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10 Inspiring Stories of Women at The Met

Lela Jenkins
March 1, 2021

We would not be here if it weren’t for women. That’s true both literally and figuratively. The women in my life raised me to be who I am today; I would not be writing this without them. But it is also the diverse women whom I’ve read about—who have broken barriers for me, and whose art has inspired me—who are the reason I am able to write for The Met. March is our time to celebrate the vital contributions women make to our lives and to our society. Join us as we highlight just a few of their inspiring stories that have shaped The Met collection.

Alice Neel: They Are Their Own Gifts, 1978 | From the Vaults

A self-proclaimed “collector of souls,” the American painter Alice Neel (1900–1984) is known today for her powerful, psychologically rich portraiture. In this rarely seen documentary, Neel’s signature candor and wit are on full display as she reveals the stories behind her diverse subjects, who ranged from family and friends to artists, activists, and even strangers she met on the street.

Learn more about Neel in her upcoming retrospective, Alice Neel: People Come First.

From the Vaults: A View from the Projection Booth

The author, Robin Schwalb, at the rewinder in Thalia Theater, New York (1978).

A black-and-white photograph of the author, Robin Schwalb, standing beside a rewinder at the Thalia Theater in New York City, circa 1978.

Robin Schwalb, Senior Audio-Visual Specialist Emerita, began her career at The Met in the Junior Museum projection booth in 1981. Working knee-deep in 35-mm and 16-mm film, Schwalb recalls a time before The Met Film Archive was available at our fingertips. Read about Schwalb’s fascinating journey as a projectionist and artist amidst the evolution of The Met’s media production team.

Art on Its Own Terms: Curator Amelia Peck on Gee's Bend Quilts in My Soul Has Grown Deep

My Soul Has Grown Deep: Black Art from the American South, by Cheryl Finley, Randall R. Griffey, Amelia Peck, and Darryl Pinckney, featuring 112 full-color illustrations, is available at The Met Store and MetPublications. Cover: Thornton Dial (American, 1928–2016). The End of November: The Birds That Didn't Learn How to Fly (detail), 2007. Quilt, wire, fabric, and enamel on canvas on wood, 72 x 72 in. (182.9 x 182.9 cm). Gift of Souls Grown Deep Foundation from the William S. Arnett Collection, 2014 (2014.548.5). © Thornton Dial

My Soul Has Grown Deep

In rural Alabama, there exists a small hamlet called Gee’s Bend, in which the tradition of quilting has been upheld by a community of African American women for generations. Some of the most vital contributions to African American visual culture in the history of the United States, these quilts have also sparked crucial conversations on what we consider “art” versus “craft.” Amelia Peck, Marica F. Vilcek Curator of American Decorative Arts, challenges this distinction and the historically invalidating “domestic” label used by art critics. Learn more in the interview as she speaks on her essay “Quilt/Art: Deconstructing the Gee's Bend Quilt Phenomenon.”

The exhibition catalogue My Soul Has Grown Deep: Black Art from the American South is available at The Met Store and MetPublications.

The Artist Project: Andrea Bowers

“She’s expanding aesthetics to prioritize other colors or forms or textures that have been seen as nominal or insignificant or too feminine.”

The Artist Project is an online series in which contemporary artists respond to works of art in The Met collection. In this episode, feminist artist Andrea Bowers responds to the work of Howardena Pindell, an African American painter and mixed-media artist whose work explores artistic process and political issues such as racism and sexism. Through Pindell’s work, Bowers challenges the notion of art-making as a politically neutral act, and offers striking interpretations of her thematically rich oeuvre.

Lilith (1994)

The Met · 1985.1: Lilith

If you’ve ever had the chance to see Kiki Smith’s 1994 sculpture Lilith in person, you’ll know this art object is unexpected, startling, and just a little creepy. Located in a chance corner of the Modern and Contemporary Art wing, Lilith hangs off the wall at a surprising and unnatural angle. Listen as Ian Alteveer, Aaron I. Fleischman Curator, illuminates the feminist story behind this intriguing sculpture.

