Les Militantes at Guerlain A multigenerational, international group show of pioneering women artists at its flagship boutique in Paris

For its 15th exhibition, Guerlain has turned to the theme of women’s activism for a group exhibition in Paris titled ‘Les Militantes’, coinciding with the inaugural edition of Paris+ par Art Basel. Though wide-ranging in age, nationality, media and theme, the 21 featured artists are united by activism – sometimes radical, sometimes subtle, but consistently thought-provoking. 

The show doesn’t hold back in offering a mirror to the myriad issues that now bind contemporary society. It spotlights artists, who, since the mid-20th century have fearlessly confronted the problems plaguing their times – from racial injustice to gender inequality and the very palpable climate emergency. 

The show pairs the work of legendary 20th-century titans such as Niki de Saint Phalle, Louise Bourgeois, Kiki Smith and Etel Adnan with leading mid-career artists and emerging talent such as Zanele Muholi, Francesca Pasquali, Thu Van Tran, Min Zhang and Jeanne Vicerial

It was important to mix well-known artists like Louise Bourgeois, Nikki Saint Phalle and Kiki Smith with young, emergent artists because Guerlain, at the beginning and in each generation since, has discovered new talent. We want to do the same.’ 

Jeanne Susplugas, “La Maison malade” (1999-2022), Vue: Musée Fabre, 2020Courtesy Jeanne susplugas. Photography Brice Pelleschi

Jeanne Susplugas, “La Maison malade” (1999-2022) Musée Fabre, 2020 Courtesy Jeanne susplugas Photography Brice Pelleschi

Among the standout works in the show are Jeanne SusplugasLa Maison malade (1999 – 2022), installed on the lower ground floor of the boutique. A greenhouse erupts with a chaotic array of pharmaceutical packaging, a commentary on the sickness of western society, the excessive consumption of medicine, and our perpetual battle to achieve wellness.

Eléa-Jeanne Schmitter’s arresting photograph depicts a nude female torso whose breasts are distorted by what could be at first glance some kind of Japanese shibari bondage rope but, as you get closer, is actually a car seat belt. Schmitter’s work comments on the many elements of daily life designed by men for the benefit of other men.

“There are so many daily microaggressions we don’t even notice,” explains Schmitter as we stand on the Guerlain marble staircase, contemplating her work. “Before I started this work I wasn’t aware of how so many spheres of healthcare or design were constructed in a way that excludes women. And I was so shocked because I didn’t realise these things were so present in our daily routine in very tiny details that can become super dangerous.”

In her work “Fasten” (2020), Schmitter draws our attention to the innate sexism of the standardised seat belt – a device designed solely for the safety and comfort of 40-year-old men weighing 70 kg (despite the fact that, although men are more involved in road accidents than women, women are 47 per cent more likely to be injured and 17 per cent more likely to die).

Schmitter explains that female test dummies were introduced to the market in 2010, but they are still not compulsory for car designers and are still almost entirely absent from study data. She adds wryly, “And of course when they are used, they are placed in the passenger seat.”

Le Militants is running at Maison Guerlain until November 14 2022