Marie-Claire Messouma Manlanbien, #Mater 7, Ladies Garden, 2016, raffia, ink on Tenjin Japanese paper, dimensions variable. Photo: Jérôme Michel.

Marie-Claire Messouma Manlanbien, #Mater 7, Ladies Garden, 2016, raffia, ink on Tenjin Japanese paper, dimensions variable. Photo: Jérôme Michel.

“The Widening of Fantasies”

Marie-Claire Messouma Manlanbien, #Mater 7, Ladies Garden, 2016, raffia, ink on Tenjin Japanese paper, dimensions variable. Photo: Jérôme Michel.

L’élargissement des fantasmes” (The Widening of Fantasies) dwelt in the artistic interstice between expressions of identity and individual experience. Desire and the potential ability to know rather than understand the desire of an “other” were central to this exhibition, according to its curator, Eva Barois De Caevel, who grappled with the occidental refusal “to grant men and women of other societies functionings and feelings that differ from their own when it comes to sexuality, love and intimate relationships.” Ultimately, the body itself was at the center of the exhibition, which took up representations or evocations of racialized, queer, gendered, and aged bodies in order to “let them be.”

The Zimbabwean artist Miriro Mwandiambira’s Mambokadzi-Mujibvawangu (Queen-My Dress), 2016, is a patchwork garment, an assemblage of diverse fabrics and acrylic nails that is functional but unfinished. The dress was suspended from the wall,  its train spilling onto the floor, a heap of fabric at the viewer’s feet. In its folds, Mwandiambira brings together sewing, a traditional form of women’s labor, with contemporary notions of beauty to explore the complex constitution of African femininity. She extended this investigation by wearing the dress on a busy avenue of Harare, Zimbabwe, in her performance Crossing Samora Machel on Sunday, 2016—represented in the exhibition by photographic documentation.

The abstract ink drawings on Japanese paper of the French artist Marie-Claire Messouma Manlanbien’s #Mater 7, Ladies Garden, 2016, open like books on the floor and the wall. Framed by a raffia fringe, they revel in their yonic sensibility. Their imagery is at once floral and vaginal, a riff on Georgia O’Keeffe and Judy Chicago that links folded paper, drawn folds, and the folds of the labia in an intimate installation. 

Instantiations of the labial fold continued with the French artist Paul-Armand Gette’s Le soulagement d’Artémis (The Relief of Artemis), 2001. In this photographic polyptych, womanness is fragmented, disembodied, disindividualized, and perhaps objectified in its emphasis on cropping the body at the vagina and navel. Does this work recapitulate the white male gaze, repeatedly dismantled by feminist theory and praxis? Even so, embedding this articulation of desire in relation to nuanced constructions of racialized and queer femininity served to “other” hegemonic masculinity.

An array of photographs and drawings in the back corner of the gallery reasserted the visualization of gender as a category that cannot be presumed without complication. Two untitled photographs from 1981 by the French artist Alain Faure captured moments of intimate touch between interracial couples. Vagina, Jyoti Singh Pandey, a 2014 work from a larger photographic series by the Guadaloupian artist Kelly Sinnapah Mary, threaded the symbolic and anatomical presence of the labial fold throughout the exhibition. Most notably, three drawings, all 2016, by self-taught Brazilian artist Dani Soter explored an internal, personal, and masturbatory conception of feminine desire. This autoeroticism manifested as the limp form of what might be a dildo in Le tuyau (The Hose); the view of a figure from behind caressing itself in Solitude; and the spread legs of a female figure in the midst of, on the verge of, or having just finished masturbating in Dans le noir (In the Dark). The Moroccan-French artist Yasmina Bouziane’s photographic self-portrait Man with Flower, 1993, from the series “Inhabited by Imaginings We Did Not Choose,” 1993–94, stood as the sole work on display to question limiting the feminine, or the “woman,” to the female body. Although its subject is called a “man,” Bouziane does not conceal her presence fully. These works formed a fold both literal (as artists and media traversed the spatial corner of the gallery) and ideological (folding together multiple articulations of the body and its desire that defy the constraints of gender, race, and colonialism).

But could it be that Barois De Caeval asked too much of these objects? This exhibition raised many more questions than it could possibly answer: What defines femininity in the refracted sense ascribed to it by Barois De Caeval? Who is a woman and how does s/he (do they) extend beyond the parameters drawn not only by hegemonic, colonial society, but often within feminism itself? The strength of “The Widening of Fantasies” lay in these evocative ambitions, demonstrated by the compelling dialogue between difficult and potentially oppositional works. 

C.C. McKee