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Park Avenue Armory Honors Women's Suffrage In New Show

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

You probably heard a lot about this year being the 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment. That's the one that gave women in this country the right to vote. A group of artists has been asked to reinterpret that history, and some of them are focusing on who did not benefit. Their work appears in a new show hosted online by the Park Avenue Armory in New York City. It's called "100 Years

100 Women." NPR's Rose Friedman has more.

ROSE FRIEDMAN, BYLINE: The Park Avenue Armory began this project more than a year ago, sending out a call to partner organizations all over the city asking them to nominate artists. They were asked to consider what a hundred years of women's suffrage meant. The question seemed pretty vague to Joan Dwiartanto.

JOAN DWIARTANTO: This is kind of, like, make something about women, something about this amendment. And we're all, like, OK.

FRIEDMAN: Dwiartanto studies dance at the Juilliard School - remotely now - which selected her and a group of other students to participate in the Armory Show. She spoke to me from her home in Singapore.

DWIARTANTO: I'm not a U.S. citizen, so I don't really know about the history, so I thought maybe I should go search this up. And I realized that it's not that simple - that it wasn't just, like, women didn't get the vote, and then the 19th Amendment, and then they got the vote. It was never that easy.

FRIEDMAN: For women of color, there were still plenty of other ways to suppress the vote - Jim Crow laws, literacy tests, even denying citizenship. After the Juilliard artists learned about the often frustrating history of women's enfranchisement, they decided to make a film set to a jazz score. All of the dancers shot their parts from home.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

FRIEDMAN: The abstract action builds to a chaotic high, broken by a silence that Dwiartonto says represents the halting progress of women's empowerment. But the music also keeps a steady beat.

DWIARTANTO: This constant pulse. And it seemed to go along with how women are always keeping their foot on the gas and that there is this - always this desire to, like, keep going.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

FRIEDMAN: For Staceyann Chin, another artist in the show, that whole notion of progress was one she wanted to question.

STACEYANN CHIN: I think for Black women, it is particularly painful in that Black women have been at the supportive center of most movements throughout the history of our presence in the Americas, and we have been consistently left behind.

FRIEDMAN: In her piece, she stands alone in front of the camera.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

CHIN: One hundred years after white women penned six volumes of the history of women's suffrage without acknowledging Mary Church Terrell or Harriet Tubman, we are still fighting for you to add our issues to the feminist agenda, even at these modern marches where Black women remain the backbone of political protest in the 21st century. We are still swimming against the same tide of racism Black women suffragists had to break through when they said [expletive] you in 1913 to the white feminists insisting they go to the back of the line.

FRIEDMAN: Black women were also the focus of Rashida Bumbray's work for the show. Bumbray is normally a choreographer. She'd planned a dance performance. But when the pandemic shut the Armory down, she adapted her idea into a video.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED MUSICAL ARTIST #1: (Singing) I wade the water to my knees.

UNIDENTIFIED MUSICAL ARTIST #2: (Singing) I'm gonna (ph) pray, gonna pray.

UNIDENTIFIED MUSICAL ARTIST #1: (Singing) Wade the water to my knees.

RASHIDA BUMBRAY: We go into an image of a woman braiding a child's hair. And it really is about the kind of nurturing and intimacy of that exchange.

FRIEDMAN: As she braids, the woman lays grains of rice along the child's head and then weaves them into the hairstyle. Bumbray says it was historically a way to protect loved ones before the separation of the Middle Passage or before escaping slavery.

BUMBRAY: Our grooming was actually quite intentional and a way of giving a sort of armor to someone.

FRIEDMAN: Bumbray says she was interested in how nurturing and bravery go hand-in-hand. She cites civil rights activist John Lewis walking across the Edmund Pettus Bridge.

BUMBRAY: What kind of nurturing was given to him that enabled him to do that, right - to have that level of peace? And I think there's a similar thing when we think about voting rights. Black women, while we're left out of that kind of immediate history - clearly, we are a part of that history, and clearly we had that kind of intentionality and armor to be at the forefront of these kind of struggles and not receive any of the benefits of them for many years.

BUMBRAY: Not feeling those benefits isn't just exhausting - it's dehumanizing.

FRIEDMAN: For many of these artists, expressing that is their life's purpose. But Staceyann Chin says it doesn't have to be that way.

CHIN: I would like to see what kind of artist I would be if I were writing about mountains and trees and how satisfying my life is and how safe my little girl is. And I would like to make that kind of art - at least see if I can make it. You know, who knows? Perhaps if such a thing called utopia happened, I would have no work because I would have nothing to write about. But I would give up my art for utopia. I would give up the life of making art if the exchange would be a world where we would be safe. I think I want to be safe more than I want to make art.

FRIEDMAN: But for now, the art gives voice to the work still to be done.

Rose Friedman, NPR News, New York.

(SOUNDBITE OF TAKU'S "FAIRY TALE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.