Beyond Boxes: WBB Project and its Implications for Feminism Today
n.paradoxa: International Feminist Art Journal
Anette Kubitza Ph.D., Art Historian
Women Beyond Borders is a cross-cultural women’s art project initiated with the goals of documenting women’s voices and visions, encouraging collaboration and community among women, creating an international dialogue, and honoring women’s artistic creativity worldwide.
Over the past decade, Women Beyond Borders has developed into one of the most intriguing and inspiring cultural phenomena at the turn of the twenty-first century, successfully reaching out to large and diverse audiences internationally and challenging national, political, ethnic, religious, and aesthetic boundaries. As guest curator of the project’s ten-year retrospective Women Beyond Borders: The Art of Building Community, organized by the UCLA Fowler Museum of Cultural History and the University Art Museum of the University of California, Santa Barbara (2001/2002), I want to review some of the project’s implications for today’s feminist (art) practices, its role in fostering personal expression and transformation, as well as cross-cultural and global understanding.
Women Beyond Borders was founded in 1991 by Lorraine Serena and Elena Siff, together with a group of local artists and art professionals in Santa Barbara, California. The vehicle which the group chose to reach out to women internationally was a small wooden box – evocative of a vessel, womb, tomb, gift, shrine, or hope chest. The box was not only found to be a powerful symbol for women, but it could also be shipped inexpensively around the world.
Originally, in the early 1990s, 200 copies of a simple prototype were sent to female curators and artists in fifteen countries. Each participant received an identical miniature wooden box with a lid, measuring 3 ½ in. x 2 in. x 2½ in (c.9 cm x 5 cm x 6.2 cm). Participants were asked to transform these boxes using paint, sculptural objects, photographs, text, textile and any other materials they deemed fitting. Up to today, the boxes sent out to participants by Women Beyond Borders have these same measurements and come with the same guidelines.
The completed boxes reflect a wide range of artistic styles and concerns. Their form and content ranges from abstract and conceptual to narrative and folkloric. Whatever the style, the meaning of the transformed boxes exceeds their modest size. Not only have they become repositories for the creator’s individual aesthetic expression but many of them also reflect personal, political or economic realities experienced by women worldwide. The written statements, which accompany many of the boxes, speak about, either a woman’s artistic concerns, her personal hardships, her social situation, or the political situation in her country.
In 1995, the Santa Barbara Contemporary Arts Forum hosted the first exhibition of 185 boxes. The exhibition then traveled to venues in the participating countries, including countries such as Cuba and Russia. Along the way, more boxes were added. Since then, Women Beyond Borders has drawn international attention and momentum. Today, more than 900 hundred participants from 45 nations, from Argentina to Zambia, have transformed the miniature boxes into elaborate artworks for Women Beyond Borders. They have ranged from accomplished, nationally and internationally known artists to women with no prior artistic experience. Several dozen curators from different countries have organized over thirty exhibitions of these boxes on all continents, in places as diverse as the National Museum of Kenya, a mall in Toronto, a restaurant in Zagreb, at Ontario International Airport, and at the winter Olympics in Salt Lake City, in addition to numerous art galleries.
Women Beyond Borders is not simply an exhibition – packed, shipped, installed, and opened – it comes with the social imperative to connect women. Organizers in each country hosting an exhibition have taken on diverse challenges to meet that imperative. For example, in Jerusalem (1996), boxes were exhibited during an International Women’s Day celebration. In Basel, Switzerland (1996), boxes were shown in conjunction with Pandora, an exhibition featuring objects from ancient Greece. In Oaxaca, Mexico (1998), they were part of a women’s health program. Boxes were taken on a trek to rural Nepal (1998) by a group of California women, to help educate Nepalese women about health care, domestic violence, and human rights. In 1996, a group of artists from Austria installed a show of boxes in a Russian sleeper car and made it accessible to the public en route, traveling from Graz to St. Petersburg, via Vienna, Budapest, Lvov, and numerous towns in Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, and Russia. Thus, the exhibition literally crossed borders, as the train car – a box itself – was turned into a moving gallery. These examples highlight the diverse “uses” to which Women Beyond Borders has been put.
Even though the international traveling activity of the hundreds of boxes in the care of Women Beyond Borders has been on hold for administrative reasons since a very successful show in Singapore in 2001, exhibitions in the United States are still organized. Further, the artistic director of the project, Lorraine Serena, is in the process of finding a permanent exhibition opportunity or curatorial agency that would showcase the boxes – or part of them – in a professional and widely accessible environment. However, the concept of the project continues to be very alive in different parts of the world. For example, just recently, a woman from Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia, contacted the Santa Barbara founders asking for financial support to do a box project in her community to deal with violence against women and issues of sexual harassment. Women Beyond Borders has also lent an inspiring hand to new projects, such as the International Museum of Women in San Francisco, which recently invited ‘young women in their twenties and thirties from every corner of the globe to submit their stories and art’.
Wherever the boxes have been shown, the project has acted as a catalyst for cultural activities and exchange. Numerous adjunct events such as satellite exhibitions, panel discussions, symposia, support groups for women artists, school outreach programs, and box-workshops for women, men, and children, were part of most Women Beyond Borders shows. To name just a few examples: in connection with a Women Beyond Borders exhibition in Manly, Australia (1999), a satellite show, Boxes Out Back, was organized in the remotely located community of Broken Hill. It featured boxes by female residents from that community and included a presentation of their boxes to the public. During an exhibition of WOMEN Beyond Borders in Singapore (2001), an adjunct exhibition invited 100 female residents to create a box for 100 Women’s Voices. At the accompanying forum Feminist Consciousness in Singaporean Art, organized by Joyce Fan and Susie Wong, practitioners in the visual, performing and literary arts discussed the question of whether there is a feminist consciousness in art in Singapore.
