Making Waves

Article in March 2010

A few years ago, three Minnesota women talking over a cup of tea began a conversation that has culminated in an exhibition now showing at the Katherine E. Nash Gallery at the University of Minnesota. “Women and Water: Rivers of Regeneration” is an artistic exploration of the global water crisis and how the inclusion of women in water resources management is critical to addressing the problem.

Circumstances are dire for nearly a fifth of the planet. According to the World Health Organization, 1.1 billion people lack safe drinking water and 2.6 billion people have no access to basic sanitation. Every year, 2.2 million people die because of diseases related to poor water quality.

Photo: Karen Farr, photographed by Cheryl Walsh Bellville, is the matriarch of a fifth-generation New Mexico cattle ranch fighting business interests that want to drain and sell 17.5 billion gallons of water annually from the plain on which her ranch is located.

Women and girls in developing countries suffer the most. Lack of safe, sanitary toilets means they often risk violence walking for distances in the dark seeking a place to defecate. And with few private, sanitary toilets in schools, girls are unlikely or forbidden to attend. At the same time, education level in women is strongly linked to sustainable hygiene behaviors. While women and girls traditionally are a family’s water fetchers and primary household water users, they have little or no role in water resource management and planning.

Inspired by the belief that safe water is a basic human right and not a commodity, University professor of art Diane Katsiaficas and her two tea companions—University professor emerita of Spanish Marilyn Cuneo and Liz Dodson, board member of the Minnesota chapter of the Women’s Caucus—wanted to see if they could turn a drop of water into a wave of change.

Photo: In Alma Mia (My Soul), Carmen Gutiérrez-Bolger draws on her experiences as a Cuban refugee and views of water as boundary or means of escape.

“Far more written than visual work has been done addressing this issue,” Katsiaficas says. “There are many photographs of women carrying water or at the well in the Third World but little that metaphorically distills the visual conundrums of women and water rights.”

Featuring all artistic media, the exhibition includes juried artwork by 33 female artists residing in the five states forming the Upper Mississippi River Basin and works by invited artists from around the United States and internationally. All works address issues surrounding water use from women’s perspectives.

Related programming includes music and dance performances, poetry readings, and speakers. An important aspect of “Women and Water” is community involvement to create a ripple effect, says Katsiaficas. For example, Waterwall is an installation honoring seven women active locally and globally in water use issues. Information about their work will accompany each of their photographs. “And in the eighth place is a mirror and a common book where people can make pledges to become more active themselves,” Katsiaficas says.

Women and Water: Rivers of Regeneration” runs through March 25 at the Katherine E. Nash Gallery in the Regis Center for Art, 405 21st Ave. S., on the West Bank of the Minneapolis campus. For more information, go to or call 612-624-6518.

—Shelly Fling