"Think about people you can help. It will help you — strangely," said Nadya Tolokonnikova of Pussy Riot this past weekend at Art Basel Miami. Wearing uncompromisingly red lipstick and a "Wild Feminist" t-shirt, she delivered a staunchly feminist lecture about her activism next to the Katherine Bernhardt-painted pool at the Nautilus Hotel. The activist musician opened the event by drawing a minimalist vagina - two circle brackets and an exclamation mark —on a chalkboard.
Nadia's talk capped off a week of serious girl power vibes at the 2016 edition of the fair. From the resurrection of Madonna with a capital "M" to the ecstatically erotic painting of Marilyn Minter to the NADA fair's "Nasty Woman" t-shirts, a strong group was pushing a feminist angle. With many in the art world still reeling from the deeply un-feminist American Presidential election, there was a new urgency to the message.
It wasn't meant to be the Year of the Woman at Basel. In addition to the presidential upset, many female artists, collectors, and gallerists decided to skip the event with the region being in a Zika red zone. Yet there was a distinct feminism to the fair.
Tolokonnikova described how supporting women was a key part of her time in prison during 2012-2013: "I ended up doing a hunger strike. I was trying to negotiate better prison conditions for other women." That sense of support extends to her personal life; she is teaching her 8-year-old daughter the importance of female friendship and companionship. Given the parallels between the looming Trump presidency and Putin's reign, a talk by a woman who stages game-changing guerilla art happenings as political protest felt extremely timely.
Perhaps more timeless than timely was the appearance of Madonna, who performed a slow version of Britney Spears's "Toxic" with Donald Trump photos projected on her. (Not coincidentally, Madonna was an early Pussy Riot supporter.) Never one for subtlety, the Material Girl (can we call her the Material Woman now?) raised $7.5 million for Malawi's first pediatric surgery and intensive care unit. Madonna gathered a crowd of other powerful women, including Tracey Emin and Courtney Love, and blew up Instagram with photos of herself in a sexy clown costume, shocking agists and purists.
Charity auctions are not usually for the easily bored. But guests didn't have to drink themselves to numbness at this particular benefit — Madonna threw a party to remember. Famously #stillwithher, Madonna collaborated with Ariana Grande for an power pop duo, twerking to her 00s anthem "Music." Ariana (the self-proclaimed "Dangerous Woman") wore Madonna's Rebel Heart tour costume for the concert, taking their intergenerational friendship to the next level.
Although sometimes it can feel like Basel is all about the parties (and for some people, it is), the real pulse indicator is of course in the art shown and bought. This year, even the canceled feminist projects made headlines: "Goddesphere," a feminist pop-up art strip club by artists Marina Fini, Emily Meehan, and Sarah Weiss was shut down due to lack of permit, but was anticipated with excitement.
"Stacked", Nancy Davidson, 2016, Photography Studio LHOOQ
At NADA, artist Nancy Davidson showed a piece using inflated weather balloons to celebrate the gravity-defying female body. Her "Stacked" sculpture is a tower of cheery and voluptuous green derrieres, bursting out of silver bikini bottoms. It's sensual and absurd at the same time, challenging standards of both sculpture and beauty. Davidson's work, which began as a response to male sculptors like Richard Serra and Donald Judd, changes the conversation by using latex and fabric instead of the more stoic steel and concrete of 60s minimalism. Her work references female pop culture icons — from Betty Boop to Mae West — and is impossible to ignore.
"Shadow Figure 2", Anja Salonen
Anja Salonen's red-nosed, blue-faced women winked and frowned from the walls of Ltd. gallery's booth. Her female subjects are not here to please. Anja, a young L.A.-based artist from Finland, used to be embarrassed to call herself a painter. But now she completely assumes that role, using oil paint to create almost Tumblr-like pop paintings. "My work centers around feminist critique of the representation of women's bodies, and this series had a lot to do with confronting the male gaze and voyeurism," says the artist.
Mira Dancy's work is another empowering female statement that shines bright. Her expressionist, sensuous neon women electrified the Night Gallery's booth during the fair and attracted many mirror selfie takers. Unlike the defenseless nudes of the past, her women are grounded, muscular, and confident. The viewer is on their territory and on their conditions.
"Behind the Motherland", Ayakamay
At Context Art Miami, the young Japanese-American performance artist Ayakamay connected the dots between feminine and masculine, east and west. Her painting "Behind The Motherland," exhibited at the Licht Felid Gallery booth, melded a traditional Noh mask, a Japanese pattern, Kanji characters, and a shredded ice cup. As a Japanese woman, Ayakamay has felt extra pressure to be feminine, and admits that she has struggled with that. At her first solo show, "Genderless," at the Leslie-Lohman Museum of Gay and Lesbian Art, Ayakamay immobilized herself by tying her hair to strings, which were connected to the ceiling. She then invited visitors to shave her hair off (in a clear nod to her compatriot Yoko Ono). They complied, and Ayakamay found herself completely bald and suddenly free.
"Haze", 2016, courtesy Marilyn Minter and Salon 94
Nasty women took charge at Gagosian & Deitch's "Desire" show as well, which was curated by Diana Widmaier-Picasso (granddaughter of the Picasso). On view in the show was Marilyn Minter's painting "Haze" from this year, a close-up of a mouth as seen through condensation and excitation. The work is emblematic of the painter's fixation on glitter and glamour, and how women adorn themselves. At 69 years old, Minter is as limelit as ever with a new show currently up at the Brooklyn Museum, "Pretty/Dirty."
The Guerilla Girls are still right — most women have to "get naked to get into the Met" — and there were not enough female artists at Miami Art Basel. We need more contemporary art super-women like Yayoi Kusama and Marina Abramović. But as this year's Art Basel Miami proved, there is a feminist spirit alive and well in the art world. It's a call to action for the next generation of creators.
Text Nadia Palon