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Women's worlds, from many corners of the world

'Global Feminisms' marks reopening of Wellesley College museum

Catherine Opie is not your average mom. In her photograph "Self Portrait/Nursing," she's a naked, plus-size, short-haired woman with tattoos on her arms and the word "pervert" scarified in florid script on her chest. Cradling a big, healthy looking baby who suckles from one breast, Opie's a lesbian, a wild woman, a Madonna, a well-known photographer, and a middle-aged mother who loves and cares for her child.

Opie's photograph is one of many challenging works featured in "Global Feminisms," an exhibition coming to the Davis Museum and Cultural Center at Wellesley College. The first show in more than a year at the Davis - the museum sat out last season while its roof was being replaced - it's a show that promises to get people talking.

Organized at the Brooklyn Museum, where it was on view last year, the exhibition was curated by Maura Reilly, curator of feminist art at that museum, and Linda Nochlin, author of the groundbreaking 1971 essay "Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?" It presents works created since 1990 by more than 60 women, most under the age of 40, representing about 40 countries.

Elaine Mehalakes, curator of academic programs at the Davis, acknowledges that feminism is not a label many young women eagerly embrace these days. But, she says, "Despite the controversy surrounding the word itself, it will be easy to recognize that the issues the exhibition raises have relevance for young women everywhere. It shows how far we've come and how far we have yet to go."

The thesis of "Global Feminisms" is summed up by its title. Unlike old-school '70s-style feminism, which was preoccupied mainly with the concerns of white, middle-class, North American and Western European women, the show speaks to the situations of women from all parts of the world, including Africa, Asia, and South America, and it presents works by women of many different races and ethnicities.

As the pluralized word "feminisms" suggests, the show also recognizes that feminism is not just one monolithic movement; it can have different meanings for women living in different geographical, political, social contexts.

In a print by Kara Walker depicting the silhouette of a black woman holding aloft a white woman whose voluminous white gown resembles a bale of cotton, the circumstances of black women in America are seen as inextric- ably connected to the history of slavery.

Skillfully realized in traditional Indian miniature style, a painting by Boston-based artist Ambreen Butt depicts the artist in a sweatsuit wielding a sword and calmly taming a dragon and two comically ugly demons. Born, raised, and educated in Pakistan, Butt seeks her own self-empowering identity in the confluence of diverse tensions: between East and West, traditionalism and postmodernism, localism and internationalism, and myth and reality.

Some viewers may find a few of the exhibition's works discomfiting. In a video by Sigalit Landau the naked artist herself does the hula hoop with a ring of barbed wire. A large, expressionistically painted canvas by Jenny Saville offers a full-frontal portrait of a nude hermaphrodite.

Some pieces are funny: see, for example, Hiroko Okada's photograph "Future Plan #2," which depicts two grinning young men in underwear who appear to be seven or eight months pregnant.

Whether comical, angry, sexy, or weird, if these and other works in the exhibition ignite impassioned debate, the show will have accomplished its mission.

Sept. 19-Dec. 9. 781-283-2051, www.davismuseum.wellesley.edu.

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