Gallery Reboot: Body Language

The museum’s newly reinstalled collection emphasizes connections between historical and contemporary art. Organized by the themes of the body, nature, domesticity, fabrication, and herstory, each gallery delves into a topic explored by women artists through time and around the world.

Male artists controlled the representation of the female body through most of Western art history. During the feminist art movement in the 1960s and ’70s, women artists claimed ownership over visualization of the body, and artists today explore the expressive potential of the female form. Artists Daniela Rossell, Mickalene Thomas, and Magdalena Abakanowicz use the human body to communicate powerful messages.

Daniela Rossell, Michelle Jacuzzi- Untitled (#7) (Ricas y Famosas), 1999; Chromogenic color print, 50 x 60 in.; National Museum of Women in the Arts, Gift of Heather and Tony Podesta Collection, Washington, DC; © Daniela Rossell, Courtesy of the artist and Greene Naftali, New York

Daniela Rossell, Michelle Jacuzzi–Untitled (#7) (Ricas y Famosas), 1999; Chromogenic color print, 50 x 60 in.; National Museum of Women in the Arts, Gift of Heather and Tony Podesta Collection, Washington, DC; © Daniela Rossell, Courtesy of the artist and Greene Naftali, New York

In Michelle Jacuzzi–Untitled (#7) (1999) from the series “Ricas y Famosas,” Daniela Rossell (b. 1973) delves into the lives of Mexico’s elite families by emphasizing the way popular culture creates and disseminates female stereotypes. From a wealthy family herself, Rossell had access to some of the most affluent women in Mexico. Each subject constructs her own image by choosing her clothing, pose, and setting. Compared to other subjects in this series, Michelle is dressed in more casual clothing while perched atop a rooftop hot tub. Rossell’s model suggests a duality, shown with an over-sized rosary and subtly visible underwear and tattoo. The model’s confident posture and luxurious setting underscore her wealth and high social standing. Rossell’s works explore notions of purity, sexuality, and power in relation to the female body.

Mickalene Thomas, A-E-I-O-U and Sometimes Y, 2009; Plastic rhinestones, acrylic, and enamel on panel, 24 x 20 in.; Gift of Deborah Carstens; © 2009 Mickalene Thomas, Courtesy of the Artist and Lehmann Maupin

Mickalene Thomas, A-E-I-O-U and Sometimes Y, 2009; Plastic rhinestones, acrylic, and enamel on panel, 24 x 20 in.; Gift of Deborah Carstens; © 2009 Mickalene Thomas, Courtesy of the Artist and Lehmann Maupin

Mickalene Thomas (b. 1971) creates images of African American women as a way to scrutinize and disrupt popular notions of female beauty. Thomas pulls inspiration from art history as well as popular culture. Her works are as likely to reference 19th-century painting as 1970s Blaxploitation films. A-E-I-O-U and Sometimes Y (2009) re-creates a portrait of her model, Fran, from a photo booth picture. In Thomas’s work, Fran’s face materializes from carefully placed rhinestones against a flamingo-pink enamel background. Thomas compares her use of rhinestones to the lustrous lip gloss women wear as “another level of masking, of dressing up.” Her work challenges the perception of femininity.

Magdalena Abakanowicz (1930–2017), a leader in the fiber arts movement, created a mold made from a real person, using burlap mixed with resin and glue for her work 4 Seated Figures (2002). Born in Poland, Abakanowicz witnessed her mother get shot after soldiers stormed into their home during World War II—an instant that that is reflected in these figures. The forms are presented as genderless, and they appear to have been stripped of revealing muscles, arteries, or cords suggestive of the nervous system. Although her figures were inspired from a personal event, the work encourages multiple interpretations and speaks broadly to the human experience. Abakanowicz said, “They are naked, exposed, and vulnerable, just as we all are.”

Magdalena Abakanowicz, 4 Seated Figures, 2002; Burlap, resin, and iron rods, 53 1/2 x 24 1/4 x 99 1/4 in.; National Museum of Women in the Arts; © Magdalena Abakanowicz

Magdalena Abakanowicz, 4 Seated Figures, 2002; Burlap, resin, and iron rods, 53 1/2 x 24 1/4 x 99 1/4 in.; National Museum of Women in the Arts; © Magdalena Abakanowicz

Visit the museum to see these works in the third floor galleries. Can’t visit in person? Browse #GalleryReboot on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter for more collection highlights.

Madeline Barnes was the spring 2017 digital engagement intern at the National Museum of Women in the Arts.

5 Fast Facts: Daniela Rossell

Impress your friends with five fast facts about Mexican photographer Daniela Rossell (b. 1973), whose work is on view in NMWA’s third-floor galleries.

Daniela Rossell (b. 1973)

Daniela Rossell, Inge and Her Mother Ema in the Living Room from the series “Ricas y famosas,” NMWA, Gift of Heather and Tony Podesta Collection, Washington, DC; © Daniela Rossell, Courtesy of the artist and Greene Naftali, New York

Daniela Rossell, Inge and Her Mother Ema in the Living Room from the series “Ricas y famosas,” NMWA, Gift of Heather and Tony Podesta Collection, Washington, DC; © Daniela Rossell, Courtesy of the artist and Greene Naftali, New York

1. Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous

In the series “Ricas y famosas,” Daniela Rossell photographed some of the most affluent women in Mexico—many of whom are associated with the Partido Revolucionario Institucional (PRI), the ruling party in Mexico from 1929 to 2000.

2. All in the Family

Rossell’s “Ricas y famosas” subjects are her own family members, friends, and acquaintances. The artist began the series with images of her grandmothers before focusing on the younger generations of women in her family. The project expanded as Rossell’s photographs impressed other women, who asked to be included.

3. Open to Interpretation

Daniela Rossell, Medusa, from the series “Ricas y famosas,” 1999; NMWA, Gift of Heather and Tony Podesta Collection, Washington, DC; © Daniela Rossell, Courtesy of the artist and Greene Naftali, New York

Daniela Rossell, Medusa, from the series “Ricas y famosas,” 1999; NMWA, Gift of Heather and Tony Podesta Collection, Washington, DC; © Daniela Rossell, Courtesy of the artist and Greene Naftali, New York

Rossell published the entire series as a book in 2002. Seen together, these portrayals of extreme wealth caused controversy throughout Mexico. Rossell and her subjects faced backlash as the public saw the cumulative body of work and viewed the women as “poster girls of corruption.”

4. Artistic Beginnings

Because her mother is an art collector, Rossell grew up surrounded by fine art. She began her career in her teens as an actress. She later studied painting at the National School of Visual Arts in Mexico City before shifting her attention to photography.

5. Creative Collaborations

Not unlike She Who Tells a Story artist Tanya Habjouqa’s process of spending time with her subjects in her series “Women of Gaza,” Rossell interviewed the women, toured their houses, and listened to their ideas before taking her shot—providing a more authentic image.

—Ashley Harris is assistant educator at the National Museum of Women in the Arts.