Passages: Rites and Rituals is the first exhibition of Betsy Damon’s radical outdoor performance practice (1976-86). It will feature the documentation of eight public performances, as well as Body Masks—erotic photographs from a 1976 private performative session, which have never been presented publicly.
Activism and community-building have been central to Damon’s feminist practice since the 1970s. A leader among lesbian activists in New York, she co-edited the third issue of Heresies, Lesbian Art and Artists (1977), and participated in the first lesbian art show in the U.S. (1978), curated by Harmony Hammond at 112 Greene Street, and The Great American Lesbian Art Show at the Woman's Building in Los Angeles (1980). Her early performances addressed the erasure of women’s narratives from history (Blind Beggarwoman, 1979-80, alluding to Homer), and gender-based violence (7,000 Old Year Woman, 1977-78; Rape Memory, 1978-79; What Do You Think About Knives?, 1980-81). Their non-conformist courage consists not just in their subjects but—strikingly—also taking them out to the streets of New York and other cities, often without an institutional umbrella. All of them placed woman’s agency in the center of the public space. Her performances as healing rituals soon grew to include concern for the environment (A Shrine for Everywoman, 1980-88 and Meditations with Stones for the Survival of the Planet, 1982-late 1980s), and she devoted her later practice to public space projects focused on preserving living water.
Today, Betsy Damon (American, b. 1940) is among the most relevant pioneer ecofeminist artists; her social practice attracting a growing interest globally. The exhibition will show how the distinctive vocabulary of Damon’s performance practice – performing outdoors in city streets, inviting audience and other artists’ collaboration, employing archetypes and elements of ritual, and her engagement with transnational feminism - informed the development of her later ecofeminist social practice.
Betsy Damon. Passages: Rites and Rituals features Body Masks (1976), 7,000 Year Old Woman (1977-78), Rape Memory (1978-79), Blind Beggarwoman (1979-80), What Do You Think About Knives? (1980-81), Meditations on Knives (1981), A Shrine for Everywoman (1980-88), Meditation with Stones for the Survival of the Planet (1982-late 1980s), and Listen, Respect, Revere (1986). The exhibition will comprise photographs, videos, documents, and contemporaneous descriptions of these performances by artists who participated in them, such as Su Friedrich, Amy Sillman, Marcia Grubb, Harmony Hammond, and Betsy Damon herself.
Image Credits from left to right, first row to second row
Image 1: Betsy Damon, Body Masks, 1976. Archival print ©Betsy Damon 1976/2021
Image 2: Betsy Damon, Blindbeggar Woman, performance on Wall Street, New York, October 18, 1979. Archival print ©Betsy Damon 1979/2021
Image 3: Betsy Damon, A Shrine for Everywoman, performance at the United Nations World Conference on Women, Nairobi, 1985. Archival Print©Betsy Damon 1985/2021
Image 4: Betsy Damon, Listen, Respect, Revere, performance at Brecht Forum, New York, 1986. Archival print ©Betsy Damon 1986/2021
Image 5: Betsy Damon, 7,000 Year Old Woman, performance on Prince Street, New York, May 21, 1977. Archival Print ©Betsy Damon 1977/2021
Image 6: Betsy Damon, Blindbeggar Woman, performance on Wall Street, New York, October 18, 1979. Archival print ©Betsy Damon 1979/2021
Image 7: Betsy Damon, Meditation with Stones for the Survival of the Planet, performance in front of American Museum of Natural History, New York, 1983. AP ©Betsy Damon 1983/2021
All images are courtesy of the artist.
Generous funding for the exhibition is provided by an anonymous benefactor and the NYC City Artist Corps grant.
Special thanks to Jim and Mary Mattingly. The curator is grateful to Mia Yoo, Adriana Farmiga and Michael Boyd for keeping their hearts—and La MaMa's doors—open to experimental performance art.
Monika Fabijanska is an art historian and independent curator who specializes in women's and feminist art. Her 2020 exhibition ecofeminism(s) at Thomas Erben Gallery featured works by Betsy Damon, Lynn Hershman Leeson, Mary Mattingly, Ana Mendieta, Cecilia Vicuña, et al. Critically acclaimed The Un-Heroic Act: Representations of Rape in Women's Contemporary Art in the U.S. at Shiva Gallery, John Jay College, CUNY (with catalog) was ranked the fifth best NYC art show in 2018 by Hyperallergic. Fabijanska originated the idea and provided curatorial consulting for The Museum of Modern Art acquisition and retrospective exhibition of Polish feminist sculptor Alina Szapocznikow (2012). Her writing on women’s art has appeared in The Brooklyn Rail, Women’s Art Journal, Degree Critical, etc. She has collaborated with La MaMa E.T.C. since 2000 on numerous projects, including a series of screenings and exhibition Tadeusz Kantor's Theatre of Death, which she curated in 2008.
Photo credit: Betsy Damon, 7,000 Year Old Woman, performance at Cayman Gallery, New York, March 21, 1977. Archival print ©Betsy Damon 1977/2021. Courtesy of the artist
La MaMa Galleria
Founded in 1984, La Galleria is a nonprofit gallery committed to nurturing experimentation in the visual arts. La Galleria encourages an active dialogue between new media, performance, the plastic and visual arts, curatorial projects, and educational initiatives. It serves the East Village community by offering diverse programming to an inter-generational audience, and expanding the parameters of a traditional gallery space. As a non-profit, La Galleria is able to provide artists and curators with unique exhibition opportunities that are largely out of reach in a commercial gallery setting.