It is difficult to roam the streets of New York City on foot without encountering a larger-than-life advertisement against your will. Images of airbrushed models aimed at exploiting the desires and insecurities of passersby are as omnipresent as traffic lights, silently nudging women and men to believe that pesky voice in the back of their heads saying you are not enough.
Beginning June 26, however, some of the billboards around NYC will swap out their traditional promotional materials for some freshly squeezed feminist art. The summer initiative, entitled “The Future is Female,” was organized by nonprofit organization SaveArtSpace, which frequently transforms advertising spaces into impromptu sites of public art.
SaveArtSpace, co-founded by Justin Aversano and Travis Rix, is intended to transform the city of New York into an “urban gallery experience,” inspiring the next generation of young artists in the process. Through a string of exhibitions in New York, Los Angeles and Miami, Aversano and Rix are putting some pressure on the art world’s insular walls, inviting all citizens to taste challenging and engaging art as part of their daily lives and routines.
And this particular NYC exhibition features a full roster of women artists.
“We are buried in a consumption-focused society,” Marie Tomanova, one of five women who curated the program, told HuffPost in an email. “And my wish is to have more art than advertisements in public spaces, art that will elevate your soul, inspire you to dream and encourage you to think.”
“When selecting works for ‘The Future Is Female’ I was looking for works with immediate power, celebrating ALL women,” she continued. “Women who are fierce, loving, brave and unstoppable, tough and sometimes fragile, daring, dreaming, creating, women who are vulnerable but always embracing, women who are powerful!”
One such woman is artist Elise Peterson, whose piece “Grace Meets Matisse” injects a photographic image of Grace Jones into Henri Matisse’s 1910 “Dance,” placing her in the center of a ring of naked dancers. The image puts Jones’ black body into an image previously filled with white bodies, juxtaposing the flesh of the painted figures with the three-dimensional glow of Jones’ self-actualized body, mid-performance.
In another piece, titled “Boudoir,” photographer Lissa Rivera captures her muse and lover BJ wearing a robe and tights as he lounges, odalisque-like, on an emerald-draped cushion. A mysterious, gloved hand juts into the frame to brush his hair. In her series “Beautiful Boy” Rivera captures BJ in a variety of sensual, cinematic poses that riff off and subvert gender norms in and outside of the photographic tradition.
Their creative partnership began before their romantic one when BJ confided in Rivera as a friend, expressing a desire to explore his femininity by dressing in women’s clothes. Rivera, who herself had ambiguous feelings about her own femininity, suggested they untangle their relationships to gender together, using photography as a space where fantasy could override reality.
“I had been interested in the idea that popular notions of beauty are largely drawn from looking at repeated images,” Rivera said in an earlier interview with HuffPost. “The quality of the image has an incredible power to create desire, and that desire can be to inhabit the space of subject.”
Rivera’s words are especially powerful in the context of the billboard exhibition, which replaces tired images of people as sex objects and product pushers with liberating, challenging and complex depictions, often of femininity from women’s own perspectives.
“Through ‘The Future Is Female’ we got an opportunity to show work of women who explore and narrate womanhood in many different ways, layers and angles,” Tomanova said, “and can challenge the mainstream media expectations and portrayal of women that I personally find very limiting.”
The exhibition doesn’t only provide an opportunity for an unwitting public to encounter art in their everyday spaces, it also shifts the conversation from what women do not have to what women can do. It’s a crucial message, told through radical accessibility, that will hopefully help shape the way young women view their relationship to their city and themselves.
The billboards will pop up in various locales around New York’s Lower East Side beginning June 26, co-organized One Month One Week One Day (aka 1m1w1d) and sponsored by Atlas Music Group. The featured artists’ work will also be featured at The Storefront Project beginning July 7. Get all the details here.