2010 Changemaker: Women & Water Rights

Art as a catalyst for H2O issues

Where do you start when you’re concerned about a problem as huge as the looming international water crisis? Who makes the decisions about this scarce, life-giving resource?

Whether discussing parts of the world where women spend much of their day transporting water or the importance of women’s input on issues concerning the Mississippi River, Minnesota artist Liz Dodson believes “women have a central role in the provision and management of water … women must be central in decision making for the future.”

According to a recent study, published in Nature, the International Journal of Science, river biodiversity and water security-including the water supplies of 80 percent of people-are at serious risk. UNESCO, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, says that 70 percent of water is used for agriculture.

Dodson’s orientation as an artist (she currently is using video as her medium) informed her idea of how to call attention to women and water rights. When she learned that the art to be exhibited at the University of Minnesota’s Katherine E. Nash Gallery was open to community suggestions, she got moving.

As a longtime member of Women’s Caucus for Art, Dodson worked with Marilyn Cuneo of the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom, and Diane Katsiaficas, an art professor at the University of Minnesota. Though they started with planning a Nash Galley exhibit, they had an even more comprehensive project in mind. “We started three years in advance,” Dodson said. “Meeting after meeting after meeting … gathering in people. We thought that by reaching out to different groups, having exhibits and different events, we could use art as the catalyst to bring the issue [of women and water rights] into sharper focus.”

The result was a stunning, multifaceted, month-long project titled “Women and Water Rights: Rivers of Regeneration” (WWR). The project included music, dance and poetry performances, a two-day symposium called Global Policy-Local Action, and multiple lectures. The anchor was Dodson’s original idea: a juried visual arts exhibition at the Nash Gallery that included work by 50 women-multi-media artists from around the world.

The month’s events kicked off with a reception featuring percussionists from the Women’s Drum Center and a Native American water ritual by the Keepers of the Waters, an international organization founded by environmental artist Betsy Damon. It ended with a lecture by internationally renowned eco-feminist Vandana Shiva. And in between students from the Perpich Center for Arts Education performed Water Dance, which incorporated dance, visual art, music and poetry. There was also a performance by Sandy Spieler of the Heart of the Beast Puppet and Mask Theatre and a film screening.

The global aspect of the project came into being because the issue affects everybody, according to Cuneo. She said the organizers wanted to explore how water rights connect Minnesota with the rest of the world.

When asked why the focus on women, Cuneo’s answer was succinct. “Water,” she said, “is women’s world.”

Be a Changemaker:
Learn more about women and water, water.org
Learn more about Minnesota’s watershed districts at mnwatershed.org
Learn more about planting for clean water at bluethumb.org