Yayoi Kusama, the Modern Alice in Wonderland

Yayoi Kusama was born in 1929 in Matsumoto, Nagano, Japan. At an early age she experienced hallucinations which included seeing lights and dots. In addition Yayoi believed she saw talking flowers and patterns of stones from the nearby river which would come to life in her waking dreams. It was such imagery that stirred the imagination of the young artist, who soon began to draw artistic inspiration from her own visions.

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Yayoi’s home life was rather chaotic. Her parents could be abusive, and her father was often absent due to extra marital affairs. The artist was sent to work during the second world war, working in a factory sewing parachutes at the age of thirteen. It was a dark period of history for Japan which culminated in the atom bombings of Nagasaki and Hiroshima.

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After the war Yayoi began to study painting, however she rejected the popular styles of her homeland in favour of a more avant-garde European approach. By 1950 the artist was creating and exhibiting abstract works often incorporating dotted imagery from her hallucinations. Yayoi soon became disenchanted with the Japanese art scene however and moved to New York hoping for a greater appreciation of her work. Here she befriended fellow artists Georgia O’Keeffe and Eva Hesse.

By the 1960s, Yayoi was producing work at a fast pace, including her Infinity room installations. Among the daring and often naked impromptu performances or ‘happenings’,  she presided over during this era was one entitled ‘Homosexual Wedding’.


After a period of ill health Yayoi returned to her homeland in the early 1970s. Here she would undertake various activities from art dealership to writing and poetry. However, suffering from exhaustion, the artist soon entered a hospital for those suffering from mental illness. Nevertheless, Yayoi continued to produce artworks, her style changing to a more colourful approach. By the 1990s the artist began to exhibit her famous pumpkins which she viewed as embodying something of herself, akin to symbolic self-portraits. She continues to work well into her nineties.

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In her later years Yayoi’s work has continued to achieve huge critical acclaim while also engaging and delighting huge audiences. Having worked in performance, film, poetry, installation, painting, sculpture, fashion and numerous other genres, it is true to say that Yayoi Kusama is a truly multitalented multimedia artist.

In her own words…..

‘I, Kusama, am the modern Alice in Wonderland.’


The Story of Gerda and Lili

The artist Gerda Wegener (née Gottlieb) was born in semi-rural Denmark into a conservative and religious family. As a young woman with a promising artistic talent, she was later allowed to attend the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts in Copenhagen. It was here, in 1904, that Gerda first met fellow artist and landscape painter whose given name was Einar Magnus Andreas Wegener, but who would later become globally known as Lili Elbe.

It is believed they married at the ages of 19 and 22 years old.


Gerda Wegener

After Gerda graduated in 1907 the couple travelled around Europe, eventually settling in Paris. The artist hoped that the French capital would offer her an artistic opportunity in the world of fashion. Gerda’s work was shown at various exhibitions and she eventually gained a living in advertising creating posters. Here she developed a specific art deco figurative style. Her work, often featuring women, was considered too risqué in her homeland, but was readily accepted in the more relaxed atmosphere of Bohemian Paris.


Gerda Wegener, A Summer Day-detail, 1927

Gerda and her partner soon became well acquainted with the dancers, intellectuals, fellow artists and the radical lifestyle of the capital. It was at this time that Elbe began to present as Lili. The artist, like Gerda, had also worked as an illustrator to earn money and had been a successful landscape painter, even exhibiting at the Salon in Paris, but had ceased painting believing it was part of a former life.


Poples along Hobro Fjord, 1908 signed in Elbe’s former name.

Gerda, however, continued in her work, often utilising Lili as model. Little did her viewers know the story behind her most favoured new muse. The circumstances of their complex bond both on a personal and artistic level was somewhat unconventional, even for the relaxed atmosphere of Paris in the early 20th century.


“Lili y Gerda”, Gerda Wegener


The couple continued a close relationship for many years despite Lili often being explained as a cousin of Gerda’s. In 1930 Lili became one of the first people to undergo reassignment surgery and became celebrated by many as a pioneering transexual (a term appropriate to the era). However, due to complications involved in further surgical interventions Lili died. Elbe’s autobiography was published posthumously in 1933.

By this time Gerda had become involved in a new relationship which evolved into an unhappy marriage and a period of time spent in North Africa. Later divorced, she spent the last years of her life alone.

