The Womanifesto collective came together in Bangkok in the late 1990s to fulfill the need for an inclusive, creative, and open-ended art platform for artists from Southeast Asia. It was primarily set up as an independent project run by women, and is now a globally recognized entity, involving multiple art forms and artists from all over the world. One of the coordinators, VARSHA NAIR, shares her experience of this movement and its evolution with VANESSA PATEL.

Q: The Womanifesto collective has members who are artists, poets, writers, and activists, with the outcome based on shared experiences and dialogue exchanges. So, has it been more about the gathering and feeling of community that it has engendered rather than the creative work produced?

VN: Yes, absolutely. Always, we have brought what we would like to present, to exhibit, to talk about – it was never curated. It was not only about the artwork, but about what led to that artwork and how we arrived at that point. It has also been very much about the ethos of caring for and supporting each other. For the second event, one artist was short of money and everyone pitched in to support her. 

With funding for projects from sponsors, we have retained our autonomy for decision-making, e.g., how big their logo is on posters and catalogues, and where it is placed. These are important decisions that came out of our conversations about running Womanifesto.

We don’t ask our members to register; no one has to pay money to belong. We don’t exclude people. If somebody reaches out to us with interest, we engage with them and invite them if there is an exhibition coming up. Also, we don’t limit ourselves to exhibitions; we have diverse ways of engagement. 

Our first project was on a farm, involving the local community; the second was a very big exhibition in a public park. We didn’t want to be based in the center and limit our output to having exhibitions only. 

Q: How often did you gather for these collaborative events?

VN: Every two years. As artists we are also the organizers, and we have our own lives. After an event, there’s a lot of follow up. Then you need another year to realize another event. 

We want to involve as many women artists, 
and also have a cross generational approach, 
because that’s the other thing about the art world 
– age discrimination, especially for women.

Q: How is Womanifesto different from other artists’ platforms?

VN: In the mainstream art world, there’s a way of looking at things top down. Whenever there is a big show with a lot of funding, the big names in the art world are invited to participate, and then they reach out to minor players, almost as fillers to complete the curation. The funders have a stake in it, and the curator has to keep them happy, so it all becomes a big game. 

Womanifesto is the opposite; it is inclusive and representative. We invite men into thematic projects to talk about human issues and to listen, because in the art world it’s a known reality that we’re always talking from the male perspective. So, one idea is proper representation. 

Q: Apart from gender, in what other ways does Womanifesto encourage representation?

VN: In our second event, we had artists from Japan, Indonesia, Singapore, Croatia, America, and many other places. And we are open to the idea of anyone organizing projects under the Womanifesto banner and adhering to what it stands for. Suppose you have an idea of doing a workshop in Indonesia, you could involve us in the organization and set it up however you wish. 

We want to involve as many women artists, and also have a cross-generational approach, because that’s the other thing about the art world – age discrimination, especially for women. What we emphasize is conversations with elders. They are the ones who have lived through many experiences and gained wisdom and knowledge. That’s where the interest is; that’s where the real conversations can happen. And we now set up projects that are pointedly cross-generational. We soon realized that we didn’t want to just do exhibitions, and that we enjoyed the gathering of women artists. 

We have tried to look at everything through a different lens; for example, in a residency, do we have to produce and display work at the end of it? Can we have a workshop without a “work” to take away from it? That was the idea behind the 2001 workshop on the farm: even though it was a workshop, we didn’t have to make work. It was inter-generational, we were going away on a picnic, all living together, cooking, eating, and spending time together. And this brought about a lot of exchange, sorrow, and fun. 

The focus was on conversation, exchange, and working with children on an educational program. All the artists came up with workshop models that we could run with children from the age of 7 up to senior students from a local technical college. At the end we had an open day, which was a great celebration with local music and lots of food.

Everybody from the surrounding villages was involved; we put contemporary artists with local traditional craftspeople and artisans, who were making fishing baskets, mats, woven cloth – everything that they still continue to use in their day-to-day life. These were agrarian communities and there’s a real rhythm to their existence. During the rice planting season, everybody is in the fields. Once the rice is planted, and they’re waiting for it to grow, the weaving and the dyeing of yarn happens.

We hosted everything on the farm so that the community members would come to the farm every day and show us how they made various things, talk about it, spend the day with us, and food would be cooked for everybody.  

Q: So they shared the arts and crafts of their everyday life – not necessarily something to hang on the wall or display. 

VN: Exactly, it’s an integral part of their life. 

We also talked about new forms. For example, they were interested to see an artist make a fishing basket with a slightly different look. Already the object is faultless in that it’s been used to track fish for centuries, and it works very well. But the exchange, another level of creativity, awakened both sides. In many ways it was the artists who learned more – we gained knowledge of materials, the locality, the skills, and how to scout things out. 

