When do feminist artists put their body on the line? Is decolonial feminist art praxis possible in the art institution? 

“Art in the Flesh: A Public Class” was a two-part special event co-organized by Dr. Sue Shon and me for This Exhibition is not an Exhibition (curated by Valérie Walker and Patryk Tom) at the Libby Leshgold Gallery in Vancouver (Canada). Our two public classes within the gallery space were an experiment to imagine and practice an anticolonial pedagogy that bridges, among other contradictions, the arts university and the arts gallery.

Both Art in the Flesh sessions recall the groundbreaking 1981 feminist anthology This Bridge Called My Back. The anthology calls for a “theory in the flesh” that locates material reality as a basis for anti-racist, anti-colonial, anti-capitalist feminist political momentum. “Flesh” as a politicized location foregrounds the disparities and contradictions of lived gender experiences – but rather than seeing contradictions as obstacles, the anthology argues contradictions must be approached as “bridges” to social transformation. Art in the Flesh responds to this call in the context of an art and design university.

The first session was dedicated to the recent Vancouver Art Gallery exhibition Jan Wade: Soul Power and led by Dr. Sue Shon, along with students Kashish Hukku Jani and Steph Schneider. We were honoured to have Jan Wade in attendance to listen to a series of talks about her work, as well as moving interventions into the gallery space facilitated by Hukku Jani. We were honoured to welcome Jan Wade in attendance at the event, listening to faculty and student responses to her work and its impact on their thinking and practice.

The second session, led by me, was dedicated to the recent Vancouver Art Gallery exhibition Yoko Ono: Growing Freedom. The public lecture introduced a speculative exhibition of a dozen feminist artists exhibiting in New York in the 1970s-80s (and/or influenced by the city’s art scene), who chose to put their own body on the line in bold and vulnerable performances, which would be documented through film and video. At a time when women’s bodies were prominently displayed on gallery walls and saturating popular culture, and yet excluded ‘in the flesh’ from the art world, these artists defiantly centred their own bodies as sites of creative figuration and exhibition.

The second part of the seminar gave attendees free time to spend with video documentation of the featured works, as well as guided reflection on seminar themes. Attendees reconvened for discussion and conversation in the final third. In attendance were a combination of arts professionals (new directors of the Libby Leshgold Gallery and Vancouver LIVE Biennale), Emily Carr University faculty, students, and members of the general public who saw the event announcement.

The personal stories, questions, and conversations that participants brought to the final third of the event were moving and provocative. Dr. Shon and I agreed that what took place inside the gallery during the two events enacted the kind of university we had imagined for ourselves as students, and we were so grateful for the creative energy that This Exhibition is not an Exhibition established for us to do this work.