We are Our Own Muses: WOMAN Female-Only Art Exhibition Curated by Photographer Savannah Spirit

"We are unique beauty, we are strong, we are equal, we are body-positive, we are elegant, we are powerful, we are vulnerable, and we are all encompassing. Love is the essence of being a woman. Women are everything. In motherhood, sisterhood or alone, we understand ourselves in relation to the world. We relate to the struggle to be heard, but now we have a voice. We are our own muses. We can be anything we want."

Reflecting on the notions of femininity, self-love, and empowerment, in collaboration with Undercurrent Projects, Photographer and Art Curator Savannah Spirit launched a digital-only exhibition celebrating women's relationships with one another, as well as the intimate coherence between gender and sexuality. The show aims to challenge the status quo of societal expectations and unrealistic beauty standards imposed on women. Presenting an inclusive shared vision of womanhood in the 21st century, the exhibition on view until May 1st celebrates the gaze of one woman's eye on another, as each photographer offers her own liberating and authentic truth.

From a digital-only approach to bringing light on femininity via the lenses of female artists, WOMAN is disruptive in many ways, and we couldn't fail to share the wisdom from Savannah Spirit, the woman behind it.

OPENLETR: Hey Savannah, glad to have you for an interview. I'm really intrigued by your background. Can you tell me about yourself?

Savannah: Thank you for the opportunity to speak with OPENLETR. I’m an artist based in New York, originally from LA. I come from a family of visual artists and songwriters, so it was natural for me to become an artist as well or do something in the arts. I’ve been shooting photos since grade school, and received my first camera when I was 13.

Flash forward many years later, I arrived in NYC in 2005 from Portland, OR to finish my fine arts degree at Parsons. A few years ago, I started shooting self-portraits, as an exploration of self-esteem and body acceptance. In all the years I had been shooting photos, I never turned the camera on myself. As an activist, I have captured protests from Occupy Wall Street to Black Lives Matter and the Women’s March. Also, I've been curating shows in Manhattan and Brooklyn for the last 10 years, mainly in underground and alternative spaces. I’m mostly known for curating an erotica series called, Hotter Than July, which I hope to curate again soon.

OPENLETR: You recently launched a digital photography exhibition on Artsy called a cross-generational showcase of 11 women's body of work. What does this show stand for as a part of your personal beliefs system?

Savannah: One of the lines in the statement is, “we are our own muses.” For me, that cuts to the heart of what I’m saying about the show. Right now, women are owning power, lifting the veil off misogyny, sexism, and the old guard. More women than ever before inhabit this earth, and we are being heard in a big way. It’s a great time to be a woman even though we have a long way to go. Putting the show up on Artsy allows for an even wider audience, and the more people see these artists online, the more chance there is to educate people about women in the arts, specifically female photographers, which is why I decided to partner with women only. It’s funny yet sad when you look at it; showing female photographers with women as subjects had a hint of irony since there are more photos of women than there are women photographers.

OPENLETR: How did you come to collaborate with 11 women photographers?

Savannah: I specifically picked work that had an effect on me when I saw it, and of women I’ve long since admired throughout my career like Ellen von Unwerth and Deborah Turbeville. Nona Faustine’s White Shoes series blew me away when I first discovered it. It’s such brave work. Her images in this show deepened the message “we are our own muse.” Her work along with all the other artists are helping me say something important, so their participation is everything. Working with the galleries who represent some of the photographers was also very collaborative. In a show like this, you aren’t putting physical work on the walls, but rather acquiring permission to use images of their artists' work. It was great to work with these galleries, because they understood the mission.

OPENLETR: Have you personally experienced any self-esteem issues or discrimination based on your gender?