The story of Gerda and Lili, which inspired the film ‘The Danish Girl’, has been perceived by many as challenging the typical gendered power dynamics of artist master and model. Gerda’s work has also been praised for her bold depictions of independent women, including lesbian erotica, created from the female rather than typically male gaze.

The entwined bond of artist Gerda and former artist Lili, is certainly one of historical interest, and has a significant place in the history of both culture and art.

Adding the Blue: the collected oil paintings of Chrissie Hynde – A book review

Giving yourself to painting is easier if you don’t live with someone. Get a cat instead.” Chrissie Hynde.

Without formal training musician Chrissie Hynde began painting in her later years. As with many women in the arts, she started when her children left home and a space in her life opened to accommodate time for the genre. Having been enthused by art from an early age, Hynde recalls that it was her saviour subject at school. Her life, however took her down the route of music with her band The Pretenders as she became a pioneering and iconic female figure in the post punk, rock scene.

Adding the Blue is a newly created book featuring a collection of oil paintings created by Hynde in recent years. Displayed chronologically, this includes numerous still lifes, nudes, landscapes, self-portraits and portraits of friends and family, in addition to a host of abstract works painted by the artist in both her London and French studios. While attractively displayed in colourful full-page presentation, what defines the book is not only the quality of the paintings-and it is certainly quite a vibrant talent that Hynde possesses, but also the insights provided by her own accompanying texts.

While sharing anecdotes relating to her artworks, Hynde’s commentary states she approaches her painting as she created her music, with unpretentious enthusiasm.

It’s pretty much like writing songs. I might know what I want to write about, but generally I just dive in and see what’s down there” – Chrissie Hynde

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Hynde expresses feelings of being outside the world of art and artists. Considering her incredibly successful survival in a hugely male dominated music business where women have always been treated as ‘outsiders’, she does not fear rejection in her current role as painter however. Within her appealingly pragmatic and insightful statements within the book, Hynde claims her earlier life encompassing menial jobs gave her a humble perspective and gratitude for her present creative life.

Her work presented here at times recalls the flat modernist organisation of Picasso combined with the colour palate of Matisse. In terms of female artists, the flower studies of Georgia O’Keefe and the still lifes of Suzanne Valadon come to mind, with suggestions of the expressionist figures of contemporary artist like Nicole Eisenman. What the book reflects is how Hynde’s work has progressed with an authenticity mirrored in the honest reflections of her accompanying commentary. Hynde’s nudes are created, for example without the need to beautify, while reflecting a refreshing awareness of real humanity in their vulnerability and awkwardness at times. Her abstract work, in turn, has evolved in boldness, with a uniting of geometric and organic shapes incorporated in increasing balanced compositions.

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Art is a way of connecting to the divine”-Chrissie Hynde

Her portrait work is especially expressive, created with thought to character and mood which avoids sentimentality or fawning. The painting of Hynde’s friend, dancer Michael Clark, for example, reflects a heartfelt intensity perhaps only conveyed by someone close to the subject. Her self-portraits such as Thursday Self 1 and 2 created with sharp angular, chiselled features and stretched pink muscle sinews, likewise present an intriguing impression of the artist, devoid of any sense of self-aggrandisement or vanity.

Conveyed in a book that is both a visual and informative treat, Hynde clearly enjoys her paintings, creating a body of work that communicates in a candid and meaningful way.

Most importantly Adding the Blue not only offers an intriguing insight into the development of the work of Chrissie Hynde as an emerging painter. It provides an accessible approach that thankfully avoids the usual language and clichés of the art book, appropriately reflective of the artist herself…. certainly worth our attention.

CH Adding The Blue Trade Edition Cover

More information


Stitching & Swearing: Interview with Annie Taylor of the Profanity Embroidery Group (PEG)

