The Women Artists Who Find Freedom in Collage

From the Dada movement to today, photographers have used collage to critique, challenge, provoke—and invent their own feminist futures.

Traveling exhibition: Paris Photo - Aperture Foundation PhotoBook Awards
Felicity Hammond, Post Production, 2018
Courtesy the artist

Essays – February 2, 2021  By Sara Knelman

In Lorna Simpson’s Earth & Sky #50 (2018), part of a series of collaged portraits of Black women that Simpson has been making for a decade, a constellation glides in streaks and waves from a woman’s head. The subject looks straight out of the frame, one hand poised as if about to relay an important message from the stars. In other images from the series, uncut geological specimens—of asphalt and amber, garnet and malachite—adorn women as magnificent crowns and gowns; in one, a perfect bubble floats, inviolable, above a young, modish face. Galactic, regal, and elemental by turn, Simpson’s subjects appear out of time, their serene expressions foils for exuberant coifs, expansive imaginations, even glints of premonition. What future might they portend?

Simpson propels forward through the past, splicing her subjects out of advertisements from vintage copies of Ebony and Jet, groundbreaking U.S. magazines, begun at midcentury, that focus on Black news, culture, and entertainment. Simpson’s images, neither pedantic nor prescriptive, reference the progressive confidence of the magazines, the illusions of glamour and desire they project, and the fraught history of Black women’s hair (a frequent subject for Simpson across her career). They speak of a once-imagined future and of a present moment grappling with the limits and possibilities of optimism.

Lorna Simpson, Earth & Sky #50, 2018
Lorna Simpson, Earth & Sky #50, 2018. Collage on paper
© the artist and courtesy Hauser & Wirth

Simpson’s artist statement, as Delphic as the works, gathers some of the original ad copy that accompanied the women in the pictures. One line reads:

Star Glow Linda Linda Linda Afrialon Kool-N-Light Lioness

Making poetry out of collisions has long been the purview of collage: to forge from familiar elements something strange, to hide and reveal, deconstruct and reconstruct, eradicate and conjure. Like speculative fiction, collage relies on fragments of experience as a way of teasing out the fantastical. But its mechanisms are deceptively simple: as a visual and literary strategy, it has the capacity to project complex and even contradictory messages, gleaning much from the businesses of propaganda and advertising with which it often intertwines. The great potential of collage is to reveal culture itself as a vulnerable thread of associative ideas, woven together through our assumptions and expectations, and grounded by institutions, law, language—and images that are easily rearranged, so that their meanings shift.

As Simpson’s work reminds us, collage has been central to explorations of feminism, as it has been to many ideologies of resistance. In an era defined by acute threats—different, more dispersed, but no less urgent than those preceding the world wars that shaped much modernist collage—feminism today seeks new models for living as a way of moving forward. The most powerful feminist visions embrace the ideals of “feminism for the 99%,” a philosophy put forward by Cinzia Arruzza, Tithi Bhattacharya, and Nancy Fraser in their 2019 book of the same name, which repositions the challenges and threats to “womxn” in relation to representation, class division, and environmental devastation. In a moment when even the immediate future seems so obstinately obscure, many artists have returned to the radical material possibilities of collage as a way of contemplating the complexity of these converging issues, utilizing the malleability of the medium to envision feminist futures.

Hannah Höch Album, 1933
Spread from Hannah Höch: Album, 1933. Facsimile edition published by Hatje Cantz, 2004

There is a long history of feminist collage. The serial, often performative work of the 1970s and early ’80s is an obvious anchor. Figures such as Martha Rosler, Valie Export, Carrie Mae Weems, and Mary Beth Edelson opened up pathways for connecting historical feminist concerns to issues of race, sexuality, the natural and built environment, class, and commerce. Yet the historical touchstones for much feminist collage today—the driving spirit— reach back further, to the free-form quality and ardent trust in the unconscious of Dada and Surrealist work from the 1920s and ’30s produced by Claude Cahun, Grete Stern, Dora Maar, Meret Oppenheim, Sophie Taeuber-Arp—the list goes on. The breadth and innovation of work by women from this period is formidable and resonant, the full depth of it still coming to light through research and long-overdue monographs and exhibitions.

