‘The thirst trap of London’: UK welcomes Every Woman Biennial
This summer the world’s largest showcase of female and non-binary art comes to Britain. Its curator describes her mission to reclaim the art world from tech bros
In 2019, the most recent iteration of the Every Woman Biennial drew 3,000 attendees to two galleries in New York and Los Angeles. Among the 600 artists represented were a 12-year-old trans photographer of moths and butterflies and a 91-year-old multimedia artist who makes paper assemblages.
“That was ultimately the show of my dreams,” says C Finley, who founded the world’s largest biennial of women and non-binary artists. She is confident about the forthcoming inaugural London leg: “This show is the thirst trap of London – it will scratch an itch people didn’t even know they had.”
A New York-based artist and curator, Finley started Every Woman seven years ago to carve out room for the inclusivity she realised was missing in the art world. The expansion across the pond pushes her agenda further with the biennial’s most diverse and comprehensive programme to date.
The month-long show opens on 12 June across various sites – from a 19th-century mansion in Canary Wharf to a brutalist building in central London – with more than 300 artists from 33 countries. Copeland Gallery in Peckham will present the show’s main exhibition, My Love Is Your Love, filling its walls with works by more than 200 artists, all available to acquire. Five jury members will each select an emerging artist to reward with £100.
The goal is to give a voice to all. “We are not stuffy about medium – this is a broad church,” says the curator Eddy Grattan-Bellew, who approached Finley with the idea of a London outpost after they met at the LA leg. They co-selected the works, “to break down barriers of access”, entirely from a free-of-charge open call, and almost everyone got in. “This is a ‘pan’ affair: all mediums, nations, ages, and gender expressions are welcome.”
The Every Woman Biennial started in 2014. Less than a third of the artists in the star-making biennial at New York’s Whitney Museum of American Art that year were female. “If I had this opportunity, I’d create an all-women extravaganza,” Finley said. Her friend’s prompt reaction named the dream show: “Whitney Houston Biennial!” (Finley renamed the show in 2019 after a request from the singer’s estate.)
She seized the moment for a community of artists she knew was not being represented – especially “middle-aged women who were never given their moments”. Within a month, the biennial’s first iteration opened at a 3,000 square-foot Brooklyn space. More than 1,000 people showed up for the one-day event – which also had a dancefloor. “It was a connecting tissue because everyone was invited,” Finley remembers.
The biennial doesn’t bill itself as feminist, partially to be exempt from ideology and to embrace all forms of gender expression. “It’s not that we are not feminists, but we just don’t say it in our statement,” Finley says. Nonetheless, many influential feminist artists, such as Guerrilla Girls or Marilyn Minter have participated since its inception.
The London leg is the biennial’s longest programme – and one set to pump some fresh blood into the city’s art scene. The Azerbaijani art space Gazelli Art House in Mayfair hosts Naqsh Collective, two Jordanian sisters who make Arabic embroideries in brass. Istanbul-born Queer Art Projects has organised a performance programme titled Galatea. Each artist has performed in front a public monument. The QAP members Tuna Erdem and Seda Ergul call the project “an endurance performance of the naturalisation process in the UK”.
The duo’s work reflects the limitations and bureaucracy they manoeuvre in order to reside in the country with “arbitrary rules that make our tasks difficult”. The challenge was to secure permissions to perform in historically public sites that they later learned were privately owned. A duo that “shies away from the word feminist”, they identify with the biennial’s non-binary and expansive understanding of gender.
“This is a very queer show,” Grattan-Bellew promises. The programme includes Antonia Luxem’s film about a queer woman, named X, in search of liberation through a sex-filled universe. Artist and game developer Danielle Brathwaite-Shirley presents their multimedia installation, You’re Being Let Into a Space, about black trans visibility.
For Finley, queerness is more than sexuality: it’s “a radical wildness outside the mainstream”. In this case, motherhood is “queered” too. At Chats Palace in Hackney, Czech artist Tereza Buskova, who came to the UK in 1998 as an au pair, will create her mural Hidden Mothers through workshops with immigrant mothers, mainly from south Asia. Together, they will paint over the building’s facade with symbols inspired by the cottages painted by women in Slovakian town ?i?many in the 13th century. Participating women will also add their embroidery on to the timber structure built by female architects at Studio Polpo.
“I’ve been struggling to present this work about the invisible labour of women – especially immigrant mothers,” Buskova says about financial and bureaucratic hurdles she has faced since starting the project two years ago.
The London show, as well as a coinciding exhibition in New York, will be the first time Every Woman does not coincide with the Whitney Biennial. The main reason, Finley explains, is that “artists need opportunities after such a hard period – we can’t wait for another year”.
The show’s New York chapter this year hosts 300 NFTs, all selected and minted from another open call. Finley considers art world’s newest frenzy a blank slate, not yet saturated with male artists. “It’s yet a decentralised platform without gatekeepers or hierarchy, but sales are still dominated by a ‘tech-bro’ perspective.” She is flooding the space with her type of artists, “and claiming seats up on the table”. A 93-year-old painter is minting her first NFT, as well as artists creating body-flipping CGI graphics, poetry readings and static sculptures.
After a long period of hibernation, the London show takes the boiling exuberance back to the streets. “I love taking over the street with art,” Finley says. “People from all walks of life encounter the work and realise it’s a part of a larger thing, and that’s powerful.”
After a “heteronormative lockdown”, according to Grattan-Bellew, “this will be our community’s reclaiming of the streets.” For 2023, they’re already eyeing others parts of the UK, including Bristol, Leeds, Manchester, or Glasgow.