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20 reasons to love the new Women & Their Work Gallery and its first show

Michael Barnes
Austin 360
The opening show at Women & Their Work's new gallery at 1311 E. Cesar Chavez St. is "We Know Who We Are. We Know What We Want."

Shout it from the rooftops: The new Women & Their Work gallery is smash hit.

Here's why:

1. The airy, light-brushed space at 1311 E. Cesar Chavez St. is the first permanent home for Women & Their Work, founded in 1978 to promote women artists.

2. The new gallery is taller and more open than their longtime home on Lavaca Street just south of the University of Texas campus. Parking is easier, too.

3. The new complex includes attached and detached office and performance spaces, as well as an inviting courtyard shaded by a gnarled pecan tree. Remember, Austinites love their outdoor events.

4. A long-ago neighborhood grocery store, the sensitively renovated building was built in the 1930s and had been locked up for storage for years. Most recently, it served as the home for the landscaping firm Big Red Sun. So it now returns to active service for the general public and the neighborhood.

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5. Just as it once did for a midtown art district when on Lavaca, Women & Their Work's gallery anchors an emerging arts zone that now includes at least a half-dozen nearby functioning galleries.

6. Because of its location near downtown on Cesar Chavez, it also serves as a sort of gateway to dozens more galleries and studios further to the north and east.

7. The opening show, "We Know Who We Are. We Know What We Want," is curated by Vicki Meek, a celebrated Dallas painter who was named 2021 Artist of the Year by the Houston Art League, and whose work can be found in quite a few collections, such as the African American Museum of Dallas. 

8. Meeks extends Women & Their Work's tradition of nuanced but unabashed feminism, as guided through most of its history by director Chris Cowden, these days teamed with employees Diane Sikes, Ali Vanderhider and Lauren Winchell Bechelli. 

9. All nine exhibited artists live in Texas, and yet they hail variously from Iran, Pakistan, Egypt, Kenya, Iraq, Lebanon and India, as well as the United States.

10. Their work looks sumptuous online, and as published in the gallery's catalogue, with words by Aïssatou Sidimé-Blanton, but the art fairly vibrates when viewed in person at the new gallery.

11. It all works together. This is no small thing in a group show, no matter how artfully curated. The shapes, colors, textures, technologies and materials speak to each other in a shared language.

12. The most charismatic pieces were created by Naomi Wanjiku Gakunga: three large, dense sculptures of sheet metal and steel wire — leaned against the far back wall — that were inspired by the mabati roofing made by Kenyan women, who also used them to collect clean drinking water. You can't take your eyes off them.

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13. You could hardly ask for more contrast to those roofing sculptures, which are topped by delicate mesh, than Rehab El Sadek's hanging gauze daubed with pigments, paper and glue. Indirect natural light pours through them from the west courtyard. I was told she will be the subject of a Women & Their Work solo show in the fall.

14. Lahib Jaddo boldly works with several exploratory materials, including acrylic paint, fabrics and burnings, to recall a past in Iraq and Lebanon.

15. Pat Johnson's small, delightful clay sculptures — some painted — radiate humor and anxiety, while featuring the artist as a subject and current events as unavoidable backdrops. I've admired her work for decades.

16. Pallavi Govindnathan's digital videos deal with sexual, racial and gender subjects through the lens of Indian and Indian American experiences.

17. Angela Faz combines the elements of kitchen aprons and safety vests to reflect class and gender roles in the Mexican American community.

18. Lauren Cross couples images from the past, mostly on paper, to reclaim communities built by African American women in the South.

19. Nida Bangash's two-channel video, "Sight Plan," takes some time to absorb, yet the images are clean, clear and effective.

20. Lovie Olivia's collages and décollages invite a closer look. I plan to return to the new gallery and enjoy her pieces along with all the others in the near future.

Michael Barnes writes about the people, places, culture and history of Austin and Texas. He can be reached at mbarnes@statesman.com.