“Community can exist in a capitalist structure when there’s small business,” says Maddy Rose, co-founder and curator of Femaissance, the all-female art movement. “So frequently, ‘capitalism’ suggests absolute selfishness, the desire to climb to the top and knock people down as you go. But small female businesses made $1.7 trillion in 2017. Why? Because women are tribal as fuck and we’re really good at multitasking and helping each other out and watching each other’s babies.”
Rose and Halle Kaplan-Allen, Femaissance co-founder and events director, are doing exactly that on a beautiful evening in late April at Oleander on Royal, where their exhibition, Femaissance: Primavera, is currently on display. During our interview, Kaplan-Allen holds Stellan, the 9-month-old son of gallery director Jamie Lehr, on her shoulder while she greets the French Quarter creatures who wander in off the street to gawk at the pink-walled room covered in vagina drawings.
Rose does most of the talking. “We were really inspired by The Wing in New York, which is an all-female workspace. And we were having all these conversations, feeling complacent about life,” she says, describing the circumstances of Femaissance’s inception last fall, two years after she and Kaplan-Allen graduated from Tulane. “So when Jamie said she wanted to do an all-female show, I was like ‘Okay, I have this idea, but I have to do it with my best friend,’ and [Jamie] was like ‘Run with it…’”
“People responded to it in a way we never anticipated,” Kaplan-Allen chimes in. Their first exhibition, simply titled Femaissance, coincided with the printing of the groundbreaking Times-Picayune article on sexual harassment in the Besh Restaurant Group and the explosion of #MeToo, a moment ripe for the elevation of a female-driven art movement.
Their next exhibition, Primavera, opened at the dawn of festival season and was much more celebratory in tone, but the pink room decked out in bedazzled granny panties, glitter-covered silicon chicken legs and an overabundance of nudes also housed a poignant political message. The exhibition took its name from Sandro Botticelli’s 1482 Italian Renaissance painting. “When we talk about [Botticelli’s] Primavera, we say it’s a masterpiece with a narrative worth redirecting,” says Rose. “[It’s] this beautiful, iconic work of art that involves muses: beautiful women who are muse-worthy just for being beautiful.” The centerpiece of the exhibition is a reimagining of the Botticelli painting as a diptych by watercolorist Lyla Clayre, featuring prominent female figures in New Orleans—women who are muse-worthy for their achievements, not just their beauty. “We’re looking at a group of women that’s comprised of Chef Martha Wiggins, the former Executive Chef of Sylvain; Erin Romney from Romney Studios; Aimee Brown, the Executive Director of the New Orleans Wine & Food Experience; Jamie with her son [Stellan]; Robin Barnes, the New Orleans songbird—women who are hustling in this city and working to do some good for the community.”
Primavera will close on Memorial Day weekend. In the ensuing days, Oleander on Royal will undergo a complete transformation as Femaissance prepares for its next exhibition: Proserpina. The iconic pink walls, which are (conveniently) on wheels, will be rearranged and painted black, creating an entirely reimagined aesthetic. Lyla Clayre’s diptych will disappear and Artemis Antippas will replace her silicone 50-pièce (de résistance) with a wall installation consisting of real chicken legs from Jacques-Imo’s (still covered in glitter) to deliver a much rawer message.
If Primavera was a celebration of the power of female collaboration, Proserpina brings the movement back to its roots in activism and protest. “People know the pink walls at this point and they know the Femaissance brand that we’ve established,” Rose says. “So our thought was to see what happens when we flip it on its head and paint the space black and have a curation that’s a response to #TimesUp and #MeToo through the pagan story of the goddess Proserpina, who’s abducted by the god Pluto and forced to marry him in Hades and negotiates to spend half her time on Mount Olympus (which paves way for spring) and the other half in the underworld.”
Proserpina will use its eponymous Greek myth as a jumping-off point to resume the conversation on harassment and gender inequality in New Orleans and across the globe. “Primavera was obviously very celebratory and fest-friendly,” Rose says. “But New Orleans in general enters a summertime slump in which all the hype fizzles and it’s way less busy in the streets and everyone’s just looking for an air-conditioned place to hang. There aren’t a ton of those and you can’t meet in front of City Hall because you’ll pass out outside. So we’re using this opportunity for a more community-oriented exhibition. It felt appropriate to keep the energy alive at a point when it usually dies down—especially with the midterm [elections] around the corner—and to make sure everyone stays engaged.”
Femaissance: Proserpina opens Saturday, June 9 and will run through Saturday, July 14 at Oleander on Royal (1000 Royal St.). For more information, visit Femaissance.us and follow @Femaissance on Instagram.