Lisa Volpe’s Curator’s Statement for Female in Focus Exhibition


What does it mean to be female? The simplicity of the question masks its importance. After all, there is a significant price to pay for getting it wrong in daily life: violence on one end of the spectrum, social marginalization on the other. Yet at various times, all women will get it ‘wrong’ because the boundaries of femininity are not only moving targets, but are also in the eye of the beholder. Gender, after all, is merely a method of distinction. It is a differentiation of symbols that a particular society assigns as masculine or feminine. It is not a naturally occurring variance, but an active, man-made effort to produce and maintain difference.


This assignment of gendered difference and symbolic meaning is perhaps most evident in the realm of art. As theorists Griselda Pollock and Laura Mulvey so brilliantly explained, in art, the female body is traditionally utilized as a sign, ripe for constructing meaning—the result of a long history in which women were mere tabula rasa upon which men could project their fantasies and messages. From the anonymous saintly figures, archetypes of virtue and fidelity, of the Renaissance, to Pablo Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, in which women, reduced to mere body parts, are reassembled for a modernist (male) eye, women have been treated as mere symbol for a masculine statement.


The work in “Female in Focus” opposes tradition by placing female subjectivity at the center, tackling the difficult question: “What does it mean to be female?” The 35 works of art in this exhibition were chosen from an exceptionally strong pool of entries. The artists featured embraced photography as a means of confronting the tangled definition of the feminine. While some of the photographs deconstruct tradition, others rethink cultural, biological, and psychological “female” spaces. They represent a broad definition of ‘female’ as a fluid grouping equally influenced by bodily experience as it is by psychology and contemporary life. Together, these works present a “Female in Focus,” characterized not exclusively by sex or difference, but by unending transformative possibilities.


Lisa Volpe

Associate Curator, Photography

The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston



Image Credit: Toni Pepe