I’m going to start with an obvious question, how did the Profanity Embroidery Group (PEG) begin as an idea and then form as a group?
The Profanity Embroidery Group came about by accident really.  I shared an old Rino Piccolo cartoon on my facebook feed.  My mum had always embroidered, and years ago I had torn this cartoon out of the New Yorker, I think, and sent it to her.  In the summer of 2014, mum was looking through her books and the cartoon fell out.  My dad then scanned it and emailed it back to me.  I laughed so much when I saw it, I decided to share it.  The cartoon shows a lovely older woman sitting stitching, covering everything with hearts and flowers and ‘Fuck the World’. The catch line is “Mrs Winchester finds a positive outlet for frustrated negative energy”.
The response from my friends, and friends of friends, was immediate. Within an hour, we had the name Profanity Embroidery Group, and acronym PEG, and myself and Wendy Robinson had arranged to loiter in one of our wonderful local pubs on the following Tuesday, and see if anyone wanted to turn up and join.
Much to our amazement, the door kept opening, and women sidled in muttering loudly “is this the Profanity Embroidery Group”. By the end of that first evening, we had a vague plan to make a Quilt of Profanity, and the group was well and truly launched. 
‘Real Women Fart’ embroidery by Jan Lewis, PEG
Are there any skills required to join? Also what reasons do your members have for becoming part of the group?
No skills are necessary: we’ve had people join who are excellent at swearing but complete novices at stitching, who are now producing amazing work, and then fortunately (otherwise our Quilt of Profanity would have been a nightmare) we’ve had people join with brilliant stitching abilities, but lacking a profane vocabulary. I’m glad to say they are also coming along fine and their use of swearing has improved immensely.  One of my favourite reasons for someone joining was that they wanted to do something that was in no way ‘self improving’. 
‘Can’t be arsed’ embroidery by Alison J Lee from PEG
I love the idea of pairing ‘stitching and swearing’. Embroidery can be perceived as a such a genteel pastime and yet profanity is regarded as opposing assumptions of ‘lady-like’ behaviour. Putting the two together is genius! While I love the humour, is there a feminist premise at all to this regarding, for example, female expression or ideas about the art women create?
There is indeed. Some of our work is more subtle than others, but there is something rather glorious in beautifully embroidering the word Cunt. It is an old old word, but is seen as vicious and derogatory, the worst of the worst, but if you can happily use it, and stitch it, the word has lost its power to hurt you.  The group is made up of around thirty people (at the moment we only have one male member) and we try to keep to this size as a manageable group.  Everyone has their own individual take on what they do, and why they do it, what they want to express, and indeed how they want to express their ideas, and sometimes the word is more serious. We collaborated with the poet Leah Thorne on her Older Women Rock project, which had grown out of her experience of ageing as a woman, interpreting her poems onto vintage clothing, which some of us then modelled. It was profanity free work, but really powerful. 
 What do you think women especially gain for joining a group like yours?
A damn good laugh.
´Fucketyfucketyfuckfuckfuck´ by Annie Taylor from PEG
Rozsika Parker’s iconic 1984 book ‘The Subversive Stitch’ and the work of Miriam Schapiro, who created the artwork “Anonymous was a Woman” (1976), aimed to recognise and elevate the status of traditional women’s crafts. For me, groups like PEG are reflective of much more than the crafts created but highlight the value in collective experience within the tradition of women’s communal work. Would you agree?
Yes, I would.  Interestingly though, we have never planned anything, or thought about the ‘why’ of what we are doing.  As I say, we began by accident, not because of a particular concept, and have rather tumbled from one project to the next. The ideas are communally generated, and refined, with a bit of gentle steering. For example our recent Lady Garden project began as an idea for a workshop, using a Beaver design by one of our members, Alison Fitzgerald Lucas originally intended for the Quilt of Profanity.  It was an ideal image to give out as a template, and so much that could be done with it.  We then decided to make it our project for the Whitstable Biennale Satellite, and at that point discovered the Gynaecological Cancer Fund’s own LadyGarden campaign, and decided to use our Lady Gardens to help raise some funds for the campaign. 
Finally, would you encourage others to form their own groups and if so, any advice or tips for doing so?
Others have tried to form their own groups, but do seem to have fizzled out for various reasons. One reason for PEG’s success I think is that were not a group of close friends when we formed – most of the initial members I did not in fact know – they were friends of friends who had been told about this mad idea and wanted to be part of it.  We meet in the pub,The Duke of Cumberland,  a public space where people can come and join in on their own, or observe us from a distance and decide whether they want to join us.  If we met in a closed space, it makes it difficult for others to feel as though they can just rock up and join in, and if the meeting is in someone’s house, they are not necessarily going to want to welcome total strangers. So I think the ‘where’ of the meeting is very important.  We love meeting in the pub, even if, in mid winter, we cannot see what we are doing so well, and just have to drink…  the drink also helps the ideas flow. 
‘TWAT’ hand embroidery by Wendy Robinson
Thank you Annie so much for this, love the group, keep up the brilliant work! x

The Abortion Pastels, Paula Rego

In 1998 Portuguese born artist Paula Rego created a series of work entitled Untitled. The Abortion Pastels.  Rego created her work in response to a referendum to legalise abortion in Portugal, which was very narrowly defeated. Each canvas depicted the image of a woman undergoing an unsafe abortion.


