In 1992 and again in 1994, a group of feminists and feminist artists in Hamilton came together to organize two, non-juried exhibitions celebrating women’s creativity. The core members were Renée Albrecht, Angela Harbowiak, and Anka Dolhun, who worked in turn with many volunteers (of which I was one) and several hundred artists for each incarnation of the project. Conceived as part of International Women’s Day celebrations (March 8), the organizers put out a call to any and all women who wanted to contribute their work to a public exhibition. The idea was to step away from patriarchal ideas of originality, “greatness”, and organizers especially sought to encourage women working in non-traditional or craft media to see their production as creative and meaningful. As Renée said more than once, “you can submit a cake if you want to – we’ll show it.” Overall the objective was to put on a mammoth showcase for women’s creativity in a public venue. The site for the first Bountiful Woman project was the Tivoli Theatre on James Street North in Hamilton, where 300 works were installed or hung, salon-style, in the building’s substantial lobby.
Organizer Anka Dolhun, as shown in an article in the Hamilton Spectator, 4 March 1992.
The exhibition was a great success and, because it only accepted and displayed work by women, it was also controversial. We took the position that male artists did not face the same obstacles as women when it came to finding opportunities to exhibit their work. In Hamilton in the early 90s, a gallery-goer was still more likely to see male artists’ work in local galleries than work by women. This disparity was an important motivation behind Bountiful Woman. We also reasoned that, given our overarching concern – to be part of International Women’s Day celebrations – it was not our top priority to ensure that men felt included in our project, or comfortable with our decisions. But we were optimistic that the artistic community of Hamilton in general would understand and support our initiative. In fact, most male artists I spoke with did understand the politics at stake, and supported the project. Nevertheless, there were cries of injustice and reverse sexism (and not just from men). As a young feminist I found this response disheartening, but it also underscored the need for greater understanding of how women artists – even in a relatively safe, egalitarian, and rich country like Canada – struggle within inferentially patriarchal conditions.
When I look back on Bountiful Woman, I am deeply struck by the significance of the venue. The Tivoli was a very decrepit old theatre, built out of existing buildings during the days of vaudeville. From 1907 until 2004 it showed either live theatre or films, with a brief hiatus in the early 1990s, when our exhibition went into the lobby.
An undated view of the Tivoli Theatre lobby, found at Haunted Hamilton’s useful website.
The Tivoli was part of a stretch of James Street North that was notorious for crime. But the gendered, spatial dimensions of James Street North should be underscored, too. I had grown up with the clear sense that north Hamilton was particularly dangerous for women, and had always been told that this street was where prostitution took place in the city. It was therefore an assertive gesture on the part of Bountiful Woman organizers to choose the Tivoli as our venue, to reclaim, as so many Take Back the Night marches aim to do, a space where women are taught to feel unsafe. It was likewise a place where women who do not fit in to normative ideals of femininity were perhaps in higher numbers. Hamilton North was also more culturally diverse – we hoped that having the exhibition at the Tivoli would help to welcome more of the city’s numerous Italian-Canadian population, for example.
Bountiful Woman II, also called More Bountiful Woman, was held at the Hamilton Public Library’s Central branch, only a few blocks away but a very different venue from the Tivoli. This version of the project went more smoothly than the 1992 version – fewer controversies, a more stable venue (in all senses – the Tivoli lobby, where our work hung in 1992, collapsed in 2004 and was demolished, although the rest of the building still stands), and, with a large group of regular visitors, more visibility. The biggest difference was, however, that when organizers decided to relaunch the event, it was decided that while the call would still emphasize the creative work of women, men who submitted work would not be turned away.
I was not on the organizing committee for More Bountiful Woman, but I was thrilled when my piece, Land with Blue-Green Diamonds, was chosen to illustrate the project for the March 3rd issue of the local, weekly entertainment magazine, EGO, seen above.
In preparation for this post, I did several online searches for Bountiful Woman, I and II. Although I did not find any images of the installations (and sadly have lost the article that went along with the cover, above), I came across many, many references in artists’ curriculum vitae to these special, feminist exhibitions. Over and over, women artists note their participation at either the Tivoli incarnation, the Central Library version, or both. Funnily enough, I have yet to come across a reference in a male artist’s cv to Bountiful Woman II. Perhaps it was a women’s exhibition after all.