For example, one of the artists running a workshop asked the kids to lead her through the farm, which had a little creek running through it, a forested area, and rice fields. In the forested area, she asked them, “Show me what you know about the plants growing here: which are good, for cooking, for eating, and why?” She wanted to determine how much of that traditional knowledge was being handed down. They were asked, “What has your grandmother told you?” “What has your grandfather told you?” “Has your mom told you anything?” There was an emphasis on keeping that knowledge at the forefront, because the gaze is so much turned towards cities for employment.

Everybody from the surrounding villages was involved; 
we put contemporary artists with local traditional craftspeople 
and artisans, who were making fishing baskets, mats, 
woven cloth – everything that they still continue to use 
in their day-to-day life.

It reinforced the richness of the rural environment and honored our codependence with Nature. There is immeasurable wealth in community living and the handing down of the tiniest of details. One girl said, “If you touch that flower, don’t put the finger to your mouth or it will make you sick.” From childhood, she’d been made aware of all of those little things. 

We’re planning a similar workshop in a couple of months, which will be included in the next exhibition later this year.

Q: Is that to celebrate any particular milestone of Womanifesto?

VN: We started in 1997, which was a milestone already because we did it against many odds and with a lack of funding. We have managed to sustain this format over the years with some core members who were there from the beginning. In terms of organization, we did everything inhouse, from write-ups to accounting. We’ve always had other artists joining, and doing projects that involved a lot of artists. 

One recent project was a publication, Procreation Postcreation, which went out as an open call globally for artists to participate. We had an amazing response with people from Mongolia to St. Vincent and the Grenadine Islands sending us their work. The idea was that you procreate, and then what happens after you’ve created? Those are very widely interpreted in many ways. One response was from a man who had recently become a grandfather, writing about his experience of being in a hospital waiting for his daughter to give birth. Another person documented children’s textiles. We had really diverse contributions. In this way we’ve set up projects to bring in new people.

Womanifesto is very agile. We frequently change format, and we tend not to decide on the next project while one project is coming to an end. It’s never preconceived. One is a stepping-stone to the next. We went from a community-based workshop, to a publication, to a web-based project, to establishing a residency in the same community where we did the workshop. 

Our next project, the workshop residency, is a bit more thematic. We’re concentrating on ceramics and earthenware pottery, because it’s close to a UNESCO World Heritage site called Ban Chiang. Their pottery is well known and valued, and there’s still a community of mostly women potters. So we’ll probably only bring in four or five outside artists, and mainly invite potters from the local community. We don’t differentiate between those who’ve been brought in as contemporary artists and those from the local community. We are all partners.

Q: Recently, Womanifesto had its work included in the Asia Art Archives in Hong Kong, which is a huge deal. How significant is this for the collective?

VN: We don’t always realize how valuable it is to gather our material, our documentation. While working with the archive, I’ve realized that every single bit of paper created from 1997 onward is so valuable. It was a fantastic process to archive it, and we did it mostly during the pandemic lockdown. At Womanifesto, we’ve always had to talk about ourselves, so as not to become invisible, and this has helped us do just that. These days, you cannot talk about art in Southeast Asia without mentioning Womanifesto.

We don’t differentiate between those who’ve been 
brought in as contemporary artists and those 
from the local community. We are all partners.

We’ve kept meticulous records, and beautiful photo albums with hand-stitched covers that are works of art in themselves, lovingly put together. We have every slide, every negative, every project proposal, every application for funding – we’ve kept it all. Already there are researchers who’ve reached out, for example, the Cooper Gallery at the University of Dundee. We were part of a project called the Ignorant Art School, which is looking at artists engaging in alternative modes of education. 

Q: So the next big thing for Womanifesto is the exhibition coming up in September at the Bangkok Art and Culture Center.

VN: Yes, and simultaneously there is an online anthology of Womanifesto, called the Womanifesto Way. Now there is a recognition of our “way,” which is to be hospitable, caring, open, engaged in community conversations, and with the capacity to be agile. 

This anthology project was spearheaded by the Power Institute at the University of Sydney. And in the meantime, we were approached by the Bangkok Art and Cultural Center to showcase Womanifesto in what they call their Master Series of exhibitions. It’s a massive project. 

There was a hiatus for 10 years, from 2008 to 2018, because of various personal challenges for the team members. Early on we had decided that we would would not push ourselves beyond our limits to ignore all the other things that we needed to take care of in life. And ironically, just when things started to revive, and we planned a physical gathering, we were hit by Covid. During that time, we came up with the idea of the Digital Courtyard, where a team of artists from multiple locations had small gatherings. We met over Zoom from Bangkok to Baroda, Berlin, Sydney, Basel, and London. And we realized what it meant to have this connection during the lockdown, to be able to gather and to be able to exchange our stories.



Interviewed by VANESSA PATEL



Varsha Nair

Varsha Nair

Varsha is an interdisciplinary artist based in Baroda, India. Her works and projects have been exhibited internationally, most recently at Documenta 15, Kassel, in Germany.  She is currently co-organizing Womanifesto: Flowing Connec... Read More