Rego was born in Portugal in 1935, into what she describes as a repressive, middle-class Portuguese life in which women were highly encouraged to do nothing, while working-class women were forced to do everything. The painter recalls girlhood as a time of learning obedience to men, in addition to secretive and confused messages about puberty, sexual abstention and female propriety.  Then fascist Portugal was described by her father as a ‘killer society for women’.

After leaving her homeland in the late 1950’s to attend London’s Slade School of Fine Art, Rego recollected an era including coerced sexual encounters leading to secretive and often tortuous back street abortions. In turn, her Abortion series would be both inspired by her own experiences and that of her fellow female students, utilising what she had witnessed growing up around the small Portuguese villages of her formative years.


While Rego’s series depicted a theme uncommon in a Western cannon of art often only concerned with the idealisation of womanhood, its harsh realism exposed a hushed up, yet very real world for many women. The artist, however, did not reflect any particular emotion, nor are her subjects portrayed as passive victims. In fact their eyes often gaze blankly outwards at the viewer, thus putting the emphasis of judgement, of guilt, of collusion on those passively spectating.

The artist’s brutal images question the idea of ‘respectability’ in what she believed was a denial of reality for many women. Rego was enraged at her country’s inability to truly face up to the experience of women who would have abortions with or without choice, and whether legal or not. She recalled the women who had died.


Rego’s Abortion series is an intentionally unnerving and uncomfortable experience as a result. When the series was exhibited in the Portuguese capital, Lisbon, Rego recalled the whispered secrets of women in the gallery while looking at her artworks. In turn, after being exhibited, her work is stated to have been integral in changing public opinion.

“It is imperative women have a choice” Rego stated.

Abortion laws in Portugal were liberalised to a greater extent on April 10, 2007.




Interview with Gail Orenstein, Photographer & Drone Journalist in Conflict Zones

Gail Orenstein has been a photographer for 23 years, and has travelled the globe documenting conflicts from Guatemala to Iraq. She was the first female civilian to drone in Kurdistan, Northern Iraq during the Mosul offensive in 2017 and her drone footage and photography work has been distributed globally to such organisations as CBS news, The Guardian, The Times, Washington Post, TIME, The BBC and more.

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Q1:         What initially drew you to photography as a medium?

I was always very interested in photography and my father, when I was younger, this was in the 60s actually, I don’t really remember the original footage because we had them re-digitalised, but my father used to have a Super 8 Bell + Howell super video camera and make movies all the time. The old Super 8 cameras. So my father was always making movies when we went to school and when we went to go skiing and at a very early age my father just loved film making.  The problem was that he tried to make some kind of cool films but often times he forgot to include our heads in the shots, so you see all these little kids running around headless.  So, I think he wasn’t familiar with how to use the eye piece.  When we sit around as a family we recognise, oh that’s me running around, that’s me running around, so you see a lot of children running around on film and you have to identify them as best as you can.  My father’s intentions were great you know to make these family movies, but he wasn’t technically very good.  So, lots of headless films of children and the attempt was wonderful though, you can see us fighting and playing in the snow, but it’s hard to identify who’s through the snowballs.

Q2:         Can you describe how your arts education and career path lead you to become a drone journalist?

