‘The Sister Chapel’ presents women’s achievements from a female perspective

The exhibit at Rowan University Art Gallery’s Center for Art & Social Engagement celebrates 45 years this year. Curators have created interactive elements for the anniversary, bringing new layers to this monumental exhibition.

What strikes you first is the size of the portraits, and more accurately, the size of their subjects. Eleven of them, all illustrious women from history or beyond depicted by a woman artist on a 9-by-5-foot canvas—Frida Kahlo, Joan of Arc, God, Durga, Lilith, Superwoman and more. They all face inward, some returning your gaze as others look away. You look up and see yourself, there in the center of it, reflected in a circular mirror hung from the ceiling.

It feels hallowed, which was the intention. This is The Sister Chapel, a collaborative visual arts installation permanently on display at Rowan University Art Gallery’s Center for Art and Social Engagement (CASE). The artist Ilise Greenstein first envisioned a monumental “hall of fame” in which women’s achievements would be presented from a female perspective, and asked 11 women artists to create the works. It first exhibited in 1978 at P.S.1 (now MoMA PS1) in New York City; Greenstein called it “a major statement on women” and “a portrayal of how women artists see other women.” It exhibited twice more before 1980, and then each piece went back to each contributor, and nothing further came from the project.

That is until Dr. Andrew Hottle, a Rowan art history professor, started working on a book 10 years ago about Sylvia Sleigh, a female artist known for paintings of male nudes that attempt to navigate a shift from the male gaze to the female gaze. Hottle noticed that Sleigh contributed the portrait of Lilith to The Sister Chapel, and intrigued, started working to bring the works back together. All but two artists agreed to donate their work to the Rowan University Art Gallery, and in 2016, Rowan reintroduced the world to The Sister Chapel (the two outlying portraits were donated for the opening, and now reproductions take their place; the hope is the originals will one day rejoin the Chapel, which has a permanent home at CASE).

This year, Rowan is celebrating the 45th anniversary of The Sister Chapel with an interactive exhibit, the Monumental Selfie Project, in which guests can take the place of the women in the portraits via a green screen, and Sisters Speak, in which guests can listen to recordings from Rowan theater students as they recite scripts based on the women featured in the portraits.

Those are added layers to what already is a chapel for reflection—on history, representation, gender and more. In a world, and country, that carved men’s faces into cliff sides, it feels regrettably novel to see distinguished women get the same treatment. Calling attention to the disparity of accolades for male and female artists was core to the project and is referenced in the name of the installation itself.

“The pun with the Sistine Chapel is another poke at the patriarchy of the art world and how male artists are elevated to an extraordinary, almost godlike position; the Sistine Chapel represents the ultimate of what was achieved by the male artist of the day, while The Sister Chapel riffs off the Sistine Chapel as a patriarchal project by shifting the structure to a secular, nonhierarchical, fundamentally female institution,” says Mary Salvante, director and chief curator at Rowan University Art Gallery. “The Sistine Chapel is a monument to God while The Sister Chapel is a monument to Woman.”

What further separates The Sister Chapel from other monuments is that it’s self-aware; it was created to honor the women in the portraits and to recontextualize those women through modern art, yes, but it was also created to call attention to the lack of recognition of accomplishments by women in broader society. The installation subtly references this in its staging.

“After receiving the paintings, we realized that to follow the original intent of the artists, we’d need to create a tent structure to house the works, which hadn’t been possible in previous exhibitions because the organizing group of artists didn’t have the resources to fund its fabrication. We collaborated with a number of people to build a red and white structure that is reminiscent of a circus tent, which pokes fun at the male-dominated art scene that many view as ‘just a circus,’” Salvante says.

The portraits in The Sister Chapel are rotated throughout the circle from time to time, Salvante says, and each is created in a unique style, with a unique color palette, in a unique perspective. Sharon Wybrants, for instance, painted herself as Superwoman. Cynthia Mailman painted herself, but as god as a naked woman. And Alice Neel’s portrait of Congresswoman Bella Abzug was forged both by the artist’s physical limitations (Abzug is the only woman who’s not as tall as the portrait) and creative perspective.

“She was a very vocal women’s advocate and had this gravelly voice, this hardcore New York accent, but Alice Neel at the time was already elderly and reluctant to climb a ladder in order to make a 9-foot-tall figure,” Salvante says. “With her breasts, you see these swirly shapes to sort of indicate the power of the female form and bringing that forward.”

There were few stipulations on what the collaborating artists could create, Salvante says; with the exception of Neel’s portrait, all had to fill the 9-by-5-foot canvas and the artist needed to see the woman they were depicting as a hero. 

“Some of the paintings are of historical figures, some are mythological, and some are of other artists. While all the contributing artists were white women (the emphasis on racial visibility was much lower at the time), the subjects of the paintings are diverse, which reflects one of their collective foresights,” she says.

That The Sister Chapel was created in the first place was a feat in itself, Salvante says.

“Back in the ’70s, it was not commonplace for artists to collaborate in the way The Sister Chapel’s contributing artists did. Hottle’s 2014 book, The Art of the Sister Chapel: Exemplary Women, Visionary Creators, and Feminist Collaboration, talks about the history of the artists and their paintings in depth, and contains sketches and preliminary drawings. That 12 women with strong ideas and opinions were able to come together for this project is truly remarkable, and The Sister Chapel offers a rare opportunity to experience an installation exclusively by women artists from that time period,” Salvante says. “It’s interesting to compare and contrast the ’70s with where we are today in regards to women’s rights and the women’s movement. How have our ideas of womanhood and the power of women evolved over the past 45 years?”

Though they were created over 45 years ago, many (if not all) of the portraits, present a new perspective to modern conversations. Lilith, as legend has it, was the first wife of Adam, who was banished from the Garden of Eden after she refused to be subservient to him. In Sleigh’s portrait of Lilith, a nude male and female body are imposed on one another; of course in the context of Lilith’s story that might mean one set of things; in the context of contemporary society, it might mean another to any individual viewer.

The Sister Chapel was created at the peak of the feminist movement, a movement which opened doors for equality (an ongoing effort) and made today’s conversations about transgender and nonbinary rights possible. At CASE, our doors are open to any and every gender identity. We had one student comment on the painting Lilith and say, ‘Oh, it’s a transgender person.’ I was thrilled they saw it that way because it became relevant to them,” Salvante says.

The Sister Chapel is no ordinary monument—it’s not the kind of structure or portrait where you read a placard and move on. It invites you into a conversation across decades, and to find your place in it. And the story it tells is much greater than the sum of its parts.

“In some ways, the story is that through time, women have power and agency,” Salvante says. “Through time, women can harness the strength of the women that came before them to reach new heights.”

To experience the interactive elements of The Sister Chapel, visit The Center for Art & Social Engagement At Rowan University in Glassboro between Feb. 16 and May 4.