RE/SISTERS: A Lens on Gender and Ecology at the Barbican review: hits hard right from the start

Fern Shaffer, Nine Year Ritual of Healing - 9 April, 1998, 1998 (Fern Shaffer)
Fern Shaffer, Nine Year Ritual of Healing - 9 April, 1998, 1998 (Fern Shaffer)

This important and timely exhibition about ecofeminism and art across several decades, gathers 50 international women and gender-nonconforming artists who explore the links between the oppression of women and environmental collapse. An exhibition titled RE/SISTERS: A Lens on Gender and Ecology undoubtedly risks preaching only to the choir, but that would be a shame. It is both ambitious and admirable, if uneven in places.

Mostly through film and photography, it treats the climate emergency as systemic and intersectional; connected to widespread abuses of power relating to the extractive impulses of colonialism and capitalism, to racism and the exploitation of indigenous communities. Organised thematically, it has distinctive focuses within this vast subject, from the effects of industrial extractivism, to histories of protest and artists’ reimaginings of the connection beneath the Earth and womanhood.

And it hits you hard from the start: Simryn Gill’s photographic series Channel (2014) and Eyes and Storms (2012) focus on plastics choking the environment and mines, dams and lakes, mostly in the Pilbara region of Western Australia, that are like lacerations on the face of the earth. Taloi Havini’s three-screen video installation Habitat (2017) follows Agata, an indigenous matriarch in Papua New Guinea who sifts gravel in a copper mine, and walks across a desert landscape shaped and toxically coloured by violent extractivist practices. There’s a terrible beauty in these works.

A stirring section on environmental protests led by groups of women includes the photographs of 1980s Greenham Common activism in the UK by Format Photographers and Pamela Singh’s images of the 1990s protests of the Chipko Tree Huggers of the Himalayas. More recent protests include Poulomi Basu’s remarkable series Centralia (2010–20), capturing the indigenous Adivasi people’s struggle against the Indian government, while in Flint is Family, (2016–20) LaToya Ruby Frazier’s intimate focus connects water contamination and systemic racism in the recent scandal in Michigan.

Chloe Dewe Matthews, From the series Caspian: The Elements, 2010 Courtesy of the artist (Chloe Dewe Matthews)
Chloe Dewe Matthews, From the series Caspian: The Elements, 2010 Courtesy of the artist (Chloe Dewe Matthews)

Perhaps the most coherent single room focuses on women artists who connect the body and the earth as a political gesture — with Tee A. Corinne’s extraordinary series Isis (1986), layering images of vulvas and landscapes, alongside Ana Mendieta perennially evocative images bridging ancient ritual and contemporary performance, and Francesca Woodman’s spectral untitled photographs made across a period of years in which she follows the forms of landscapes with her naked body.

Indeed, a sense of haunting runs through the show: in Zina Saro-Wiwa’s Karikpo Pipeline (2015), a five-screen film, amid a landscape littered with oil-extraction detritus in the Niger Delta, a figure in an antelope mask appears, like a warning from ancestors, or a marker of lost knowledge. In Dionne Lee’s collage-based photographs, her own hands tear images of landscapes freighted with the history of slavery.

It is, appropriately, intense. But the often archival and small-scale work means that it lacks pacing, so it inevitably becomes somewhat wearing. The final section, Liquid Bodies, explores sexuality and more-than-human ecologies. Anne Duk Hee Jordan’s film Ziggy and the Starfish (2018-22) features the miraculous reproductive antics of colourful marine species. We watch it from beanbags with prawn-shaped cushions, surrounded by sculptures of oceanic critters fashioned from textiles — a rare and welcome moment of delight and a reminder of one crucial aspect of the environmental beauty we need to save.

Barbican Art Gallery, from October 5 to January 14, 2024;