Last August marked the centenary of the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which prohibited the country from denying citizens the right to vote based on their gender, paving the way for women to vote. An exciting exhibition, A yellow rose project, currently on display at Boston University’s Faye G., Jo and James Stone Gallery, explores how this historic moment continues to unfold more than a century later.
The exhibition, a large-scale photographic collaboration of female artists from across the United States, uses the centenary to reflect on the past, present and future of American women.
Upon entering the gallery, one of the first works that catches the eye is an image by Toni Pepe, assistant professor of photography at the College of Fine Arts who is responsible for the presentation of the exhibition at BU. Title Mrs. Nixon, the work – a photo from a newspaper clipping – recalls a meeting between President Nixon’s wife and members of the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women.
Pepe was one of over 100 artists who were asked to contribute to the work of the original A yellow rose project, which toured galleries across the country in 2020. The name of the exhibit honors the women who stood side by side in Tennessee on August 18, 1920, dressed in yellow roses, as they waited the call of the men who would determine the fate of the 19th Amendment. After a final exhibition in New Mexico, the project was nearing completion when Pepe brought it to the attention of Lissa Cramer, general manager of BU Art Galleries. It turned out that Cramer had an opening available in the Stone Gallery calendar and decided to bring the exhibition to Boston.
As the show has already ended, all the pieces have been returned to the artists. Recreating the exhibit in the Stone Gallery space took a lot of work, Cramer says. Accompanied by the two co-founders of the show, Meg Griffiths and Frances Jakubek, Cramer reconnected with all the photographers. Realizing that it would be financially prohibitive to transport the works of 100 artists across the country, she found a solution by choosing just 39 photographs from the original exhibition and including images of the others on a screen in the gallery.
âAnyone can still participate, this is just our version of the show. And I have to say I’m so happy with the result, âsays Cramer. âI just wanted to make sure that all the women spent their day in the sun, even if they couldn’t physically work there.
The resulting exhibition is as diverse as it is colorful. The collection includes traditional photographs, as well as images that have been manipulated with double exposure, ink, paint or digital tools. The only thread that connects them is that they all address the presence of femininity.
When Griffiths and Jakubek first approached Pepe to contribute to the original project, the artist had experimented with work based on discarded press photographs she had found on eBay and in flea markets.
âThese photographs are beautiful objects,â says Pepe. âThey’re littered with crop marks, date stamps, and all kinds of captions and text information. What interested me the most was the push and pull between image and text.
For Mrs. Nixon, Pepe selected a press photograph from May 8, 1969, of women carrying banners, shouting, chanting and parading in front of the White House. The caption for the photo reads: âRepresentatives from the National Organization for Women wear headscarves and sing for equal rights for women as they protest outside the White House on Wednesday. Inside the mansion, Ms. Nixon was meeting with the Commission on the Status of Women. She said she doesn’t think there is discrimination and neither does the president. ”
The date is stamped on the image and a pencil mark is scrawled on the page. By pinning the newspaper clipping and backlighting it, the front and back of the page are simultaneously visible in Pepe’s photo. This technique prioritizes text, which is darker and sharper than the background image.
Pepe says that by photographing the newspapers and not just the original press photographs, she is able to show how issues like the National Women’s Organization protest were presented to readers at the time.
âI was really honored to be included in this project, mainly because it was not only this pure celebration, but it was also kind of a critical appraisal of our history from this moment in history, so we can see it in a more nuanced way, “Pepe says.” There were people who celebrated that and who were part of that movement. And then there were people who were excluded.
Other pieces in the exhibit include one by Houston-based photographer Keliy Anderson-Staley, who uses a wet collodion process to create tin and ambrotype portraits. Daniella shows a woman looking at the camera with a slight smile and focused eyes. The image is from a series Anderson-Staley made that depicts, in her words, “images of women confident in who they are.” Their strength and independence, apparent in their expressions, are emblematic of the power of their vote. Another photo, by Cindy Hwang, Forgotten Suffragette No. 3 Tye Leung (New York Tribune, March 6, 1910), pays tribute to activists of color who have been eclipsed in the written history of the suffrage movement. Hwang, who immigrated from Korea to the United States in 1975, is perhaps best known for her Kyopo Project.
The exhibition includes numerous images that chronicle the lives of women today, including a portrait from Sara Bennett’s powerful series, INSIDE: Portraits of women serving life sentences. Taken in 2018, the portrait shows a 35-year-old inmate named Assia at the Bedford Hills Correctional Facility in New York City, pictured in the prison’s reserve for baby clothes. Assia is a maternal aide and doula at the prison, where she is serving 18 years of life. Bennett, a former criminal defense attorney, turned to photography to tell the story of incarcerated women. The photographs in this series all show women who have lost their right to vote due to their imprisonment.
Photographer Patty Carroll’s Flagged down seems to jump off the wall. Known for its saturated photographs, this work shows a woman dressed in red, white and blue lost in a room covered with American flags. It is a disturbing and turbulent image. We do not see the subject’s face, and the dozens of flags that surround it seem to engulf it.
An image titled Resistance, by Ileana Doble Hernandez, continues the exhibition’s theme of merging past and present struggle for women’s rights. It depicts pro-life and pro-choice protesters divided by a line of police. On one side, a sign reads: âAbortion is murderâ and, on the other side, a single figure is holding a sign that reads: âKeep abortion legalâ. Superimposed next to this figure is a suffragette from an old photograph. The sign she holds as a sign of solidarity reads: “Resistance to tyranny is obedience to God.”
A yellow rose project invites us to reflect on how far we have come and how far we still have to go in the fight for equality.
Cramer and Pepe are both hoping members of the BU community will have the chance to see the show before it closes on September 15th. the gallery will open its doors to the general public from Monday August 16.) Until then, there is an interactive 3D tour of A yellow rose project available free online. Additionally, four graduate students from the School of Visual Arts at BU Art Galleries have created Instagram posts where viewers can get more information about individual artists and their work.
“This show talks about the 19th Amendment and celebrates women’s suffrage and highlights how important it is – especially in the year that has passed with elections – to remember that [voting] was not a right that we have always had. Not that long ago, not that long ago, âCramer says.
A yellow rose project is on view at the Faye G., Jo and James Stone Gallery, 855 Commonwealth Ave., until September 15. The gallery is open Monday to Friday from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. All visitors are required to wear masks. Free entry.
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