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On Exhibit: Bertha Husband, openly political artist



How does an unashamedly gay woman react to being kicked out of an organization because she's gay? If the woman is Bertha (or Bert, as she prefers to be called) Husband, an artist and political radical, and if the organization is one that furthers a cause in which she believes deeply, the answer is not necessarily obvious.

"It's like if someone you know is blown up by a liberation army you support," she explains, "you do not say 'they're all killers and murderers' suddenly, simply because you have an emotional response to it."

Husband says she was expelled from an Irish liberation support organization for being a lesbian. "It's one of those things that has a certain sort of amusing contradiction to it," she says, "in that I was at a ruling-class English boarding school, which I was also kicked out of for being lesbian. So it's sort of interesting that you're in an organization that's fighting against British imperialism and the same thing happens that's just as offensive as the British imperialists."

Husband makes it clear that she doesn't believe in letting herself be trampled on, but she feels much like gays who were forced to leave Cuba, many of whom, she says, still support the social system there. "If you really believe in something, you can't just say--I mean the idea that one would say everything is all wrong somewhere, or this organization's all wrong because it doesn't like me, strikes me as being the most self-centered--it's not real."

All of which is by way of explaining why the current exhibition of Bertha Husband's recent works is "dedicated to those of us who, like the horse thief, find we are cast out of the tribe, however devoted to its existence, however committed to its flowering." The thief analogy is drawn from a Chinese film about a Tibetan man who feels compelled to steal horses and religious objects from tribal monks. He is expelled from his tribe, yet he still feels part of it and continues to support it.

Husband's exhibition is titled "Tango--Somewhere Between Alba and Argentina." The tango connects Argentina, a place Husband hasn't visited, with Alba, the Gaelic name for Scotland, Husband's ancestral homeland. Husband explains that the tango was originally "this very proletarian dance from the slums of Argentina, and was always ignored and despised by the Argentine ruling class--until of course it went to Europe and . . . became this sort of classy thing. . . . Another thing I discovered about it was that it was often danced between men and men or women and women. So it's had this sort of popular revolutionary kind of history."

Husband's works are constructed of a variety of materials, painted, and drawn, often featuring repeated images--bricks, tiles, musicians, couples dancing and also apparently locked in struggle or perhaps in sex. The sense is of confinement, regimentation, with flashes of freedom or peace. These visions are rendered, often almost in miniature, with a grace that belies the sense of repression but does not negate the power of the image.

Political art? I guess so. But not with an obvious message.

Husband is a cofounder of the Axe Street Arena, the location of the exhibition. The Arena is meant to be a place where art and politics meet, are debated. The name of the space is deliberate. "We call it an arena, not a gallery," says Husband. "It's supposed to be a place where you have that debate. But it's very hard to actually debate things in this society." Husband enters the debate primarily from the artist's side; she hopes an artistic vision will influence radical politics. "I suppose this is a sort of surrealist concept," she says. "I think the political sphere is very much hung up on the logical or pragmatic, and art can subvert some of that into something that would be more liberating in the end."

Yet Husband refuses to simply retreat into her art. "If you really feel something, if you have a deep political commitment to an idea, then you've got to accept that maybe you won't be able to be part of it, maybe they don't want you. But on the other hand, it is the move forward. You sure don't want things to stay the way they are."

Tango--Somewhere Between Alba and Argentina--Works by Bertha Husband can be seen at the Axe Street Arena, 2778 N. Milwaukee, through January 10. Saturdays and Sundays, noon to 6 PM, and by appointment. For more information call 252-6082.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Bruce Powell.

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