A prominent figure in feminist and conceptual art movements, Nancy Spero (1926–2009) wove together narratives of the female experience, daring to explore the intersection of gender and war, violence, and discourse of Western history. Through the arc of her illustrious career that spanned more than fifty years, her practice expansively portrays different manifestations of female subjects as liberated, unbound protagonists. From her seminal works on paper developed in protest against the Vietnam War, to collages, cut-out prints, found images and monumental, site-specific installations, Spero has introduced more radical and nuanced understandings of the human experience as it permeates social, political, and cultural shifts. Through different material explorations, but with a special affection for paper as a more versatile material, she frequently incorporated fragmented and symbolic imagery embracing the tensions between ecstasy and indignation, joy and anguish, celebration and protest. Spero also took inspiration from literature, extending from Classical antiquity to modern world literature (the words of Antonin Artaud amongst others) to reinscribe different forms of storytelling in profound narratives of human history that defy singular categorization.
Originally created for the grand entryway of the 52nd Biennale di Venezia in 2007, Maypole: Take No Prisoners is one of the last, and most significant large-scale works by Spero before her death in 2009. With this immersive installation, we are introduced to recurring themes in Spero’s work: the atrocities of war, the role of the artist as an activist, the cyclical histories of oppression and power, and the loss of innocence. Maypole: Take No Prisoners is a critical and visual outcry against the recourse to strategies of violence in situations of conflict, namely the two wars that the artist spoke out against during her lifetime: the US interventions in Vietnam and Iraq. Maypole: Take No Prisoners is a raw depiction of the barbaric and dehumanizing nature of a war, and the physical and psychological repercussions on the communities affected — close and afar. In many ways, Spero’s practice looks back to better understand and bear witness to the present and, as such, the work remains profoundly relevant today.