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Feminist Generations: A Collective Narrative

In an interview with the Round Table on Feb. 4, Professor Michael Dango shared details regarding the curation of the ongoing “Feminist Generations” exhibit. The exhibit, housed in the Wright Museum of Art, features a collection of photographs taken by New York photographer Donna Ferrato. Ferrato’s photographs chronicle important moments in feminism between the late 1970s and now. The curation of “Feminist Generations” was carried out entirely by students in Dango’s Queer and Feminist Art and Literature course. While Dango stated that initially, the idea of a student-run project made him anxious, he claims that the final exhibit has been one of the most rewarding moments of his career.

Dango’s motivation to teach the course was rooted in his passion for both art and literature and the ways in which the two influence activism. He was also moved by the passion for feminism and queer activism that Beloit students possess. The first time that Dango taught the course was during the spring semester of 2020, wherein the COVID-induced school closure derailed his plans for a final exhibition. Teaching a course concerning activism and art excited Dango, because he views the classroom as “an embryonic form of activism.” Being able to teach the class in person and have his students curate an exhibit served as an excellent way for them to practice channeling their activism through art, said Dango. For the exhibit, Dango and his students utilized Donna Ferrato photographs that had been donated as well as some that had been loaned from other liberal arts institutions. 

The students opted to take a thematic approach to examine feminism as presented through Ferrato’s work. The four themes that Ferrato’s photographs are organized into for the “Feminist Generations” exhibit are motherhood, violence, empowerment, and pleasure. According to Dango, his students took this approach rather than a chronological one to illustrate the “connections across generations of feminist organizing.” In fact, Dango expressed that he hopes the thematic arrangement of the pieces will alter the narrative of feminism existing in waves. He used the words “solidarity” and “coalition” to describe the ways in which he views activism. With those synonyms in mind, Dango’s students arranged Ferrato’s pieces to create a narrative of overlapping feminist issues over a span of about 40 years. 

The photographs included within each theme in the collection work in tandem to tell how the themes influence feminist activism. Motherhood is the first theme. The photographs included in “Feminist Generations” for this theme depict mothers of all kinds; lesbian mothers and a dog mom are even included! The photos for this theme illustrate that motherhood can be subjective and that it is the mother-child bond that creates feminists. Violence is the second theme in the collection. This group of photographs depicts survivors and children from violent homes throughout the decades, proving that violence against women is certainly not a relic, but an ongoing trouble. Next is empowerment. As one might expect, these photographs depict the different ways that women have used their voices to bring change. A couple of examples of photos classified under this theme include women protesting the Miss America pageant, a woman protesting after Trump’s inauguration, and a marquee reading “Men Don’t Protect You Anymore” with the word “anymore” crossed out. Pleasure is the final theme in the exhibit, and is the most abstract. Viewers of the photographs are encouraged to separate pleasure from sexuality and instead observe the ways in which pleasure and activism might collide. 

Emily Larson ‘23, a student in Queer and Feminist Art and Literature, shared her experience with the Round Table via email correspondence. “Curating the Donna Ferrato exhibit was a work of collaboration and community,” wrote Larson, using terms that Dango would, no doubt, agree with. Larson explained that each student in the class chose a photograph and created a caption for their respective photo to explain what gender and feminism meant to them and how their photograph reflected those concepts. She acknowledged, as did Dango, that there was a ton of overlap between photographic themes; this, asserted Larson, made sorting Ferrato’s work into themes difficult. According to both Dango and Larson, all of the students possessed different conceptions of gender and feminism, which made for an interesting collaborative experience. “…cultivating these perspectives into a singular exhibit was both tedious and rewarding,” wrote Larson. She also mentioned that as the exhibit came together, everyone saw a part of themselves within the pieces. 

“Feminist Generations” is quite an interactive exhibition. Upon entering the North Gallery of the Wright Museum, there are printed booklets featuring all of Ferrato’s featured photographs. Beneath the individual photos in the booklet are the captions that the students crafted. There is also a QR code that can be scanned in order to take a look at all of the captions and individual photographs online. The Feminist Generations exhibition will remain on display in the North Gallery until Mar. 18. 

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