Female Icons

Female Icons was a multi-faceted project running from 2007 through 2011, which looked at what makes a woman an icon. The project had different iterations and a variety of manifestations.[ref]“Drawing her life from the lives of the unknown who were her forerunners, as her brother did before her, she will be born. As for her coming without that preparation, without that effort on our part, without that determination that when she is born again she shall find it possible to live and write her poetry, that we cannot expect, for that would be impossible. But I maintain that she would come if we worked for her, and that so to work, even in poverty and obscurity, is worthwhile.” Virginia Woolf’s fictional depiction Judith, Shakespeare’s sister in A Room of One’s Own, 1929.[/ref]

Mix_Activities_IconsFemale Icons @ Peacock
In 2007, De Geuzen was invited to do a solo exhibition at Peacock Visual Arts in Aberdeen Scotland. Transforming the space into a lab, we worked with diverse groups to think about what makes a woman an icon.[ref]The Female Icon project is connected to other De Geuzen projects such as the De Geuzen Uniforms, the De Geuzen Paperdolls, and the Geuzennaam collection.
Paperdolls[/ref] For two workshops, we made commemorative plates with both the Middlefield’s Women’s Group at the Middlefield housing estate and a group of continuing education students from White Space. Like most of De Geuzen’s work, these activities functioned as a catalyst for conversation, a means of opening up discussion about female representation from a playful, rather than polemic perspective. The aim was to create an atmosphere for speculation, inquiry and negotiation. Some participants honoured celebrities, while others chose to commemorate their mothers, grandmothers and daughters.

Icons_Mix_Plates2Through making and talking together, issues around identity were discussed as something in flux and contingent, rather than being fixed.


While working on the plates, individuals talked about why a particular woman was important to them: “she overcame addiction” – “she cared for all of us” – “she is fearless” – “she is uniquely herself” – “she fights for those with disabilities” – “she is a cancer survivor” –  “she is complicated, intelligent and beautiful”.

Female Icons @ The University of Aberdeen:
We also did a third workshop at the University of Aberdeen where we worked with students from both the Art History and Gender Studies Departments. For the workshop, we prepared a silkscreened textile printed with positive and negative words used to typify women such as virgin, hoar, maiden, airhead, dumb blond, bitch, bearded oyster, blue-stocking, frigid, uptight, princess etc.

These were cut apart, played with and reconfigured to create possibilities for complexity, ambiguity and contradictions.

Finally, all participants in various workshops in Aberdeen were brought together for a celebratory dinner. The commemorative plates were hung on the wall and tagged by their makers.

With all three groups at the table, the plates formed the decorative backdrop for the dinner. During the meal art historian, Dr Louise Bourdua discussed Marina Warner’s book, Alone of All Her Sex, and the iconography of the Virgin Mary. Afterwards, the plates were taken from the walls and carried home by their makers.

The Female Icons Website:

The website was launched in advance of the project at Peacock Visual Arts and user-generated elements were integrated into the exhibition and workshops. For example, users uploaded their favourite female icons and tagged them according to what qualities they felt made them iconic. The result was not only a visual archive of women but also the folksonomy of words surrounding them.

After uploading and tagging, the image was added to the collection of icons.[ref]In a Furtherfield review, Marissa Plumb writes: “The aesthetic of this project’s archive reinforces the idea that an icon or representation is in itself a way of seeing. Seeing the symmetrical grid of images almost evoke a sense of uniformity – they are all of the same size but with radically different contents. De Geuzen does not shy away from the way in which we form collections and stories in the present in an attempt to understand the continuity of what it means to be female through acts of collection, homogenization, discussion, and disambiguation. This provides us with a collective means for seeing the female throughout history, and the resulting collection of hyperlinked media provides a way to draw comparisons and inferences that aren’t always as available when we study a singular biography.” See: Furtherfield [/ref]


Clicking on a single icon rendered a jewel-like structure where all icons similarly tagged were threaded together. For example, below is the philosopher Hannah Arendt, showing what happens when hovering over the tag “authority”.

Or this one representing the acclaimed Brazilian writer Clarice Lispector:

Clarice Lespector
Decorative Festoons:
The images were also aggregated through a typographical interface where users could write with icons to create their own festoons.[ref]For another example of De Geuzen’s typographical craftivism see: Wearable Resistance  [/ref]
The Female Icons @ STUK, View By Thread:
Finally, to materialize the archive, the aggregated icons were later printed as banners and exhibited at Stuk as a part of a solo exhibition entitled View by Thread in Leuven, Belgium.

Living Room Lectures:
The Female Icons website, also featured Living Room Lectures.  This was our first experimentation with domestic broadcast. Guests were invited to speak about a wide range of issues  – Kim de Vries discussed the representation of women in comics, Alison Norrington talked about the shift from Harlequin Romance novels to contemporary chick lit, and Anke Bangma spoke about the history of hysteria and photography informed, if not choreographed, the manifestation of Louise Augustine’s symptoms at Salpêtrière.

Living Room LecturesFemale Icon Impersonators:
We also ran a Female Icon Impersonator campaign on Flickr with the tag “Me Like Her”. Using paper cutouts people sent us a vast collection of images that were gathered online. The archive was also fed through the workshops at Peacock Visual Arts, the University of Aberdeen, Stuk Belgium and at the Eclectic Tech Carnival in Amsterdam.

Eventually, the collection was consolidated and made into a book. [ref]Plumb writes: “In a sense, they have used the conciseness of the ‘icon’ to build an interactive network of involvement, patterns, and knowledge. Perhaps the most important aspects of the project are the user-contributed images and artifacts. The project asks outside users to take their own picture with the cutout face of an icon of their own, and post the results to their Flickr pool. These images within images signify the heart of the project – that the icon is worn in the present, and we decide how they are preserved and projected, how they ‘look’. Icons express the social and personal distinctions and values that we as a social entity apply to the past at any given moment – the icons present a way to reverse-engineer our present moment. They reveal the nature of our appearance, rather than dwell on analyses of how we are seen.”[/ref]

It’s not the gaze, but the look!