While Rebecca Stephany, a professor in visual communication at Karlsruhe University of Arts and Design usually describes herself as a designer, artist and educator, she has “never felt comfortable labelling my practice, perhaps because to me, working post – or transdisciplinary – has developed naturally.” With projects ranging from printed matter to more commercially-led client work, to an art practice which encompasses performance, video and installation, making clothing, curating and writing, Rebecca’s multidisciplinary approach is not born simply from creative curiosity but a want to break down conventional ideas of what a designer is.
“We live in times of the extended field of design, yes,” she begins, “but unfortunately our society is still very hooked to the phantom of the genius, the truth-telling expert, the star-designer, which are all male archetypes, and manifestations of the structural patriarchal modernist trauma we need to collectively unpack, dismantle and overcome. So as a female designer, refusing to participate in this discriminatory narrative and instead insisting on multiple subjectivities and design principles and work strategies that challenge this toxic modernist heritage, is my kind of feminist design activism.”
With a portfolio of works so wide-ranging in its output, there were ample avenues for us to dive into but it was 200 Sisters Souvenirs which initially piqued our interest – a project which exemplifies Rebecca’s feminist design activism. She developed the work inline with the 200 year anniversary of The Baden Art Association (Badischer Kunstverein), and it is the result of “an intensive exploration of the catalogue archive of Badischer Kunstverein from a decidedly feminist point of view, hence the title,” Rebecca explains. This archive, which contains over 350 catalogues and monographs, then became a “publication-cum-advertising-brochure with 152 images and an accompanying line of merchandise.”
This merchandise was available to purchase and included everything from key chains to eyewear straps to modified shirts and tote bags, presented as an over-the-top trendy photoshoot featuring members of Badischer Kunstverein, shot by Robert Hamacher. Adorning said merchandise were images from the archive of unknown women depicting in painting and sculpture, as well as the work from the few female artists contained within it. These were also accompanied by custom woven ribbon, consisting of text fragments from the catalogue archive. “Weaving both sexist-discriminatory statements as well as emancipatory claims into one ribbon, became an analogy of empowerment through appropriation, as well as the idea of forming bonds, quite literally,” Rebecca tells us.
In turn, the merchandise celebrates these women, resurfacing many of them for the first time, while also carrying with it a strong dedication to intersectional feminism; “One that understands that cultural patterns of oppression are systemic, interrelated and include race, gender, class, ability and ethnicity.”
Finally, 200 Sister Souvenirs circulated the resulting body of work back into Karlsruhe. “Through objects of desire and daily life, these souvenirs re-appropriate the language of commerce for claims of female empowerment while emancipating a feminist exhibition reading from moral claims and political correctness,” Rebecca concludes. The resulting work is compelling and complex – all the more fascinating upon investigation as the thorough research and sensitivity that went into its making becomes clear.
While this project represents merely one from Rebecca’s back catalogue, it is representative of her complete appreciation of the power that the medium harbours to challenge, question and maybe even insight change. As such, it’s no surprise to hear that it’s her job in education which keeps her most engaged with design. Rebecca explains: “Perhaps this sounds strange, but teaching graphic design and visual communication, working with students, co-organising the educational programme of our department and so forth, are the things that excite me the most about the medium, and teaches me a lot in return. As an educator, I need to continuously reflect on the role of the designer in an ever-expanding field under increasingly neoliberal working conditions and respond to these complexities with a programme I consider useful and empowering alike.”
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