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Art History Grad Student Explores Feminism in Art

Photo of Emily Heap by Vanessa Robertson

While Emily Heap, a graduate student in art history at American University, acknowledges that someone can enjoy viewing of piece of art in a museum, she feels it’s much more fulfilling to learn the history behind it. “When you study art history, you build complicated arguments that challenge not only how other people think, but how you think as well,” she says.

Heap’s interest in feminist art history was first piqued during an undergrad course at DePaul University, where she read works by feminist art history pioneers and American University emeritae professors Mary Garrard and Norma Broude. “I could see myself in the work for the first time,” Heap says of their writings. “Art history can be used as a tool to change things and clarify perceptions. For me, feminism is an amazing tool to present myself not only as a woman, but as someone who is interested in exploring concepts that have been normalized and institutionalized.”

When she was introduced to Yoko Ono’s art in professor Namiko Kunimoto’s Gender and Sexuality in East Asian Art course, Heap immediately felt a connection. Heap was especially touched by Ono’s “Half-a-Room,” a mock studio apartment in which everything—from the teapot to the armchair—is cut in half. The work was inspired by Ono’s relationship with husband, John Lennon. “She could never get past John Lennon,” she explains. “But what came through as I reviewed her provocative, funny, and dangerous work is that she never asked to be released from that association.”

Through her study of “Half-a-Room,” Heap came to appreciate the piece’s underlying themes. “I liked the idea of the piece and how complicated it became once you started to unravel the work,” she says. “It was so poetic and beautiful, yet held tension and made bold statements.”

Heap discusses these tensions in depth in an essay she prepared for the Ninth Annual AU-GW Art History Symposium.  She addresses how Ono’s work invites a person to enter a domestic environment and then realize that each piece is only a half. According to Heap, this creates a sense of security followed by a disruption of psyche. “We see the room is only a half and we are left to question our own place within it. It presents us with a question about our own presence, about objectivity and selfhood, by way of our reaction and engagement within the piece,” says Heap.

Kunimoto praises Heap’s ability to uncover hidden meanings in Ono’s piece. “Ms. Heap’s research shows how Ono’s work is much more than whimsical minimalism, but a dialogue on gender, ethnicity, and love.”

The art history symposium where Heap presented her research in late September is an event highlighting the work of AU and GW graduate art history students. Professors from both universities provided feedback to students and facilitated discussion. 

Heap’s research on Yoko Ono connects to her graduate thesis work, a study of Mannerist depictions of the Virgin and Child. “I was drawn to these pieces because they seemed like very good covers for something else. That’s what good art should do, if you ask me; indicate something much greater than the present work.”

Heap looks at the Mannerist Virgin depictions to discuss how they imply much more than is gleaned by regarding them simply as pretty paintings. “I discuss how the female body came to be such a locus of concern and doubt for male artists who were simultaneously trying to become great artists, prove their artistic divinity, upstage Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci, and aptly synthesize everything the Virgin represented and threatened in one painting,” she explains.

She considers that Ono’s work, too, when drawn out, reveals much more than a superficial sum of its parts. “I see things differently because of my work with Mannerism, so Mannerism is inseparable from Ono for me personally,” she continues. “Both of these periods of art and the artists I'm discussing demonstrate a huge amount of inventiveness and playfulness, which is important to my philosophy altogether.”