The most influential collages from this era arguably belong to Hannah Höch, whose now-iconic Cut with the Kitchen Knife Dada through the Last Weimar Beer-Belly Cultural Epoch of Germany (1919–20) and The Beautiful Girl (1919–20) deal unflinchingly (and humorously!) with gender expectations and the Neue Frau—the New Woman. Less known, and more ambiguous, is Höch’s Album, made more than a decade later, in 1933. A thick collage book, Album catalogs images from the worlds of news, fashion, and pop culture, pasting material directly onto the pages of two magazines, frequently using the full-page spread for expansive compositions. Album opens with a collaged page showing a plant, two pumas, and, in the upper right, the high-heeled footsteps of a woman walking through snow, a pair of men’s feet trailing behind her as one Art Deco shoe lifts in the act of leaving. It ends with a single image spread across the fold, an unauthored press photograph showing novelty in all its guises: sleek cars and electric lights, scattered figures traversing the lines of the city, all framed by the quintessentially modernist view from above.

Sara Cwynar, Board Room, 2019
Sara Cwynar, Board Room, 2019
Courtesy the artist; Foxy Production, New York; and Cooper Cole, Toronto

No one quite knows how Höch viewed Album, which might have been a kind of creative look book, a way of working out or sketching ideas for more finished pieces, or an artwork in itself. Its ambiguous purpose and immersive form suggest it was, more simply, a way of moving forward into the future. Just how this momentum is galvanized through collage isn’t always clear. Like Höch’s work broadly, Album seems equally born out of superimposition and concealing elements—the balancing of absence and presence, past and present. The pitch and tone of a photomontage often hinge on the subtlety of emphasis.

Sara Cwynar’s Board Room, made in 2019 for a show at the Milwaukee Art Museum, adds bodies originally absent within a historical professional setting, asking us to consider the reverberations of a world emanating from a past fueled by different agents. Still visible beneath Cwynar’s pasted figures, a group of white men in suits sit smiling in a vast room around a large, heavy table. Their patent cheerfulness speaks to a faith in a future they designed—and simultaneously to the crumbling trust in institutions that their homogeneity and exclusion might represent to us today. Cwynar’s diverse array of images from her own Album-like collection includes women of many races and ages, from the contemporary world and from centuries past. In some, youthful figures model clothing, their visibility demarked as transactional and performative, trendy reminders that it may be easier to project an institutional image of inclusion and diversity than to demolish the structures that underlie it.

Mickalene Thomas, Le Déjeuner sur l’herbe les Trois Femmes Noires #7, 2017
Mickalene Thomas, Le Déjeuner sur l’herbe les Trois Femmes Noires #7, 2017
© the artist

Mickalene Thomas announces the presence of her sitters as a wrecking ball, centering and celebrating the Black female body, often posing them defiantly in the vestiges of Western art history. Though sparkling with confidence (and sometimes actual glitter), her work also bears traces of disjuncture and vulnerability. In her photo collage Le Déjeuner sur l’herbe les Trois Femmes Noires #7 (2017), the bodies of Black women replace the white figures of Édouard Manet’s 1863 painting. In this work, Thomas’s women, ripped apart and painstakingly put back together, interrupted by shifts between black-and-white and color pieces, make material the physical and emotional labor of confrontation and the fragmentation of the Black diaspora.

If Thomas and Cwynar counter monumental absences with monumentality, the pared-down collages of Alanna Fields’s series As We Were (2019) instead frame absence and suppression in wax overlays of structured primary colors, locking images of Black queer bodies behind the restraints of their respective historical moments. Noting the dearth of representation of everyday experience of Black queer life in photographic culture before the 1980s, Fields sought vernacular, mostly anonymous images by scouring eBay and regathered a history often hidden in plain sight. Attentive to the body language and gestures of intimacy, Fields built her own archive, eventually scanning and cropping each photograph and using the materiality and varying opacity of wax to highlight or erase moments of transgressive tenderness. Like the experience of trying to read something vitally important in low light, the lines act as frames for and as barriers to visual information, drawing us toward every detail, illuminating the individuality and humanity of the otherwise anonymous sitters, whose stories we can only invent. The quiet stoicism of each work is itself a stand against the systemic suppression of their representation.

