a black woman wearing a blue suit with red and white stripes diagonally across the back; the subject has her back to the camera as she looks at a church
A screenshot from artist Jessa Ciel's 2021 video A Black Woman's Declaration of Independence, on view in "Occupy the Moment." Credit: Courtesy Women's Caucus for Art

Dr. Maura Reilly is a curator who understands feminist art. 

It is one of the reasons she was chosen to curate a historic exhibition at Bridgeport Art Center as a part of the 50th anniversary celebration of the Women’s Caucus for Art (WCA). The organization put out a call for self-identified women artists based in the U.S. to submit works on the theme of “Occupy the Moment, Intersect History with Impact,” and they received hundreds of entries. The resulting juried exhibition is on display at the center’s Fourth Floor Gallery until Friday, February 25. 

Dr. Reilly is the founding curator of the Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art at the Brooklyn Museum and the author of 2018’s Curatorial Activism: Towards an Ethics of Curating (Thames & Hudson). “Occupy the Moment, Intersect History with Impact” is an attempt to capture the important historic events taking place this year that affect women. Reilly describes this moment in her catalog essay as being “defined by fragmentation, right-wing extremism, political polarity, systemic racism and sexism, totalitarianism, a climate emergency, the ongoing colonialist legacy, toxic masculinity, and the continued misogynistic control of women’s bodies.”

Women’s Caucus for Art president Laura Morrison also explained in the catalog that the title of the exhibit was designed to reflect this year’s theme for WCA’s national conference, which is “Occupy the Moment: Embracing Our History, Enhancing Our Impact.”

Exultation, a relief print on Kinwashi by Laurie Talbot Hall.

“In 2022, we find ourselves two years into a global pandemic that has disproportionately made life more difficult for women across the globe,” Morrison wrote. “Now more than ever, the personal is deeply political to women artists. The artwork submitted covered a vast range of social and political topics including racism, reproductive rights, global warming, the environment, police brutality, economic disparity, misogyny, women’s work, the pandemic, politics and political figures, sexual harassment and abuse, mental health, labor, voting rights, gun violence, nuclear disarmament, world peace, refugees and immigration, gender and wage disparity, domestic violence, the patriarchy, gender and power, women leaders and activists, feminism and feminist history.”

Reilly chose 42 pieces of art for the exhibition that she felt represented where women are in 2022. She told me in a recent phone conversation that most of the entries were political in nature, and the politics were expressed in conversations about race, gender, trans rights, police brutality, abortion rights, and climate change.

“Women artists are really grappling and showcasing for us the realities of the situation for women globally,” Reilly said. “We are facing very serious dangers as women. It is an opportune moment to have an exhibition that showcases that.”

“Occupy the Moment, Intersect History with Impact
Through 2/25: Mon-Sat, 8 AM-6 PM, Sun, 8 AM-noon, Bridgeport Art Center, 1200 W. 35th, 773-843-9000, bridgeportart.com

Not all the works in the exhibition are political. Reilly categorizes some as quiet and meditative works, and other pieces humorous. Some are even positive and hopeful about the future. 

“We are so imbued with politics at the moment that I think I was more keen and inclined toward the political work, but I didn’t want [the exhibition] to be fully political,” Reilly said. “I wanted some of these different perspectives and beautiful works.”

Reilly was tasked with judging the entries completely anonymously, and, as such, she only later learned who the artists were. It turned out that many artists she chose were self-taught. The artists in “Occupy the Moment” represent a large age range, and the exhibition even includes a drawing by 14-year-old Shabad Singh which examines the past, present, and future of the fight for women’s rights. There are also works by more established feminist artists such as Carol Cole and Mimi Smith.

The exhibition includes paintings, sculpture, collage, mixed media, videos, drawings, and craft-based work. Reilly was unable to personally hang the exhibition, but she worked closely with Noreen Dean Dresser, the vice president for WCA special events, who was on the ground and able to help Reilly achieve her vision. The exhibition was originally slated to be part of a full weekend’s worth of celebrations and conferences in Chicago honoring the golden anniversary of WCA, but most events were canceled in deference to the recent COVID-19 upsurge.

Reilly’s goal in selecting work was to capture as many different voices as possible. Some themes showed up more often than others and she worked to balance them. 

Casa en el oceano, a photograph mounted on aluminum by artist Allicette Torres.

“I wasn’t going to make 30 of the 42 chosen works about [Black Lives Matter],” Reilly said. “There are three or four works about BLM in the show, and that gave me an opportunity [to also include] works on bipolar disorder or the aging body, whimsical conversations with male modernist masters. I tried to capture as many voices as possible. There is a great image of a house that is sinking after a hurricane ravaged Puerto Rico dealing with climate change. There is a beautiful portrait of two little Native American girls.”

While the exhibition deals with many intense issues, Reilly said there is nothing explicit or too difficult to look at in any of the entries. Parents can feel comfortable taking their kids to see the show. They might have to do some explaining to provide context, such as explaining what the George Floyd protests were about or what toxic masculinity is. 

It is a show she hopes Chicagoans of all ages will attend and engage with.

“It is an important show because of the history of the WCA and the current sociopolitical moment,” Reilly said. “If you want to see what women artists today have to say about where we are, then you should go out of the way to see this really beautiful show.”