Inside the dimly lit SomaR Bar on Telegraph Avenue, there’s a massive painted image of a naked woman leaning on her side, grand odalisque style, with her thighs open and one leg hoisted in the air as she directs her gaze at the viewer. A semi-nude woman peeks out from behind her. Further along the bar’s brick wall, a set of sketches feature female taggers spray-painting the white paper they inhabit. The figures have donned rooster heads and wear only stiletto heels while striking poses worthy of Vogue magazine.
Such naked and unashamed figures are part of the show “Naked Ladies: Sexy. Raw. Owning it,” which began its run at a crowded reception during the First Friday Art Murmur on November 2. The exhibit features female-centric paintings, photographs, video art and mixed media created by 30 artists—mostly women—whose works deal with women’s ownership of their bodies, emotions and sexuality. People ages 21 and up can view the pieces inside SomaR Bar for one month. Feelmore 510, a sex shop on Telegraph Avenue, is exhibiting the show’s more X-rated visual fare for two months.
Each piece in the show was selected for its uninhibited representation of women. “We didn’t want the demure, the submissive nude,” said Christina Bohn, a co-curator of Femme Cartel, the primarily Oakland-based feminist art collective that organized the show. “We wanted ladies who were direct, confrontational and giving it.”
The bodies portrayed in the show are black, bronze, Asian, or white; they are shown with billowing curves, athletic builds, or slender frames with hints of stretch marks. The mostly female subjects either defiantly look at the viewer or sport a “This is me, so what?” posture. There’s also an element of street art in each piece. At SomaR, for instance, one canvas displays the cleavage of a tattooed tagger, her breasts concealed by the spray cans she has clutched in each hand.
Emily “Femily” Howe, an artist and the founder of Femme Cartel, helped select artwork that matched the collective’s feminist ethos. “I like a lady standing up, full force, facing the camera, baring it all, including their truths, their vulnerability, their bodies, their tattoos, their cellulite, their curves—every single thing that America needs and says women should hide,” she said.
During last week’s opening at SomaR, San Francisco resident Enrico Watson lounged on a leather couch, sipping his frosty beer. “I didn’t think they would put something so risqué in here,” he said, “but I appreciate it.”
Watson, 37 and a former Oakland resident, was most struck by a Warhol-esque oil painting created by artists Elaine Damasco and Mimi Seldner, he said. The piece, which is intended to play with the viewer’s perception of sex, gender and sexiness, features repetitive snapshots of a semi-nude, gender-neutral pair. Each person holds a placard over their chest that either reads “Are my Breasts Wholesome?” or “Are my Breasts Obscene?”
At the opening, as she looked at the art, bar patron Roma Munday, 31, recalled hearing her childhood friend’s dad once say, “’Naked’ is nasty and ‘nude’ is art and there’s a very fine line between the two.” The contradictions and double standard of that statement struck Munday, because it associates nakedness with shame and places restrictions on women’s portrayal of their own bodies, she said. “When you think of porn, it’s for the pleasure of someone else and not yourself,” Munday said about depictions of naked females. “In a lot of these paintings, it’s like they’re pleasing themselves instead.”
Femme Cartel chose SomaR and Feelmore 510 as the sites for the exhibit, Howe said, “because we knew they’d be allies to the naked lady cause. There’s so much good art about naked ladies and we’re never able to show it.”
She said that restrictions on where this kind of art can be displayed ultimately motivated the group to create a whole show around the theme. “In the past few shows, either the owner for the space or the curator had said to us, ‘You can put whatever art you want in here, but please don’t show any titties, please keep it G-rated,’” Howe said. “Now we’re showing fresh art that’s never been shown before, because certain other venues don’t want naked ladies on the wall.”
Feelmore 510’s owner Nenna Joiner welcomed the show into her shop after being inspired by pieces that, she said, displayed “the story around the body and not just the body behind the story. This show has stretch marks. The societal rejects are present.” At Feelmore, intricate drawings of big breasted, full-figured black women—some with braids, some with straightened hair—are on the walls wedged between counters stacked with sex toys.
Although the show’s organizers say postings about their event were flagged by Facebook and Flickr because the word “naked” appears in the name, the group specifically used it to separate its show from art displays that focus on the traditional nude. Throughout art history, Howe said, “The female nude has usually been a white, skinny, upper-class lady who’s lounging on a chair, eating some grapes, and mostly looking away from the camera or the painter.” That’s not what this show is about, she said. “Mostly, it’s about female power,” she said.
Howe helped form Femme Cartel after going to group shows in San Francisco, Oakland and Los Angeles in which few female artists were represented. “I would talk to the people organizing the shows,” she said, “and they were like, ‘We just can’t find female artists.’” Startled by this response, she said, she decided to challenge their claims. “I was like, ‘Oh, no. I can find them,’” she said. “I know all of these amazing lady artists who just aren’t getting out there.”
With help from Bohn and Leanne “El Rod” Rodriguez, the artist who originally named the collective, Howe gathered nearly 70 different artists who now have shows under the Femme Cartel moniker. “The whole point is we’re just putting good art out there,” Howe said.
Part of the group’s goal is also to help under-represented artists like painter Laura Gonzalez find a place in the mainstream art world. Gonzalez, 23, has been a Femme Cartel member for almost a year. At the opening, the Pleasant Hill resident pointed to “Trust,” one of her four paintings on the wall at SomaR. The small canvas shows the back of a semi-nude brunette, looking over her shoulder and directly at the viewer with one brow slightly furrowed and the other arched. “It’s the type of look a woman emotes when wrestling with trust in a relationship, Gonzalez said, and the subtle type of gaze her work revels in. “My artwork is really feminine and that’s what Femme Cartel is about,” she said.