Whoever’s programming the exhibitions at the Whitechapel must have a sense of humour. Just as their Guerrilla Girls display challenges the scant representation of female artists in European institutions, here comes – as if to set an example to us all – a collection of work from the National Museum of Women in the Arts in Washington DC, the only museum of its kind in the world.
The focus is on the storytelling potential of the body in photography. There’s Ingrid Mwangi’s image of the scars on her back, Korean artist Nikki S Lee dressing up as a Midwestern trailer park resident and a self-portrait by Nan Goldin that manages to be half reflective, half posed. Identity and appearance are slippery things.
Above all else, what you get here is the sense of women artists reclaiming their own representation. Justine Kurland’s image of naked women and children bathing in a forest pool takes the age-old tradition of the female nude in the landscape and makes it an ode to motherhood rather than voyeurism. One highlight is Anna Gaskell’s ‘Erasers’ film, which features a group of teenage girls telling the story of a car accident, their voices filling the space; no longer will they be seen and not heard.
The main issue is that so many of the photographs are stills taken from films or documented performances. Your interest as a viewer is mostly piqued, rather than satisfied. But even though the show feels unfocused, it’s a valuable reminder that women artists can’t be cosily pigeonholed into an ‘ism’ or movement: their voices are rich and diverse.