Leah DeVun asks lots of questions when she talks about her artwork: Who is a woman? Who is a feminist? Who is queer?
Who would have thought questions about these fraught terms would best be explored in rural Mississippi? DeVun did.
Over the past year the visual artist and historian explored questions about feminism and queerness - an umbrella term DeVun uses to reference a range of sexual identities including gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender and intersex people - through two spaces where women formed communities.
First, she learned the history of local gallery Women and Their Work. Then, she documented rural spaces in Mississippi called "womyn's lands" by their feminist, mostly lesbian, inhabitants.
The result, the exhibition "Our Hands on Each Other," runs at Women and Their Work through July 15. The exhibit includes photographs of womyn's lands and young queer women, a collection of feminist magazines and lightboxes featuring images of the women's movement.
Mainstream culture often ridicules radical feminists. As a history professor at Texas A&M University, DeVun says she constantly sees misperceptions about feminism among her students. DeVun defines feminism as "wanting women to be able to achieve and exist in all the ways men do," but students often shirk from the term.
DeVun says visiting womyn's lands was part of dispelling stereotypes of feminists.
"The women I met were incredibly open-minded," she says. "Some people want to reform society from the inside, and some people think society's so corrupt you have to scratch it and start over."
The lands' locations and their inhabitants' identities remain private, so the women do not fear intrusion from outsiders. DeVun's large, color-saturated photographs record communal spaces on womyn's lands, like community kitchens, but no women appear in the photographs.
DeVun hopes the women's absence allows viewers to imagine their bodies in the stark, lovely landscapes.
Lisa Moore, UT professor and author of the forthcoming book "Sister Acts: Lesbian Genres and the Erotic Landscape," says DeVun continues a long history of female artists exploring lesbian desire through artistic renderings of women in nature.
At 7 p.m. Wednesday in the Women and Their Work gallery, Moore leads a panel discussion titled "A Brief History of Queer Space," about DeVun and other female artists, ranging from 18th-century women who crafted elaborate gardens in the shape of women's bodies to Georgia O'Keeffe's paintings of flowers resembling women's genitalia.
Women's bodies play a larger role in the exhibit's portraits. In all the portraits, a woman, often partially nude, sits tall, looking directly at her audience.
The women's stance stems from DeVun's experience working as a model in New York.
"Years ago a photographer told me, `Don't look right in the camera, because men don't like it when women look at them out of advertising,'" she says. "I wanted to see women who were larger than the frames - spilling out of the composition - with their gaze coming out of the photographs."
The part of the exhibit focused on feminist magazines features an array of titles like "Country Women," "Dyke" and "Womanspirit." Visitors can also read an issue - an opportunity DeVun offered to illustrate overlaps with current feminist blog and zine culture.
The connections among past and present movements were important to DeVun.
She says meeting older lesbians on the womyn's lands was a way to imagine her own future - an act she says can be difficult for young queer people facing an onslaught of images of heterosexual life, but few images of aging queer people.
"Meeting these women was a positive experience," says DeVun. "The womyn's lands are so alive and full of interesting people and interesting ideas."
Moore says the exhibit's vitality comes from insisting that womyn's lands are not only ideas and places of the past.
"There might be a tendency to see these communities as of the '70s and '80s, but in fact this is a tradition that often reinvents itself without realizing what came before," says Moore. "It's the wishful thinking of mainstream culture that this was too radical to last."
Women and Their Work
`Leah DeVun: Our Hands on Each Other.' Community discussion 7 p.m. Wednesday. 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Mondays-Fridays, noon to 5 p.m. Saturdays through July 15. 1710 Lavaca St. 477-1064, www.womenandtheirwork.org.