LIKE MOST THINGS THIS YEAR, the National Museum of Women in the Arts’ Reclamation exhibition did not go as initially planned. Curator and director of public programs Melani N. Douglass wanted to treat kitchen labor—the often-invisible daily work that disproportionately falls on women and feminine people—as high art. She envisioned an exhibition centered around kitchen-like spaces physically installed at the D.C. museum. When the pandemic struck, however, the museum moved the show online.
The result is a digital exhibition that may be even more potent than the original. Reclamation went live on January 18th, Martin Luther King Jr. Day, and will be available for the next year. Its homepage features a vibrant photo grid of hands preparing meals on kitchen tables strewn with pink grapefruit, purple onions, and filetted lamb. Each photo represents the work of one of nine female artists, most of them women of color working in multiple disciplines, including Douglass herself. Douglass gave each artist a series of prompts centered around the kitchen: to record herself at the table; to do a time lapse of meal preparation and eating; to take pictures of ingredients; and to record herself doing something at the kitchen table that had nothing to do with food.
In response, the artists produced a lush spread of images and videos evoking the joy of a dinner party with intimate friends. Video interviews with the artists give way to a crowd-sourced catalogue of family recipes and folk magic; a virtual pantry of food lore; and photo essays of the women creating recipes, remedies, and rituals around the kitchen table. The shots are often intimate. We see artist djassi daCosta johnson stretching in her kitchen dance studio; we see her daughter and partner laughing over a game of Scrabble, clay masks on their faces. “Some of the work is unbelievably vulnerable,” Douglass says. Ultimately, Reclamation portrays the daily, often feminine labor of feeding and cleaning, cooking and healing, as nothing short of magic.