*Click here to listen to the Spotify playlist that the artists in FEMME put together.
Across history and culture, societies have demanded from femmes a perfect performance of femininity. Trans women, non-binary femmes, and cis-hetero women all are affected by their specific community’s interpretation of the feminine ideal, the societal expectations that dictate how to present ‘femininity’ to the world. From the shape and size of their bodies, their skin tones, their hairstyles, their clothing styles, this so-called “ideal” touches on every aspect of their physical appearance. Those expectations, while unrelenting and limiting in their demands, also connect a worldwide community of people across generations who have a shared of experiencing what it means to be a femme-presenting person navigating the world. The exhibition FEMME at FLXST Contemporary portrays the range and depths of being femme as presented by the femmes who experience it themselves. The group exhibition is made up of a collection of works by Black, brown, queer, femme artists. Together, they touch on different types of and experiences of femmehood. The result is a show that deftly captures a range of emotions that feel both familiar and unique.
In a binary patriarchal society, femmes and the things they enjoy are often treated as less than and frivolous by certain purveyors of taste. Books, movies, and art that center on the experience of femmes are often referred to derogatorily by critics as “fluffy” or “light”. Artist Maria Yolanda Liebana takes those very same attributes and uses them to contribute a joyous buoyancy to the show. Her ornate plaques feature bold femme subjects that she decorates with the decadence of a pastry chef. With layers and layers of rhinestones, acrylic paint, paper, plastic gemstones, and molding paste, Liebana’s mixed-media collages exude frothy glittery maximalism that is excessive and indulgent in the best way possible. They are fluffy, they are light (in palette), but they are also complex and deeply emotional. Her vibrant subjects are flirtatious and sensual. The femmes she portrays are dancing and posing, completely unapologetic in their performance of femininity.
For some, there is undeniably beauty and joy in the trappings of femininity. But to others, those same elements can be constricting and terrifying. In contrast to the more exuberant pieces in the show, Jasmine Zelaya’s surreal pieces give a less soft, more uncomfortable take on femininity. Similarly using glitter, paint, and rhinestones, Zelaya buries her subjects under layers of artifice. The effect is a tension that is unyielding in its oppression. Most of the faces of Zelaya’s subjects are obscured, but in their strained red eyes, you can see fear, discomfort, and ultimately, resignation. Her pieces viscerally remind us of the stifling nature of existing in the world as a femme.
Throughout the exhibition, the more lavish works are grounded by more contemplative explorative pieces. Alayna Pernell’s black and white photographs of hands that tenderly cradle vintage photos of Black women and girls pay a quiet homage to the intimate historical narrative of femininity. The hands in the photos position the viewer as the one contemplating the images of Black women from a bygone era. The photographs of photographs exude sadness in their solemnity. Gently caressing the subject matter, these hands stir a melancholic longing to connect through space and time. These photos are precious evidence of Black femininity preserved by Black women in Pernell’s family. They carry with them not just the story of the artist’s family, but also the story of African-American femmes from history who have been all but erased from history.
Maiwenn Raoult’s series of portraits give us a different depiction of confident femmes who are in their element and take pleasure in their femininity. With the photo Chipo, Raoult shows us a Black woman with fiery red hair sitting atop a beautiful and strong brown steed. Shoulders thrust back, chin up, head cockily tilted, she’s the model of confidence, of Black femme swagger. And in her piece The January Twins, an impeccably coiffed Black woman embodying glamor and polish gets her elaborately-styled hair combed as she stares confidently at the viewer. She’s direct; her gaze absolute. Both of Raoult’s photos emphasize beauty and ease, her subjects visibly and confidently femme.
There isn’t one right way to be femme. Because of the multitudes contained in this global community, performing femininity is nuanced. The exhibition is a celebration of femmes in all shapes and sizes. There is so much to enjoy and explore in Femme; the works are lively and engaging with an intangible kinship between them, as all six artists demonstrate the divine connection that holds the stories of femmes both in small, intimate, and big bold ways. The collection establishes a connection between modern femmes and the femmes of the past, the femmes and women who have paved the way.
FEMME at FLXST Contemporary was on view February 5 – March 28, 2022, and included the following artists: Vivian Chiu, Maria Yolanda Liebana, Alayna Pernell, Maiwenn Raoult, Jasmine Zalaya, Sam Fresquez & Merryn Omotayo Alaka.
Jen Torwudzo-Stroh is an arts and culture professional and freelance writer based in Chicago, IL.