Exploring the role of art in activism and ecofeminism

Why are women such prominent players in the fight against climate change?


By Abigail Ashford


Three women in particular have emerged as figureheads in the burgeoning campaign against climate change. In the United States, Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez is fighting for her Green New Deal, which aims to develop a carbon neutral economy within the next decade, whilst also incorporating policies to tackle social inequality. Dr Gail Bradbrook has engineered a popular protest movement that you might have heard of – Extinction Rebellion, which aims to propel the dramatic scientific realities of climate change into the public eye by putting pressure on the British government. Sixteen-year-old Greta Thunberg has also inspired youth strikes around the world, becoming a spokesperson and role model for the generation now inheriting a critically damaged environment.


All three women share a passion for the future of our so-called ‘mother earth’. Each also looks to history to develop their activism. From the three-pronged ‘Relief Reform Recover’ strategy enacted by Roosevelt in 1933, to the civil disobedience tactics of the 60s and earlier women’s suffrage movements, twentieth century social history has provided a resource for today’s campaigners. Moreover, the history of cultural connections drawn between women, animals, and nature has paved the way for feminists to integrate ecological justice into their ongoing fight for equality. Visual culture has long provoked and expressed challenges against patriarchal representations, and art’s ability to layer meanings can connect audiences with socio-political threats. The Guerrilla Girls’ challenges to racism and sexism in the guise of an endangered animal is a case in point. By looking back at this history, we can explore the work of female artists who weave together gendered oppressions, demonstrating the enduring importance of ecofeminist perspectives in both art and activism going forward.


Ecofeminism developed, in part, as a response to the overwhelmingly white and male face of the modern animal rights movement in the 1980s. Therefore, social movement integration, bringing together campaigns competing for historical space, has always been at the heart of ecofeminism. Sociologist Ariel Salleh argues that, by finding a common denominator, rights groups can join forces and collectively engage with environmental problems. Simultaneously, environmentalism can then avoid an elitist and disenfranchising praxis. This common denominator may be the fact that we are all both in and of the natural world. Or maybe, that the model of patriarchal privilege is the root and stem from which all other related forces of discrimination branch.

Photography National Anti-Vivisection Society via Encyclopaedia Britannica


In the early 20th century, a wave of anti-vivisection riots, centring around the Brown Dog statue erected in Battersea in 1906, united British trade unionists, feminists, and animal advocates. Carol Adams and Lori Gruen, co-authors of Ecofeminism: Feminist Intersections with Other Animals and the Earth (2014), suggest that these women and workers identified with the animal victims of vivisection, recognising their own condition in the animals’ tortuous fate. According to Adams and Gruen, progressive politics has gone hand in hand with vegetarianism and animal advocacy since the 19th century. They cite the writer Edith Ward, who published an article in an early feminist newspaper in 1892, asking readers:


“What, for example, could be more calculated to produce brutal wife-beaters than long practice of savage cruelty towards the other animals? And what, on the other hand, more likely to impress mankind with the necessity of justice for women than the awakening of the idea that justice was the right of even an ox or a sheep?” – Edith Ward

Ward recognised that the case for animals was also the case for women – both groups exist within the same inequitable system of power. Feminist scholar Rosemary Radford Ruether later reiterated this stance, stating that “women’s inferiorization to men is modelled after the inferiorization of non-human nature to ‘man’ and vice-versa.” Contesting dominant ideological codes, ecofeminism challenges hierarchical dualisms of human over nature, man over women, white over non-white, economy over ecology, and so on. The privileging of one group over another does not occur in isolation but within a network, like a rhizome. Compartmentalising and labelling social problems as discrete from one another only functions to obscure the real perpetrators and creates false divides between oppressed groups who are forced to compete for air-time on the global stage.


Silueta Works in Mexico (1973-1977) Ana Mendieta via The Museum of Contemporary Art


Coinciding with the stirrings of ecofeminism in 1970s America, Cuban artist Ana Mendieta (1948-1985) created works of land art in Iowa and Mexico, forging connections between the female body and the Earth. In her ‘Silhuetta’ series (begun in 1973) Mendieta repeatedly represented an omnipresent but paradoxically absent ghost of a woman in bark, leaf, mud, stone, and flowers, fusing a feminine shape with natural materials and geological formations. Despite their quasi-religious beauty, the haunting compositions, like the chalked outlines delineating bodies at a crime scene, develop and recall her performances of the previous decade – where the artist had called attention to the horrors of rape and murder faced by women. Of her work, Mendieta stated:


“My art is grounded in the belief of one universal energy which runs through everything from insect to man, from man to spectre, from spectre to plant, from plant to galaxy. My works are the irrigation veins of this universal fluid... My art comes out of rage and displacement” – Ana Mendieta

