College’s exhibit empowers ideas of female identity
By Bridget McNeil
Chris Mortenson/Staff photographer
Women. Art. Science Fiction. These may not be the first three concepts that immediately seem to link together, but at Williamson Gallery at ArtCenter College of Design in Pasadena, it makes a perfect trio.
With an inclusion of established and emerging artists, Cantos of the Sibylline Sisterhood is a platform where artists reimagine presentations and statements of marginalized identities with the hope to impact future cultural conditions.
Co-curators Julie Joyce and Christina Valentine, both Pasadena locals with backgrounds in curation, are also fans of science fiction. And as such, they present “Cantor of the Sibylline Sisterhood,” a project in the making since 2019, which combines artists together who use science fiction, fantasy, spirituality and mythology.
“Christina and I both really love science fiction and admire female artists addressing themes around these alternate realities that search for power,” Joyce says.
“It is nice to see this show actualized after so much time has passed with all the disruptions,” Valentine adds. “But now, it has become even more significant in light of recent court decisions.”
Women especially throughout history have held a special place as trusted sources to foretell the future. In other words: sibyls. This exhibit of sibyl feminist, queer and trans artists is an eclectic mix of mediums, messages, colors and materials.
Each artist presents differently. The show includes pieces from April Bey, Chitra Ganesh, Lezley Saar, Erica Ryan Stallones, Molly Surazhsky, Mariko Mari, Mai-Thu Perret, Marnie Weber, Saya Woolfalk and The Revolution School.
Artist Mari’s digital piece, one of the earliest pieces designed in the exhibit among all the artists, plays on a continuous loop and can be seen as both the art that greets at the entrance as well as closes at the exit.
“The piece’s title roughly translates into ‘the goddess’ song,’” Valentine says. “Mariko Mari oftentimes intersects spiritual religious practices with science fictions contexts. This performance creates an in-between space.”
The video was recorded at the Kansai International Airport in Japan, which is known for its futuristic architecture. Therefore, it elevates the idea of the “in-between” having been filmed in a “real space.” It opens the context of what space and intersects two worlds.
“She’s become a model for many artists,” Joyce says. “She was so important in the early 2000s. In fact, many of the other artists were excited to be included within the same exhibit as Mariko Mari. And this is one of her most iconic videos.”
Mari’s other included piece in the exhibit is at the opposite end of the show. While also a digital work, its contrast is that it isn’t filmed in a real space but is digitally derived to address a real space. Also worth noting, it is an older video showed in its original low-resolution digital recording to honor the time in which it was conceived.
“Here she creates a whole space that is referencing a real space,” Valentine explains. “It is about ritualistic references and this idea of creating an interstitial space, which is an opening between magical and physical realms.”
Another established artist, Weber, a local, is included in the show with some of her early pieces.
“She had these Japanese soft porn magazines and cut out figures and collaged them into more ideal landscapes,” Joyce says. “She saw herself as rescuing these women. There are magical, worldly landscapes included that have both real and science fiction connotations, like the desert, where often many stories take place.”
Another LA-based artist, April Bey, creates art from experiences as a woman of color.
“April is Bohemian American and has verbally told an anecdotal story once of when she was 8 years old and heard her dad explain racialized experiences she would have throughout her life as a Black American,” Valentine says. “He had said, ‘It’s like we’re from another planet.’ And April went on to create works from this idea where she has these experiences and reports back to ‘her planet.’”
An early installation piece by artist Saya Woolfalk was re-designed for the space at the ArtCenter campus. Woolfalk has created a fictional utopian universe that unites science fiction, fantasy and cultural anthropology, for which she has deemed them as a new breed of women, the Empathics, who are tech-savvy, plant-human hybrids and are deeply empathic. A video of the origin story of the Empathics accompanies the large 3D work.
“It is obviously a science-fiction narrative,” Valentine explains. “But you can see the underpinnings of social critique of commentary. It’s the idea that people would evolve through interconnective ways to the environment through empathic abilities. That’s a wonderful thing to consider. Art can address issues through the guise of science fiction narratives, and this allows people to consider these angles without being guarded.”
While most of the artists included in the show are based in either New York or Los Angeles, artist Perret is based in Switzerland with a Vietnamese and French background. She has created life-size imaginary women who are part of “New Ponderosa” and live autonomously in the New Mexico desert. The works are borrowed from a local LA gallery.
“These are part of a larger group of figures, and they are made out of extraordinary materials,” Joyce says of the ceramic, silicone, cloth and other media used. “I love the superhero feeling they present.”
Joyce and Valentine have put together a show with a common theme by artists who have used many different medias. Ganesh created a comic book series for children; she was inspired by Hindu mythology and creates a new future narrative format. Artist Saar uses mixed-media, collage and photomontage to explore race, identity, gender and history.
Stallones created an installation work of intimate paintings and audio narratives to explore a relationship between history, mythology and contemporary narratives of science-fiction encounters. She explores both wonder and horror at all the possibilities. And The Revolution School is a group of artists, activists and volunteers launching the idea that superheroes can be real, as in real people can address homelessness and social economical inequities. And by releasing traumas, we can break the cycle of oppression in power. This piece is interactive and welcomes visitors to participate in the superhero stories.
Surazhsky, a Ukrainian Russian American, created an imagined utopian world of women around healing and care of others through a fashion line that references healing. Her idea of women is expansive and includes trans women.
“So on the one hand, you have this science-fictional world, but it also addresses real-world issues pertaining to the medical industry’s response to women’s health and LTBTQ community’s health issues,” Valentine explains.
One piece, a life-size female form, wears a sheath-like drape of pockets full of natural remedies.
“She comes from a family where medical needs where addressed by the grandmother,” Valentine says. “It shows a way in which women’s health is in our own hands.”
Although the show began its journey pre-COVID-19, the full journey only becomes relevant as the show finally launched in 2022.
“Art is always relevant in a cultural context because artists are always addressing things in a multi-dimensional way,” Valentine says. “The wonderful thing about we do is the relevance to these current moments.”
Cantor of the Sibylline Sisterhood
WHEN: Various times through Wednesday, November 23
WHERE: Alyce de Roulet Williamson Gallery, ArtCenter College of Design, 1700 Lida Street, Pasadena
COST: See website
INFO: artcenter.edu; Visitors must be fully vaccinated for COVID-19 (with booster when eligible) and provide proof of vaccination. Visitors who are unable to provide proof of vaccination must wear a medical grade multi-layered mask/face covering on campus and practice physical distancing.