The University Record, March 4, 2002

Exhibition shows undergraduates ancient women of power

By Joanne Nesbit

News and Information Services

The Angry Wife, an engraving by Israhel van Meckenem (Image courtesy Museum of Art)
“Women Who Ruled: Queens, Goddesses, Amazons 1500–1650,” on exhibit at the U-M Museum of Art (UMMA) through May 5, is the impetus for a campuswide cultural opportunity and learning experience for undergraduate students.

Drawing on its own resources and those of world-renowned museums and private collections, the UMMA has integrated a wide variety of teaching and learning experiences that bring students into direct contact with not only these art works but also the scholarship accompanying them. These opportunities demonstrate once again the commitment of the University and its Public Good Council to offer U-M students access to extraordinary collections of written, visual, performance and ecological resources and to engage students with these resources in creative, stimulating ways. These experiences deepen the students’ learning, engendering a lifelong appreciation for the arts and humanities, and contributing to their personal and professional development.

“This exhibition, and the many courses, performances and film showings organized around it, is a wonderful antidote to the cliché that women have been powerless, and a wonderful complication of our understanding of the power they had,” says Shirley Newman, dean of LS&A. “We learn from it not only that some women did have power—and a lot of it—but also about the ways they used their power and the ways that others, both men and women, understood their power and related to it. It tells us about women in power to be sure, but also about power itself, about gendered differences in the perception and representation of power, about the differences between women who had power and women who didn’t. We come away from it richer in our understanding of women’s history and human history and richer in our thinking about the ethics of power.”

With 100 masterworks from 45 collections around the globe, and nearly 100 courses ranging from “Gender and Sexuality in Shakespeare” and “Art in the Courts of Baroque Europe” to “Representations of Women in Hip Hop,” students can choose from a myriad of classes in the mini-theme semester, “Powerful Women, Powerful Images.”

“I really got an in-depth look at how the UMMA operates,” said Marie Susanne Barda, an LS&A student majoring in English who helped with the research for the exhibition through the Undergraduate Research Opportunity Program (UROP). “Through this project, affiliated with my class on Women and the Community, I reflected on women and their role in art and as historical figures.”

Women as historical figures and as the subject of artists prompted exhibit curator Annette Dixon to say, “This was an age fascinated by the troublesome sight of a plethora of women in power, and in which images of real queens, female warriors, Olympian goddesses, heroines and seductresses from the Bible, literature and ancient history, were part of the everyday visual vocabulary.”

“The many diverse activities of the theme semester broaden the historical and cultural coverage presented by the exhibition to deal with a wide range of intersecting themes,” says Donna Ainsworth, lecturer in the Women’s Studies Program. “Those themes include gender, power, representation, ethnicity, class and the negotiation of control in representations of women in the arts, humanities, social sciences and sciences. The theme semester is a wonderful opportunity for students to examine the very real issues of gender, power, and representation in an academic context.”

While students are all admitted free to the exhibition, U-M students also can avail themselves of free art videos, panel discussions, lectures and dance performances.

Lectures available include one by Tony and Pulitzer Prize winning playwright Wendy Wasserstein about the role of women in 20th-century America March 26. Another lecture by U-M Professor of Theater Glenda Dickerson will address “Venus and the Virgin Vagina: A Space Shuttle for Free Women” April 4.

Additional information can be found at www.umich.edu/~umma. More details on the theme semester is at www.lsa.umich.edu/women/themesemester/.