Exhibition Review: Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner Too?

Forty years ago, Judy Chicago’s ode to women The Dinner Party served to counter the patriarchal erasure of women’s achievements throughout history, monumentalising both the 39 women in ‘attendance’ and the traditionally female and domestic labour of crafts such as needlework and ceramics. Now considered a canonical piece of feminist artwork, Chicago’s work is not impervious to critique. Perhaps the most damning point of contention – and one that highlights the weaknesses of second-wave feminism – is the table’s unmistakable absence of black women and women of colour. A former school assembly hall in Amsterdam’s Nieuw-West neighbourhood is the unlikely but apt setting for a welcome rejoinder to this omission. De Appel’s newly renovated and unusual gallery space is the current host of an ongoing community art project by Dutch visual artist, cultural activist and womanist of Surinamese heritage, Patricia Kaersenhout – Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner Too?

Using the visual language of Chicago’s Dinner Party as a point of departure, Kaersenhout invites 39 black women and women of colour across 2000 years of history to take a seat at the Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner Too? table. Akin to Chicago’s piece, the room features a triangular table consisting of glassware and table runners embroidered with glass beading that details both the names of these women and their estimable attributes such as intelligence and steadfastness. Overlooking the table, located on a stage at the back of the hall, are a number of copies of the accompanying exhibition publication which consists of short biographies of each of these woman – some of whom their histories have never been shared with a general public – researched through a multitude of sources including printed references, vernacular history websites and conversations. The Ghanaian adinkra symbols that Kaersenhout allocates to each woman in the publication (and gives reference to in the attributes stitched in the table runners) also ceremoniously adorn the hall’s lofty windows. 

There was a palpable energy in the room at the opening of the exhibition earlier this month, with an attendance to rival an opening of any of the larger institutions in Amsterdam. Kaersenhout made reference to the notion of a ‘communal body’ during her opening speech; as an ongoing and dynamic piece, the various guises through which these communal bodies manifest themselves are manifold. True to Kaersenhout’s social practice, numerous collective actions have taken place in order to contribute to this piece in the run up to the exhibition; this includes community workshops with skilled crafts-women in Dakar, a group of female artists, refugees and victims of domestic violence in Amsterdam Nieuw-West and as part of a ‘stitch-in’ event at De Appel with special guest Emory Douglas – former Minister for Culture of the Black Panther Party. Using this physical object as the platform through which to name and honour this communal body of ‘heroines of resistance’, the swell of lively discussion that permeated the hall took on the form of a shared ceremony by a communal body to keep their histories alive. 

The latest element to join this ever-evolving project is the glassware that sits upon the table and is, for me, the most arresting visual element of the installation. The mesmerising eating and drinking vessels are inspired by pre-Christian ceramics from West and Central Africa and South America and shaped in a way that encourages communal activity; conjoined handles bring multiple mugs together; ends of bowls are pinched for consumption at both sides and wide platters are scattered across the table. Reimagining colonial and patriarchal conceptions of not just who sits at the table but also the relationship between the individual and the collective at this table, Kaersenhout uses hospitality as both an aesthetic and political tool in this ‘table of disruption.’

Revisiting De Appel on a quiet afternoon where I am the only person in the space provides a different experience of the work. Devoid of the buzz of people and fully able to appreciate the table and its surroundings, it is hard to imagine this monumental piece located elsewhere; as Kaersenhout expressed at the opening, the expansive hall provides a setting that can do justice to both the physicality of the piece and the emotional weight of its subject matter. During this quieter and more introspective visit, I was able to relish in the light filtering through the semi-opaque glassware and sit down to read through all of the accompanying biographies (I highly encourage you to consult the online version of the publication here). From Queen Amanirenas, ruler of modern-day Sudan from 40 to 10BC, to 20th century transgender activist Marsha P. Johnson, each page reveals the compelling and largely unknown stories of these women who challenge both the colonial narrative and canon of art history.

The tunics that are decorated with these names and stories are somewhat lost in this exhibition context, suspended from a triangular bamboo lattice slightly too high above the stage to be comfortably engaged with. However, I am reassured to find out that they will be coming to life during a Hāka performance – a ceremonial Māori dance by men in honour of women – at the exhibition’s closing event in December. As a social monument, the strength of this piece really lies in the collective actions through which it is activated prior to, throughout the duration of and after the exhibition rather than the physical object itself. The Hāka performance will be preceded by a number of historic encounters that will bring together writers, artists and scholar-activists whose work connects profoundly to the lives of the women honoured. 

As is evidenced by Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner Too?, the process of acknowledging and voicing forgotten (or erased) histories of the oppressed in order to engender a form of dignity is at the core of Kaersenhout’s artistic practice. As an audience member, particularly myself as a white woman, it is a privilege to have had Kaersenhout take on the labour of narrating these women’s histories for us through this exhibition. And so, it is now our turn to take on a share of the work by treating this encounter (with exhibition or online publication) with further dignity and by disseminating these histories into the present and into the future. 

Patricia Kaersenhout’s Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner Too is running at De Appel until 1st December 2019.

Words by Nicole Horgan

Nicole Horgan is a researcher currently based in the Netherlands, having completed a Masters in Arts & Society at Utrecht University.