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100 years, 100 women: female artists celebrate the right to vote

In 1998, New York artist Renee Cox created Chillin’ with Liberty, where the artist photographs herself sitting atop the Statue of Liberty. Made with an early version of Photoshop, it was a comment on female power – France gifted the statue to America in 1886, a time when women couldn’t vote.

“It’s called the Statue of Liberty and yet, women didn’t have any rights at that point,” says Cox. “This is a piece about the suffragettes fighting for women’s rights.”

Now, this piece and many more are part of a digital exhibition 100 Years, 100 Women, which celebrates a century of women’s suffrage in America. The site goes live with a virtual watch party at 2pm ET on Tuesday, the day the 19th amendment was ratified in 1920, and over 100 artworks are presented as part of a program by New York’s Park Avenue Armory.

“For the centennial of the 19th amendment, we’re celebrating the legacy of the women’s movement and looking at what work needs to still be done,” says Avery Willis Hoffman, the Park Avenue Armory’s program director. “Our goal was to have a diversity of race and definitions of women, gender non-binary, two spirit and other respondents that are thinking about womanhood.”

Renee Cox’s Chillin’ with Liberty, from 1998.

The project is created in partnership with the National Black Theatre alongside nine other cultural organizations (including the Apollo Theater and the Metropolitan Museum of Art), who have each selected artists, scholars, activists and community leaders to participate

“To assess where we are on the cultural landscape at this moment, we’re asking, how can we uplift women and honor the women’s movement?” asks Hoffman. “Not just talk about the issues, but how can we rally around and uplift women?”

On the site, there’s a profile for each woman alongside artworks, including a video by Carrie Mae Weems called Hold on Tight, where the artist explains what the centennial means to her. “Women are not yet considered equal to men with the same rights and the same privileges,” says Weems in the film. “It means the fight for equity continues and will for the foreseeable future.”

There a piece by Jennifer Ling Datchuk that shows a homemade American flag on a dead-end street, while an artwork that pays tribute to Breonna Taylor, by Nekisha Durrett, uses fallen leaves from a tree in a Washington cemetery. On them, the artist has written the names of black women who have died from police brutality.

The website also includes an essay written by Andrea Jenkins, the first black openly trans woman to be elected to office in the United States, and a short film that honors 100 women by Shola Lynch, who has made documentaries on Angela Davis and Shirley Chisholm.

There are also contributions from musicians like blues singer Toshi Reagon, Berlin-born rapper and songstress Meshell Ndegeocello and Martha Redbone, a Native American and African American folk soul singer who comes from a Cherokee family.

“It’s a historic day, a celebration, a moment to mark this historic day and join into the conversation,” says Hoffman.

Artist Deborah Willis, the chair of photography at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts, is showing a series of photos that honor early black suffragists who voted for the first time

Deborah Willis: Bearing Witness.

“This is a critical year for women and specifically black women, as African American women have been actively working in the suffragist movement since the 19th century,” says Willis. “My series is inspired by the activism of black women and whose names have been overlooked – those who made an intervention and fought for the right to vote, against all odds.”

A photo-based artwork by Lorie Novak entitled How Long Must Women Wait? also looks at the battle that black women fought to vote. “When women won the right to vote in 1920, voting was, in practice, only guaranteed for white women, even though many African American women were central to the struggle for suffrage,” Novak says.

And Cox, famed for her Statue of Liberty photo, is showing a series of self-portraits where the artist is styled as Queen Nanny of the Maroons, an anti-slavery heroine who led a group of formerly enslaved Africans (the Windward Maroons), on a guerrilla war against the British colonists. She became a national hero in Jamaica.

She shot the photos in 2005 at Nanny Falls in Portland parish, Jamaica, close to where Queen Nanny is buried in Moore Town. This online showcase of this work includes some never seen before photos from the series.

A still from Equality Tea by Jaime Sunwoo.

“My premise was to look at the past, what I thought she would look like, and into the present day, what I think she would look like now,” says Cox. “Very few people know about her unless you’re Jamaican. She had a real rebellion and fought them tooth and nail.”

This conversation and more are just the starting point for women’s rights, post-centennial. “We are in a moment in time where we have an opportunity to uplift women who are operating in challenging conversations in this challenging world,” says Hoffman.

“It’s time to acknowledge their efforts, acknowledge their important contribution to our society and that there’s more work to be done.”

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