Well I’ve been a photo journalist for 25 years. I think it was just a natural extension really, I studied undergraduate photo journalism at the Art Institute of Chicago and I received a master’s degree there in art therapy. I used photo therapy as a way to help people sort of use cameras to solve problems.  So, photography was always a big part of my family as well because my mother through the years as I was growing up and I was college and there was 8 of us.  She had eight children.  We always sent her photos, my mother kept my father’s World War II photos, my mother kept both grandparents photo albums.  So as soon as you would walk into our house it was sort of like a photo museum.  So, I think that had a really big impact on me and using this medium, because I was very familiar with it from my mother and my father and also, I came from a very, very social family.  So, there was always people around my parents, for dinner, for lunch for breakfast, visiting on the weekends.  So, I think it was a sort of a natural progression for me to become used to people always in an environment around me and large crowds and I really was you know, fearless.  That came from my parents, they were very social, and I was used to all ethnicities, black, white, Indian, everyone was welcome into our family.  And my parents had a lot of friends and they are very much still deeply loved for that. So, I really didn’t know until I was older really what a lot of racism was because my parents had everybody over, so as a photo journalist that was amazing really because I sort of came from an early point of view that you know, you just go and do your art and really discrimination just was not there.  You start to think about politics later on, my parents were not political, they were business people and they were smart about it and they sort of just, they really didn’t use politics as any kind of weapon ever and it wasn’t until as I said I was in University that I really became much more politically aware.  But I had that openness about ethnicity and welcoming all ethnic people and from all diverse backgrounds and also my mother was in a lot of women’s groups, so my mother was a great inspiration.  My mother helped a lot of women, my mother had a lot of female grandchildren and there were 7 girls that she raised and one boy.  So, my mother was always giving to women’s charities and really caring for women.  When she grew up she grew up taking care of a lot of women during World War II, her mother had a convalescent home that they rented above their house and my mother nursed a lot of women back to health.  I think my mother’s mother was responsible for a lot of the males coming in, but my mother was responsible, for a very young age she would talk to me being 15, 16, 17 and 18 being really happy to be able to take care of elderly women so that she could contribute to helping her mother. I think maybe they made $20 dollars a week or $100 a dollar, but that was a lot right after World War II.  So, my mother was extremely aware of poverty, my mother lived through it, my mother never judged anyone for their social class because my mother was very poor.  My parents worked extremely hard and became affluent later in their lives after building a business together for 50 years.  But never during that time did they, the only things that they put in their background from growing up poor was the determination to not to discriminate against the poor. And that a profound impact on my work.

Q3:         Can you give a description of the work involved in photo/drone journalism?

Yes, I think my photo journalism is a wonderful thing.  It’s wonderful to be a photo journalist and it’s a very unique thing to be able to do, to be able to tell a visual story.  And you know create some text with it.  I remember when I was smuggled into Syria in 2014 and I was with the Kurdish People’s Protection Unit and I was very interested in covering the female fighters the YPJ.  The Kurdish People’s Protection Unit, that’s the female fighting unit.  And they took care of me, I was on the front line with them and I had a Nikon D3 and I stayed there and documented for a week the female fighters.  But I also documented the fight against Islamic State and I left around after Christmas.  So, when I got back to London after I was smuggled out of Syria in December 2014.  I came back and saw some footage by a Brazilian photo journalist named Gabriel Chaim, I saw Gabriel’s drone footage of his work in Kobani and it completely changed my life and it changed everything. I decided at that point once I saw Gabriel’s work that drone journalism would now be, using drones in part of my arsenal, my traditional cameras.  Using drones would always be the way that I would work from now on.  I thought that Gabriel’s, I thought that looking at that footage really got a much more in-depth story from using aerial shots. So, I studied that, and I brought from that really changed me and changed the way that I told stories.  Because you could really see the whole damage done in Kobani and using a done.  So, from that point I went to Iraq and I went to continue my work and now I carry a fleet of small drones with me. I started out using larger drones, but now I carry smaller drones and I use traditional methods such as my still cameras, my video and now I use drones.  So, I have quite a mix of hybrid technology now.

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Q4:         What particular issues arise from working in conflict zones?

Well as you can imagine one being danger because there are a lot of you know you have to be careful of a lot of different things, one is you’re at war, so there’s going to be a lot of gun battle, there may be bombs, airstrikes, drone strikes. I think you have to be very, very careful and one thing that’s changed using this drone technology as drone journalists, is that I can fly over an area now and review the footage and perhaps see maybe some areas that I want to stay away from now that before I might have had to walk to, I can use the drone as sort of a safety mechanism prior to.  So, I do a survey of the area before I decide now to walk around it.  I do a lot of pre-assessment drone journalism work of the areas, also its been fascinating change to work so closely now with Humanitarian Agencies and to work with mapping agencies and geographical agencies because I can now give mathematical formulations about the size of refugee camps.  You can use this footage when you drone over a refugee camp or a conflict area to really get a different picture and use it to help and assist aid and NGO agencies in a different way.  So, there’s picture telling still through traditional mechanisms and then as a drone journalist I have so many different other ways of using storytelling and assisting agencies using drones in conflict areas.