Jodi Archambault l Being Seen

“The world likes to see American Indians in the past, and that’s something that causes a lot of difficulty with being seen today in America.”

In this episode of Met Stories, Jodi Archambault, artist and former policy advisor to President Barack Obama, speaks about how the display of Native American art in museums affects how visible she feels as an Indigenous woman in America. Watch as she shares her heritage, upbringing, and a beaded dress she created, which communicates the narratives of both those before her and those to come.

Unearthing Hatshepsut, Egypt’s Most Powerful Female Pharaoh

[@portabletext/react] Unknown block type "__block", specify a component for it in the `components.types` propSeated statue of Hatshepsut on view in Gallery 115, alongside other objects depicting the pharaoh.

“How should a female pharaoh be depicted?”

Hatshepsut was the first important female ruler known to history. Though she is less widely known than her later successor Cleopatra (51–30 B.C.), Hatshepsut's two-decade reign (ca. 1473–1458 B.C.) brought remarkable economic prosperity and artistic ingenuity to Ancient Egypt. Learn about the story of her attempted erasure from human memory and the excavation of her feminine form in this article and the catalogue for the 2005 exhibition, Hatshepsut: From Queen to Pharaoh.

The Red Queen and Her Sisters: Women of Power in Golden Kingdoms

Mask of the Red Queen, A.D. 672. Mexico, Chiapas, Palenque, Temple XIII. Maya. Jadeite, malachite, shell, obsidian, limestone, H. 14 7/16 x W. 9 1/16 x D. 3 1/8 in. (36.7 x 23 x 8 cm). Museo de Sitio de Palenque "Alberto Ruz L'Huillier" (10-461006, 10-629739 0/39, 10-629740 5/55), Secretaría de Cultura—INAH

A jadeite funerary mask of the "Red Queen" from the seventh century A.D.

We are all too used to seeing women depicted on the periphery of history, if they’re mentioned at all. However, thanks to recent archaeological finds in Latin America, new light has been shed upon the power of high-status women in ancient American civilizations. Read more about the discovery of their exquisite ornaments and how these regalia complicate our understanding of gender roles in the ancient Americas.

Learn more about the exhibition Golden Kingdoms: Luxury and Legacy in the Ancient Americas.

Storytelling and West African Cinema

Still from Zin'naariyâ! (The Wedding Ring, 2016), written and directed by Rahmatou Keïta. Courtesy Sonrhay Empire Productions

Four women are seated around a bowl, looking upward toward the light

“Griots transmit knowledge from generation to generation. Every time a story is transmitted, it takes on new shape, and as such can be related to cinema and a director's interpretation of a story.”

Storytelling has been at the heart of Sahelian tradition for centuries. Griots, or jeliw, are the narrators of their culture’s oral traditions, history, and poetry. This article is presented in conjunction with a panel discussion moderated by Mahen Bonetti, founder and executive director of the African Film Festival, and Yaëlle Biro, Associate Curator of the Department of the Arts of Africa, Oceania, and the Americas. In it, filmmakers Rahmatou Keïta and Fanta Nacro explore parallels between cinema and orality, and each medium’s ability to pass down the collective memory of generations.

Learn more about orality in Sahelian tradition in Sahel: Art and Empires on the Shores of the Sahara, as well as its importance as a key source of information for historians today.

Wangechi Mutu on The NewOnes, will free Us

“I've chosen to stick with the subject of the female body as a platform for what we feel about ourselves as humans.”

In 2019, The Met invited Kenyan-American artist Wangechi Mutu to animate its historic facade. Mutu responded with The NewOnes, will free Us, four bronze caryatids that—rather than struggle against the weight of the building—stand before it fantastically. Listen as Mutu discusses the feminine strength within each figure, and the gender and racial politics with which they contend.

There are over two hundred caryatids in The Met collection—view them online.

The Met · Wangechi Mutu on The NewOnes, will free Us

These are just a few of the inspiring stories of women and art at The Met. Be sure to head to our YouTube channel and Perspectives for more video and editorial pieces celebrating women’s vast contributions to art history and society.

Lela Jenkins

Lela Jenkins is a MuSe Digital Intern in the Digital Department.