On the occasion of the fifth anniversary of the City of Women festival to be hosted by our city (the city in the material and symbolic meaning of the word: a crossroad of different paths and voices, a public and political place where new images are created) let us look into the past and see how the internal and external images of the festival have changed.

Already in its third year, the festival formed —in addition to its excellent annual artistic programme— a referential framework and a contextual background within which artistic events took place.  From the very

beginning the festival had stressed the importance of promoting women in culture, because of the obstacles women face when trying to establish their own ways, and because of the inequal opportunities of gender

hierarchies. The programme selection focused on building a positive image of women and on strengthening a positive identification with important women of the past and present. In 1996 the festival director Uršula Cetinski wrote:”The City of Women presents the art and creativity of women who fought for and achieved the right to create and present their creations only in the last century, a situation which still differs from place to place”.

A year later —marked with the slogan “The Future Belongs to Women”— an important move was made. The festival drew not only the attention on the presentation of women artists, but emphasised that present-day trends demand the recognition of women artists as creative forces who will mark the decades to come.  The message was clear: leading women artists are something that should be taken for granted, their numbers are growing,

and —even though inequality remains— anatomy no longer decides their fate.

In 1998 the process of raising awareness continued and became more political. It became clear that art is not neutral, but that it produces certain knowledge, value systems and images that affect the perception of the world, and influences the relationships between individuals as well as influence their view of life. The programme selector and co-ordinator, Koen Van Daele, pointed out the pro-blematic production of

historical memory: it teaches us about great men, while omitting great women artists, who remain forgotten and

suppressed. For that reason a number of performances stressed the suppressed “women’s perspective”. Consequently the festival got its identity and autonomy the moment it moved out of political neutrality and showed that the exclusion of women from artistic trends is no coincidence, but a matter of cultural politics and other dominant discourses, which create the truth, beauty and our collective memory. Art is not only the “language of the soul”, it is also the language of politics. The choices of the invited artists, who performed during the festival, formed an obvious biased position. The festival became a place for women, who had not had a political subjectivity in the past —although they were formally equal— but their rights were really not the same of those of men.

The festival, with its slogan “You have to make a lot of noise to be heard” drew the attention to a problem touched upon in numerous performances: namely, that women have been silenced, and that exactly this silence and passivity forms a part of women’s collective memories.

During the first years of the festival Slovene audiences were beginning to shake off the uneasy question “Why is it necessary to have a festival of women? Isn’t it enough for someone to be an artist to be able to participate?”

It became obvious that what was once regarded as “universal” in art, is in fact predominantly male art.

In other words: seemingly gender neutral criteria are actually promoting men more than women. It became evident that “universal” is biased, that it includes power-relations and inequality. The City of Women drew our attention to the problematic status of the “universalistic view” (in the sense of: we are all people and thus all equal human beings) and began to celebrate the uniqueness of each individual. It was precisely in 1995 —the year of the first festival— that the well-known moral philosopher and feminist Seyla Benhabib began to advocate for an ‘interactive universalism’: a person in her or his universality is also considered through her or his concrete and unique identity. Thus, the festival stimulated a process in which it is important to see gender as point of departure of a new theoretical and aesthetic position. Generally this could be called a feminist position, which is in favour of reflecting upon all that which has been considered neutral in a particular society (for example, the belief that established art does not depend on gender, class or ethnicity). The feminist position also means a certain belief system (for instance that differences between women and men are socially constructed and not naturally given) and lifestyle (for example, a personal commitment to improve the position of women).

The feminist perspective —which was cultivated by many women and some men throughout the centuries— is in favour of equality of women, men and children. It is a framework of thought we cannot ignore when considering the importance of the festival for Slovenia. In the past five years, it became clear that the City of Women festival is not only important as an artistic happening, but also as an event which helps to make everyday life more democratic, and helps to lessen the professional isolation of many women working in the arts. The City of Women became a place where the promotion of women artists is not only a favoured motto, but also a reality; where the cultural diversity of women artists is not merely a popular flowery phrase, but a fact which strengthens the visibility of the multicultural environment we live in.

Darja Zaviršek

President of the Association for the Promotion of Women in Culture - City of Women