Evidently then, Mendieta’s works are not merely essentialising representations of the intrinsic link between womanhood and the earth; they are an attempt to resituate life on earth within a rhizome-like system, through which everything can be ‘irrigated’ and replenished collectively. Women’s representation is one vital part of this system. Women have often been theorised as ‘property’ and a ‘natural resource’ in political economy, while nature has been feminized and commodified culturally and linguistically in the anthropocentric nature-culture divide, justifying its exploitation. Drawing on her own experiences of rage and injustice as a woman and a refugee, Mendieta’s silhouettes are vivid sociological depictions of a nature that has been inferiorized and manipulated; one that jointly bears the scars of the violence perpetrated against both women and minorities. 


Washing River, 洗河 (1995) Yin Xiuzhen © 2016 Asia Art Archive


Yin Xiuzhen is another artist whose practice visualises ecofeminist thinking, promoting an ethics of care as an alternative to the dominant logic of rationality. Since the 1990s, the Chinese contemporary artist has used her practice to document and memorialise vulnerable sections of society within a rapidly modernising economy. She focused in particular on those displaced by urbanisation and left adrift in a capitalist society that is very different to the one in which they grew up.


China’s globalisation since the 1980s, and the Party’s importation of Western industrial techniques, has led to dangerously high levels of pollution that affect the daily lives of millions of citizens. Upon discovering the high toxicity of the Funan river in 1995, Yin commenced a performance installation project that saw her collect the contaminated river water and freeze it into bricks, creating a wall of ice which the public were then invited to help her wash. Conventionally a feminised activity, this symbolic act of cleaning invited a collective and caring response to the ailing natural world. In terms of conceptual content, the piece is loaded with ideas of impermanence and fragile beauty, a metaphor for melting icecaps and retreating glaciers. Through the public’s involvement, a new community of caretakers was created, cleaning up the proverbial mess generated by industrialisation. In a 2013 interview Yin discussed her maternal anxieties around air pollution in Beijing:


“Air should not be a luxury, but it is now for us. I feel very happy every time I see a blue sky. No matter how busy I am I will spend some time outside to take some deep breaths. I will also tell my child that she can run a few more circles in her PE class. But when the air is not good, I will tell her not to go outside even if her teacher asks her to. I told her, if she is asked to go out to do some exercise on a bad day, just say, ‘my mother does not allow me to go out today’. Of course I worry that the teachers will not be happy, but my daughter’s health is much more important” – Yin Xiuzhen

Washing River (1995) © Yin Xiuzhen & Pace Gallery, Londres, New-York, Beijing


In Reweaving the World: The Emergence of Ecofeminism (1990), Cynthia Hamilton presents case studies which show poor and minority communities to “shoulder a disproportionately high share of the [toxic] by-products of industrial development” and reveals the history of “concerned mothers coming out to protest [ecological] damage that is simultaneously impinging of the health of their families and communities.” The imagery of female sacrifice that infuses Mendieta’s artworks, and the fear and helplessness that Yin attempts to assuage through her art, conjures up this often-hidden reality, whereby women, positioned as care-givers, are drawn into ecological preservation in order to protect children and the earth-bound domestic sphere.


But surely feminists cannot simply settle for this kind of care-giving role they have so long fought to distance themselves from? And why should women eternally be expected to clean up after men? But, as Radford Ruethers points out, the positioning of women as caretakers of children and small animals, the gatherers of plants, the weavers, the cooks, and the cleaners has historically been deemed inferior to the predominant roles of men under patriarchy. This functions to prop up the simultaneous inferiorisation of women and the non-human world. The domination of both groups concurrently maintains the interests of white men at the top of the pyramid. It follows then, that by revaluing nature and our place within it, ecofeminism can insist that women’s liberation must be about “the converting of patterns of patriarchal domination for women and men into a new relationship of mutuality”, rather than just a project of “women gaining rights and access to the same alienating and dominating roles as men.” Sharing in the capitalist destruction of the natural world should not be misconstrued as gender equality, particularly when women around the world have been shown to suffer most from the ensuing instability.

As Adams and Gruen remind us, revisiting stereotypes and examining harmful depictions unites many social change movements. Art is an essential part of the ecofeminist toolkit, a crucial medium for asserting ecological interconnectedness into the public sphere. Artists such as Ana Mendieta and Yin Xiuzhen, who re-inscribe oppressive attitudes and offer alternative representations of women and the non-human world, can create tangible convergences between social movements. This is in line with an ecofeminist disavowal of established hierarchies, in favour of collective action. Today’s environmental organisations must take note, to avoid the trap of representing only white middle-class voices and experiences. After all, as Yin puts it: “no matter what ideas you have, you have to live on Earth...”