Savannah: Yes, there’s always going to be some self-esteem issues for me that I need to work on. My pin-up series was about that. Owning my beauty and accepting my flaws. I was just telling a woman I know yesterday that it takes time and energy to unravel all the unhealthy parts of our childhood to let go of all the negative beliefs we grew up with as girls, and maturing into a woman. But that’s what art does for me. It makes me examine parts of myself, much like a therapist. It helps me understand myself. I think most women in the working world have experienced discrimination in their field. And sexism still happens everyday. Recently, I was harassed by someone at a high profile company, which I reported the next day. When it happened, I was shocked given the impact of the #metoo and Time’s Up movements, but it is still happening unfortunately. I was truly taken aback, as it came out of nowhere. As women, we have to stand up for ourselves EVERY... SINGLE... DAY... It never ends.

OPENLETR: How do you see the different feminist movements impacting the community of artists? 

Savannah: When all these different approaches to the conversation collide, it makes one powerful statement, which is “we are only getting bigger.” It’s affecting more people, and because we are so connected to each other now, the voice automatically becomes global. Artists have more chances to speak up than before due to social media. Also the 4th wave isn’t leaving men out of this collective conversation. Men are joining us, walking with us, creating work about it, talking to us about it. And it’s a beautiful thing.

OPENLETR: In terms of gender gap in the arts, what have you noticed?

Savannah: It’s a great time to be a woman in the arts with many more ways to get work shown; however, women are still underrepresented and underpaid. Though, the gap is better than it was 20 years ago with its uphill battle, there’s still imbalance as men are favored. It is a great feeling to see more shows highlighting female artists. We need more of them globally, as art by women isn’t as popular as art made of women.

OPENLETR: What is your personal aesthetic and approach as a curator?

Savannah: My aesthetic as a curator comes from the same approach that I have with my own work. I choose art that gives me a reaction. It has to be visceral and intuitive. When curating, I start with an idea or a vision of what I want to say, much like when I’m planning a shoot. I try to go with my gut as much as possible. Curating is another outlet for me to be creative. It inspires my own work, because I’m open to different styles, genres, and media. I’m able to get outside my head for a while, and focus on something totally different. In the case of WOMAN, I was envisioning what I wanted to say, but was having a tough time writing it out. I needed to see the work first, I couldn't start writing the intent.

OPENLETR: What would you say is the hardest part of being a photographer first then a curator? Do you tend to be more judgmental of others' work?

Savannah: As a photographer you work singularly. I mean, for the most part, photographers are buried in their viewfinder though sometimes a team is involved. For me, I have to turn the switch and become the wrangler, the producer, the director. In fact, I suggest to young artists to curate as much as they can to see what kind of work goes into it. It’s not easy, because you are dealing with other personalities, but you have to be willing to be flexible.

As an artist first, I tend to critique and judge my own work much more than I do others', but that’s normal. I know what I love in other artists' work right away, and I know what I hate about my own work right away. Human nature.

OPENLETR: Generally speaking, women tend to be reticent when partnering with other women based on different biases such as "women are too emotional." What differences have you noticed in a female-only collaboration vs. working with men?

Savannah: I never found that bias to be true. I have worked with a few strong women who have really valued the work we were doing together. In some ways, it’s men that can be on the more emotional side. Some men can’t handle the input of a woman, let alone a strong woman. As sexism still exists in all fields, for me it really comes down to choosing not to work with people with that view. When I see it happen, I get out of the situation. It’s happened before and it’s uncomfortable. It’s a waste of energy to work with people who don’t value what you bring to the table. It’s about respecting the other person.

OPENLETR: Has your personal motto evolved as you grew into an enabler?

Savannah: Yes, I’ve always liked the idea of nurturing younger artists. I think it comes from my family background. Growing up, my parents told and showed me that I was valued, and that my voice as an artist mattered. One of my own obstacles is believing it, and that's my personal art demon. I know it is a common and shared feeling to want to be valued, so curating enables me to let people know that their work is appreciated and valued, and that they matter.

Photo courtesy of WOMAN. Cover photo by Nona Faustine. Featured artist Lillian Bassman, Ellen von Unwerth, Sasha Phyars-Burgess, Simone Seven, Louise Dahl-Wolfe, Savannah Spirit, Mona Kuhn, Monica Orozco, and Elinor Carucci.