A group of Rwandan women making baskets and an American performance artist baring her breasts to critique contemporary exploitation of women's bodies seem to have nothing in common. But they are kindred spirits in a subtle power struggle that is taking place in the cultural sphere.
Two local exhibitions focus on how women in various parts of the globe are taking charge of defining their gender and surrounding world. "Empowering Women: Artisan Cooperatives That Transform Communities" at Carnegie Museum of Natural History tells the stories of 10 such groups in Africa, Asia and the Americas that gain power through economic success. "Feminist And ..." at the Mattress Factory museum exhibits work by six women artists who challenge agents and patterns of power.
"The big story to be told about these women is what a difference they are making in their lives and in their families' lives," said Sandra Olsen of the Carnegie show. She is an anthropologist and director of the museum's Center for World Cultures.
In Swaziland, money from the sale of sisal baskets woven by more than 50 women in the Phez'kwemkhono Bomake-Ncheka Cooperative provides for their families and also for the village's many AIDS orphans. "There's a saying in our country that men don't make homesteads, women do," said cooperative founder and nurse Thembeni Mdluli.
The positive results aren't all monetary. As the women gain status, there is less rape in the community, Ms. Olsen said, and fewer child marriages. To avoid AIDS infection, old men would often take girls as young as 9 or 13 as wives, she said. "[The practice of] genital mutilation ensures she's a virgin."
Clean water, good nutrition, health care and a bus ticket to the city are among the things women's work may buy. Often the cooperatives pool money to provide members with the equivalent of social security, medical and retirement benefits.
In Bolivia, women of the indigenous nomadic Ayoreo community were forcibly relocated to permanent homes in an area without the bromeliad plants they traditionally harvested for fiber to weave into bags. A prominent Bolivian ethnobotanist helped them to develop a cultivar that they now plant and tend as a sustainable domestic crop. The 45 women of the Cheque Oitedie Cooperative earn more than 50 percent of the community income and manage a collective bank account.
A story from Rwanda holds special meaning for Ms. Olsen. During the country's 1994 ethnic violence, Ephigenia Mukantabana lost 65 members of her family and withdrew from the outside world and the weaving she was so skilled at. Friends encouraged her, and when the murderer was put on trial, "she walked right into the courtroom and said, 'I forgive you,' to the man who had killed her family," Ms. Olsen said. "In that culture, if you forgive you can go on."
She has become friends with the imprisoned man's wife, who is also a member of the Gahaya Links Cooperative where they weave what are now called "Peace Baskets."
Fine examples of the cooperative products are displayed and many have been purchased by the museum for its permanent anthropology collection. Others are carried in the museum shop.
The exhibition originated at the Museum of International Folk Art in Santa Fe, N.M. It is the site of the annual Santa Fe International Folk Art Market, which claims to be the largest in the world and includes various cooperatives among its exhibitors.
'Feminist And ...'
In comparison, the concerns of the artists of "Feminist And ..." could appear elitist, but look again. Their feminism is an outgrowth of a world view rather than a single issue, of a desire for individual and community equity that aligns them with the aspirations of women in cooperatives.
They're using a different language, that of contemporary fine art rather than of traditional craft. But their issues -- rape, patriarchy, sexism, racism and the exploitation of others for personal gain -- exist across cultures and time periods. The exhibition was guest curated by Hilary Robinson, now of Middlesex University, London, when she was on the faculty of Carnegie Mellon University.
The cooperative women would find common cause with Betsy Damon's "Water Rules -- Life Pittsburgh: Seeking Lost Rivers, Living Waters of Larimer." An early feminist, Ms. Damon has since the 1990s focused on the cause of clean water. Walking on stepping stones across a shallow pool in the Mattress Factory's stone-walled basement, the visitor reaches a parklet with benches and two videos. One is of Larimer residents reclaiming their neighborhood by planting community gardens; the other is a poetic work that vividly makes the connection between flowing water in the natural world and the substance that comprises a significant portion of the human body.
Loraine Leeson gives voice to the elderly of both sexes in the six-screen video installation "Active Energy: Pittsburgh," alternating interviews with facts like: "Caregivers are often women," and "Women receive less care from spouses." Visitors are invited to record their experiences with Alzheimer's in an anteroom.
Initially, Parastou Forouhar's "Written Room" feels melodious, its floors and walls covered with flowing calligraphy that conjures bird song and breeze-stirred grasses. The writing is Farsi, but the Iranian-born German-based artist explains that the words are fragments, freeing them of the burden of meaning. An added read may be applied when one learns that her parents were brutally murdered in Iran for their political beliefs.
Ayanah Moor and Carrie Mae Weems invite the visitor to be more interior, completing their works with a personal reading. Ms. Moor screened excerpts from writings "by and about" black women, including poetry and commentary, onto pages of The New York Times in the gallery now hung floor to ceiling with the prints.
"My melanin is relevant ... I move on feeling ... Both wanting, both loving" are among the excerpts. The transitory nature of the material assigns both termination and possibility to the open-ended subject: Race? Relationships? Literature?
Ms. Weems evokes memory as a subjective object in her mesmerizing "Lincoln, Lonnie and Me -- A Story in 5 Parts." The 18-minute video projection on Mylar has an almost holographic quality. Fading in and out of fog or softly falling snow in the void between red velvet curtains, images of black performers, a "mature" woman (Ms. Weems) struggling to zip a Playboy bunny suit, a reconstructed John Kennedy assassination and more tease meaning and the variables of memory -- collective, real, imagined, racial, inherited, inflicted.
Julia Cahill's cheeky "Breasts in the Press" is the perfect endpoint, deadly serious but with a heavy dose of humor that underscores how ludicrous our national obsession with bosoms is. A reproduction of the Venus de Milo has overly endowed breasts. Upon one is projected the young performance artist singing an altered version of the hip-hop group Black Eyed Peas' "Hump" with verses like "mammary glands are complex, they deserve respect." Upon the other are projected examples of breasts in the media -- "the press" -- and of Ms. Cahill, inking her own breasts and bending rhythmically to make prints on paper -- another "press." It's an inclusive strike that spans idealized feminine beauty and disturbing imagery, gleefully taking back control of the body.
Post-Gazette art critic Mary Thomas: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1925.