”. “But I also find it complicated sometimes,” says Petra, “the struggle for one issue seems to push the other issue for attention, while so many issues are important. You can’t rank them by importance. “I did tell my kids today about International Women’s Day, in the end it’s about setting a good example.”

“Specifically within the cultural industries, many steps have been taken in recent years,” Ewa continues, “better representation of non-dominant perspectives in collections and exhibitions (for example, look at sharpened collections of major museums, platforms such as Titty Mag, podcasts such as Naked on a Dress, etc.), there is more attention for forgotten/invisible icons, and at the back a growing number of (young) non-male directors and board room members. Making numbers or percentages the guiding principle does not seem to me to be the sustainable solution, it is about embracing representation in the broadest sense, of different worldviews.”

“We cannot tar all women with the same brush and expect everyone to be the same.” adds Petra, “feminism is quickly seen as something that determines your identity, while education, background, etc. are also hugely decisive and are reasons why not every woman thinks or expects the same about feminism. Feminists and activists also sometimes attack each other for not being activist enough or for reacting or acting incorrectly. This makes it tricky. The sensitivities can also be paralyzing. ”

Then I turn to the practices at NDSM: what are the challenges you face when it comes to diverse and equal arts programming at NDSM? Ewa: “We use the context of NDSM and the scale of the terrain to create large installations in the public space. However, finding female artists who work on the large scale that fits in the context of NDSM is sometimes a challenge.” The word phallic art (by men) is shorty mentioned in our conversation. “So here’s a call to all female artists who have great plans/works or are looking for a place to grow and develop in this,” Petra adds, “call us, all tips are welcome.”

“We try to work at NDSM from intersectionality, along different axes. A good example of a project from last year that dealt with this theme was ‘An-Sisters [NDSM]’ by belit sağ. we commissioned belit to realize an audio-video installation in which they highlight the invisible stories of Turkish female migrant workers by means of video portraits. belit interviewed several women for this work who worked in sewing workshops after the shipyard time at NDSM and a daughter of them who now happens to live at NDSM. We think it is important to realize such projects and show them in the public space, so that a wide audience can become acquainted with these kinds of pieces of history of the place, of Amsterdam and of the Netherlands, which are really underexposed.”

Finally, I ask Ewa and Petra if they have any reading tips for those interested in this theme. Ewa recommends Ik Ben Mijn Muze by Loes Faber, “about wayward women who changed art history. Also check out the work of artist Carmen Schabracq, Umaversity, Yamuna Forzani‘s projects and so much love for my friend Tina Fariteh who has now curated an exhibition with work by female Iranian artists.” Petra: “My bible until something replaces it is Witches, Witch-hunting, And Women by Silvia Federici. Shocking, but super relevant, and also check out videos / lectures from her, an incredibly inspiring woman! Furthermore, artist Agnes Denes inspires me because of her grand project with the grain field in New York. In addition, I have been a fan of the Feministische Handwerkpartij for a while. And I would like to give a shoutout to a number of friends and power people in my life and in the cultural industries such as Ama van Dantzig, and Orlando Maaike Gouwenberg, director of Jester and curator of the NL entry of the Venice Biennale with Melanie Bonajo (heart).”

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