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RE/SISTERS: A Lens on Gender and Ecology at Barbican

Updated: Oct 25

For some inexplicable reason, I headed for the RE/SISTERS exhibition at the Barbican Centre hoping to see the visual explanation of how and why gender inequality and climate change are interconnected, as discussed in the article by the UN Women. Admittedly, the exhibition presented no obvious connection that would have led to an astounding “aha” moment, but I was indeed captivated by the diverse efforts of women from all corners of the world striving to save our exploitable planet.

As I entered the first gallery, I was immediately immersed in the exposure of land use and its implications. It was clear from the outset that the exhibition aimed to tackle pressing concerns related to ecological challenges, although at that point I didn’t quite discern the gender inequality narrative. Never mind, I found fascinating examples of female leadership in the next room.

Imagen de Yagul, Ana Mendieta, Barbican
Imagen de Yagul (performance by Ana Mendieta, 1973/1991)

The photographs of the women's camp at Greenham Common in England, and the Women's Encampment for a Future of Peace and Justice in upstate New York told a compelling story about the persistent commitment to peace and justice and the power of collective action that’s so relevant in today’s world of geopolitical injustice and suffering. However, Chipko Tree Huggers of the Himalayas by Pamela Singh came across as the most admirable form of resistance.

Singh’s series of photographs depict the Chipko movement formed by the female villagers from the villages of the Garhwal Hills in the Himalayas in Uttarakhand, India. Apparently, their calm and peaceful embrace of the trees was an attempt to save them from state- and industry-sanctioned loggers. What fascinated me was that these women not only connected with nature, stood in their position but also successfully saved the trees. Aesthetically, these photographs exude serenity and determination, as the women's resolute stance amid the tranquil forest or field settings may be viewed as a symbol of the enduring power of peaceful ecofeminism and a profound connection to nature.

Chipko Tree Huggers of the Himalayas (Pamela Singh, 1994/2023), Barbican, London, ecofeminism, environmentalism, feminism, art
Chipko Tree Huggers of the Himalayas (Pamela Singh, 1994/2023)

Compared to all the other participating artists with their daring pieces, Cuban-born American artist Ana Mendieta probably got deepest into nature in her work Imágen de Yágul by placing her body in an ancient Zapotec tomb at the pre-Hispanic Mesoamerican site of Yágul in Mexico. The gallery label suggested that fresh flowers emerging out of Mendieta's body mirror the natural cycle of life and death, but to me, it seemed to evoke poignant thoughts on the imminent fragility of human existence and expose the naked fact of mortality in the intersection of history and the current moment. While it appeared as a very compelling piece by a female artist blending herself with nature, I found it difficult to distinguish any ecofeminist properties which obviously was in misalignment with the gist of the exhibition.

environmental photohraphy, Barbican centre, art exhibition
The photograph displays Vietnamese houses destroyed by erosion, caused by the damming and sand dredging works in the Mekong river

While RE/SISTERS didn’t explicitly expose the link between gender inequality and capitalism-driven ecological degradation, it still appeared as an intensely thought-provoking exhibition that presented powerful visual evidence of global women being at the forefront of advocating and caring for the Earth. However, while the artists raised important questions and exposed the implications of capitalism, the exhibition could have gone a step further by offering pathways toward sustainable change. After all, aren't artists the ones whose boundless imagination could create groundbreaking solutions for the future?

Barbican Centre

Silk St, Barbican, London EC2Y 8DS, UK

Open until 14 January 2024

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