At the Oakland Museum of California, a security guard who introduces herself as “Miss D” gives visitors a warm welcome into the gallery. She discusses a few of the famous activists featured in the “Hella Feminist” exhibit; her favorite is Angela Davis. Some of the art is a little wild and provocative, she says with a smile, but there has never been a more necessary time to question and expand one’s understanding of feminism.
The immersive multimedia exhibition “Hella Feminist,” on display through January 2023, combines historical perspectives with contemporary art to tell stories of Bay Area feminists. Divided into three sections — mind, body and spirit — each thematic layer builds upon the last to weave a deeply intersectional narrative.
Originally planned to open in 2020, honoring the 100th anniversary of the 19th amendment that gave white women the right to vote, “Hella Feminist” is somehow even more relevant in 2022. In the shadow of the Roe v. Wade reversal and a renewed movement for reproductive rights, visitors feel a new sense of urgency.
The prelude to the exhibit is a dark room filled with silhouettes of shapewear and silk undergarments, a solemn and intimate look at the most private elements of womanhood. Most horrifying is a “nursing corset” circa 1881, which supposedly makes room for pregnancy and breastfeeding while still suffocating the wearer’s innards like a medieval torture device. It prompts the viewer to contemplate just how much women have been forced to shrink themselves throughout history to remain an object of desire.
“The Mind” opens with a simplified overview of the four waves of feminism, but it quickly dives deeper into bits of niche local history — notably a brown vest and beret from the Oakland Radical Monarchs (an activism group for young girls of color) and a protest sign and sticker from Ohlone activists with demands to rematriate the land. Each recent cultural artifact provides a window into the real people behind various intersectional movements.
Next, “The Body” reflects on pleasure and pain, from a cheeky rainbow of sex toys to a wall of audio stories by abortion doulas. Many artists in this section attempt to reclaim the female nude from the male gaze, adding elements to reflect other complexities like race, class and disability. The exhibit jumps at every opportunity to include other marginalized identities, reflecting the diversity of the Bay Area.
One corner of the gallery is entirely devoted to multiple video installations by Xandra Ibarra, an Oakland-based performance artist who embraces taboos and transformations. In one short film, she uses her own period blood to make Rorschach-style inkblots in a mesmerizing kaleidoscope of shapes, paired with an Oedipal monologue about sexual development. In another, she aligns herself with the figure of a cockroach experiencing metamorphosis, cyclically shedding and reinhabiting the skin of her burlesque showgirl persona.
Finally, “The Spirit” brings “Hella Feminist” to a natural, cathartic end by focusing on mourning and collective healing. This section features traditionally feminine arts such as weaving, with unconventional materials, including real human hair. There’s also a quiet meditation space called the “Restorative Realm,” which seems slightly artificial in a museum setting, but is an interesting component nonetheless. Separated from the rest of the exhibit by a curtain, it consists of a divine altar and a reading nook with books about witches, spells and historical healing practices.
The exhibit’s final culmination is “Museoexclusion Exorcism,” a massive hanging textile in the form of Coatlicue, the Mexican goddess of earth. Each of the 29 different contributors added a personal token to symbolize their struggle with femininity and patriarchy. The piece functions as a mirror, a cleansing ritual and an offering all at once.
In the end, “Hella Feminist” proves that no element of feminism – mind, body or spirit – can be separated. Instead, they must be addressed as one.