Alanna Fields, Untitled (Blue), 2019
Alanna Fields, Untitled (Blue), 2019, from the series As We Were
Courtesy the artist

The instrumental gestures of collage are to add or subtract to make up a different result—in more or less complicated equations. Yet at the center of collage are always pieces of the world itself, materially and imagistically. In all its innate disjuncture, layers of history and memory are not so easily parsed when we’re unable to take them apart. From the United Arab Emirates and now based in Brooklyn and Dubai, Farah Al Qasimi finds her collage-like compositions readymade or nearly complete. Her subjects, discovered out in the world, light-handedly weave together the complexities of gender roles and the built environment in the U.A.E., and are often revealed or obscured by the omnipresence of mirrors, window reflections, and screens. In one recent photograph, Lady Lady (2020), a woman in a hijab and thick glasses holds up a phone; on its screen a cartoon face is framed by a blue case and, beyond it, by the frame of an image of a vivid bouquet of flowers. The figure sinks further into her surrounds, her gold watch glinting like the gilt frame, the paisley pattern of her clothing echoing the floral view, her diaphanous hijab dissipating in the light tiles that surround it. Al Qasimi’s recent solo exhibition in New York was aptly titled Funhouse, an allusion to the image’s potential to distort, disorient, augment, and distract: to incite ways of seeing that both trouble and avert attendant realities.

Farah Al Qasimi, Lady Lady, 2020
Farah Al Qasimi, Lady Lady, 2020
Courtesy Helena Anrather and The Third Line, Dubai

Indeed, on the other side of the world, through the looking glass, is yet another world, and collage can transport us there, too. The long history of photography as theater—the capacity of the medium not only to record but to imagine—underpins Lissa Rivera’s more ominous Dioramas (2013–14). Her painstakingly hand-colored archival images, mounted on cardboard and lit by flashlight, mash up social history, portraiture, and set design. In one image, aristocratic colonists dine in a cave, while an androgynous masked figure reclines in the foreground, a mythical torso emergent at her side, dropping details from a geological survey providing a natural curtain. Rivera’s hallucinatory scenes, deeply recessed in a cavern of psychosexual drama, reach back to the alchemy of early photographic techniques and forward to the possibilities of virtual and augmented reality. Far from an indictment, Rivera reminds us of the past’s spectral presence and its transcendent potential.

The business of real estate capitalizes on such potentials. We now live surrounded by projections of our future environments on seemingly every corner in cities undergoing rapid development. Felicity Hammond draws explicitly on such computer-generated architectural imagery, renderings of realities that have yet to exist. The Contact Photography Festival in Toronto commissioned Hammond to make a site-specific mural, resulting in Post Production (2018), which was ultimately pasted amid the new condos rising up across the city with unrelenting efficiency. Hammond’s amalgam inflects the homogenous sameness of urban gentrification with hints of local heritage, and the presence of green portends the possibility of nature’s resistance, a reminder that today’s visions of grandeur may well be tomorrow’s ruins.

Lissa Rivera, Cave Room, 2013
Lissa Rivera, Cave Room, 2013, from the series Dioramas
Courtesy the artist and ClampArt, New York

If the past is any kind of indicator, today’s visions of futurity, in any medium, aren’t likely to turn out as blueprints for lived realities. Instead, the contradictions and time-traveling leaps of collage raise vital questions: What is salvageable here? Can we rebuild from these foundations? Or do we need to tear it all down and start again? However different the responses have been and continue to be, collage, like feminism, always brings together the nebulous impossibility of utopian ideals and the materiality of life, the bodily practice of human experience. It reminds us, however gently, to continually renew our perspectives and reorient the way we live and value one another radically, urgently, not only as a way of imagining but as a means of survival.

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