Women’s History Museum: OTMA’S Body



Photos by Lance Brewer
Photos  courtesy of the artist and Gavin Brown’s enterprise, New York
Text by Olivia Whittick


Since 2014, Women’s History Museum has been putting together ardent and avant-garde exhibitions and performances, developing projects that use garments and textiles to map an expressionistic history of the feminized experience. Their presentations figure artworks as neo-artifacts, to challenge the male-centric space of the museum, and the patriarchal, colonial version of history it so often represents. Merging art and fashion design practices, WHM takes recycled materials along with vintage and historical articles of clothing to produce unique fashions and art objects that feel like hand-me-downs from foremothers, keep-sakes from a reclaimed past. Theirs is an exploration in agency, and the (re)telling of women’s narratives through fabrics, fibres, sculptures, and performance. 

Their latest presentation, OTMA’s Body, at Gavin Brown’s Enterprise feels something like a couture runway show and garage sale hybrid, and works in service of homage. Luxurious pieces of decor and wearable fashion heirlooms have been meticulously crafted by the WHM studio as an ode to the opulence and tragedy of the lives of the Grand Duchesses of the Romanov Dynasty: Olga, Tatiana, Maria, and Anastasia Nikolieva. The title of the show references the acronym the girls gave to themselves. All four sisters, daughters to the last Tsar of Russia, were executed in 1918 on account of their father’s incompetence. Trapped by patriarchal structures, patrimonial inheritance laws, the girls were confined to their home, biding time until they would be married off, socially and economically forbade from pursuing meaningful existences outside of wedlock. OTMA were powerless, unable to control the trajectory of their lives under patriarchy, and were ultimately murdered as a result of their father’s ineptitude. 

OTMA’s Body is a reenactment of their world. Made up of pieces of regal furniture and pillowy sculptures, the presentation speaks to the idleness of the young girls, but also to their sites of comfort and contemplation from which they wrote ceaselessly in their diaries, conjuring for themselves fantastical worlds of greater depth. Through WHM, Gavin Brown becomes a time machine transporting us back to OTMA’s feminine echo-chamber, where solitude is comforted through sisterly camaraderie and good use of the imagination. Craft-making becomes a political instrument, as WHM applies an aesthetic balm to the past in the form of commemoration, transcending the temporal and circumstantial by using fantasy and play to embolden a new way of approaching a women’s history. 


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