The stated mission of Women Beyond Borders is to ‘honor and document women’s voices and visions, to build community through dialogue and collaboration, and to inspire all women to express their creativity’. The process of building a global community, I believe, lies at the heart of the project. While Women Beyond Borders rests on actual art objects – the boxes – the project’s uniqueness and one of its strengths, I believe, lies in the vast network its founders and supporters have managed to build all over the world. Lorraine Serena has emphasized that building communities among women has become a substantial aspect of this project and can be considered an art form itself. The exchanges fostered by Women Beyond Borders are documented in endless e-mail messages among participants, in video documentations of gatherings, openings, and workshops, in the quotes by women who have seen the exhibitions worldwide, and in the relationships that have formed because of the project.
Women Beyond Borders has relied on and conceptually integrated new achievements in communication technology, in particular the Internet, from the beginning in order to build a global dialogue among women. Further, a virtual web-exhibition made the boxes widely accessible beyond their international displays (see: http://www.womenbeyondborders.org). This active exchange between women can be considered a form of worldwide happening, along the lines of the much smaller-scale mail art events such as Feministo, created as a life-line among European women artists in the 1970s.
While forming communities among women at any level is an empowering process, creating a positive international dialogue assumes more meaningful implications in a war-ridden, economically imbalanced global society, in which we increasingly share responsibilities as world citizens. Given its US origin, however, the question needs to be asked whether Women Beyond Borders imports and imposes a Euro/American-centered notion of feminist art and feminism. Taking a closer look at this question, which I have done at length elsewhere, I found that while the founder’s inspiration for Women Beyond Borders undoubtedly lies in the history of US and European feminist art and thought, the project itself is non-prescriptive, and it has rather become part of a redefinition of feminism in an international arena.
While I consider further critical analysis and theorizing about Women Beyond Borders in the context of feminist art and globalization a valuable undertaking, I have come to appreciate Women Beyond Borders foremost as a form of hands-on feminism. It is feminism-in-action, internationally and locally. I have come to see this project as a vehicle much more than an agenda, which is an important distinction to make at a time when US-American exports are being scrutinized with increased caution. Women Beyond Borders seems to have been able to touch participants as well as visitors in a unique way wherever it has been “offered”.
As guest curator of the ten-year retrospective of Women Beyond Borders, I have been interested mainly in understanding how this project has connected women internationally. After all, women from countries such as Cuba, Russia, Afghanistan and Iran have contributed boxes to this US-initiated project, a couple of these countries even hosted exhibitions under adventurous circumstances. However, recently, I have been able to explore Women Beyond Borders from another vantage point, other than the curatorial and academic, as an educator. I have come to realize another immanent value of this project, which is found in the creation of the actual boxes.
Much of academic feminist writing – and thinking – seems to have become especially disconnected from the needs of many girls and young women today, or rather, their urgent cries for help. Something which has come forcefully into view through my own work teaching in colleges and raising a teenage daughter. Although feminist artists and critics (including myself) have addressed subjects such as illness, aging, and death, as well as an assortment of sexual orientations and preferences in a courageous way, burning issues that affect girls and young women today seem to hit a blind spot. While, according to statistics, girls finish first when it comes to academic achievement, and we, as feminist mothers and grandmothers can take pride in the “expansion” of their minds, the well-being of their bodies has been vastly neglected. The elaborate theorizing about the female body in feminist theory seems of little actual help when it comes to re-feeding an anorexic 12-year old, moved beyond her senses by self-starvation. Recognizing the very dramatic, very dangerous, and very real problems of a new generation of women and finding fast and effective ways to alleviate them, is, I believe, where feminism needs to be at this point.
From the beginning, Women beyond borders fostered relationships with students from the elementary level through high school and college. Since the late 1990s, the project has been opened up in particular to children and young women through workshops and adjunct exhibitions. When Women Beyond Borders toured Australia in 1999, one of the satellite exhibitions was Grrrls Beyond Borders. Over 200 boxes were created by female high school students from Sydney, which were shown at The University of Sydney’s Tin Sheds Gallery.
For the retrospective of Women Beyond Borders at UCLA and UCSB (2001/2002), we teamed up the project with L.A. and Santa Barbara chapters of Girls Inc., who created their own boxes, which then became part of the retrospective. The personal statements that accompanied each box were direct and compelling: it seemed that for these girls creating a box became a catalyst to work through difficult experiences and emotions. Around the same time, a worldwide daughter-initiative called Children Beyond Borders was launched by the organization Very Special Arts to foster children’s self-expression. It involved about 4,500 children with disabilities from different nations, whose boxes were exhibited for the first time at the Cultural Olympiad in Salt Lake City in 2002.
Recently, I decided to do my own box-assignment in a course I teach on women in the arts at a California State University campus. The task was for the students to enter into a dialogue with a woman from a different culture, century, or country, or with a female artist of their choice. At the end of the course, the students (mostly female, some male) presented to the class their boxes, which they had elaborately transformed at home. The results were beautiful and breathtaking. Some of the boxes were very personal and even included oral history, and it was clear that the project had become an intimate process or journey for the student. Other boxes were tributes to a favorite role model or an important woman of the past. Though this was an art history class consisting of students from a variety of majors, my students were very enthusiastic about this hands-on activity, and I felt it was the most valuable and galvanizing assignment I had ever done.
Women Beyond Borders is positioned at a crucial intersection in today’s art and society; it has been a successful tool in creating meaningful dialogue on several levels – the personal, the local, and the international – and offers us a challenge to how we consider today’s role of art and of feminism, far beyond the box.
I would like to thank Women Beyond Borders for use of their archive, and Lorraine Serena in particular for her continued support of my research, making information about the project available to me and answering my many questions.