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Q5:         In your career have you encountered any issues relating to the fact that you are a woman?

That’s a great question because the answer is yes, and I think one of the biggest issue is that I don’t see many women in my job and I’ve always advocated.  I would love to see female photo journalists working in humanitarian and conflict zones very carefully of course.   I don’t encourage somebody to just go straight to Syria. I encourage that you study hard, you work hard and do a kind of internship perhaps with a news agency before you just start hitting the ground.  Other people may just say just go, but I’m a little more careful, I do realise I have a responsibility because these are very dangerous places.  And you really have to know what you’re doing.  So, I would say look around and see if you can do an internship and also take a hostile environment course, take all hostile kinds of training you can, and the Rory Peck has a hostile environment training.  Also, if you’re in University I would study war correspondence and journalism, I would really, really work hard at getting as much knowledge as you can before you go into any of these areas and that’s what I highly recommend.  Especially as a female, because you’re going to see a lot of male photo journalists, a lot of male film makers, a lot of male soldiers, a lot of male military.  So, you may encounter a bit of alienation, but you know work with everybody, I worked a lot with mainly with my male colleagues and when I do see any female colleagues of course you know I am so happy. But there are not as many, but I’m trying to encourage drone journalists, as many females to become involved as possible.  And I am starting a charity for teaching young females how to tell stories in their area, say in Rwanda or Uganda or Bangladesh. Training them as drone pilots, so that they can tell local stories using both traditional means which is photography and videography but also using drones. So, I am hoping that we will see a lot more women using this technology, using and becoming drone journalists.

Q6:         Do the specific problems of women globally have an impact on your work?

I think that’s a very important question as they all are. Remember I see a lot of women and children and when I’m working in conflict or humanitarian areas and it is usually the impact on these crisis’ the first affected are women and children.  So yes, globally there’s a huge crisis of women’s needs that are unattended.  Female hygienic needs that are desperately needed, baby formula that’s for young babies both male and female.  But it is the mother’s that are very, very hit hard in these global crisis’ and we need more, we’re always saying we need more humanitarian responses.  But one of the things I have seen over the years is that it’s very important that the response all be from well-trained locals because of the language and we need to train I think more locals, more female locals to deal with rapid response in humanitarian conflict areas that are hit hard.  These female locals they know the area, they know the language and I very much advocate the use of training locals in these areas to help females.  Training females to provide medical assistance when they are struggling in conflict or humanitarian areas.

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Q7:         Do you think there is something about your own character that has lead you into this field of work?

Well certainly I did touch on that with the synergy between my parents who have wonderful personalities and growing up around so many people and you know both my mother and father being involved in the visual arts at a young age.  I don’t think they really intentionally were doing these things, but I think by my father making films and my mother sort of making our house a photographic museum I think being surrounded by the visual arts that they had around the photographs of family, the photographs of my mother’s parents.  My father’s World War II photographs, all of this had a very much a huge impact on me because I saw it every single day as a child.  I saw it every day single, my mother had them on the walls all of these memories were ingrained in me as a child, they were very important, and I saw them through the visuals around the house, and through the stories.  My mother was a fantastic storyteller, she told stories, I would sit for hours and listen to her stories. My mother, the one thing I do regret my mother has passed away, but she still exists in my heart every single day and in my mind every single day.  And is with me on my journey still every single day.  But my mother, I wish I had recorded, towards the end of my mother’s life I did record many of my mother’s stories that she told about her upbringing.  But I do wish that I had smart as a teenager to record so many of the stories that she told me, that she suffered as poverty right after World War II and going through such difficult economic times in the late 30s, 40s and how much a struggle her family went through.  How much she helped her mother, those stories really had a profound impact on my work.


Q8:         How do you switch off from your work as a photo journalist or a drone journalist.

I think the thing is, I don’t really think that when you’re doing this kind of job you ever switch off, I think that this is part of who you are, this is part of your personality. And this is very much who you are as a person, so you live it, you breathe it, you are it.  When I’m walking down the streets I give to charity, when I see a homeless, I give to them.  When I document in Bangladesh I try to put my equipment down and try to help people.  I think it encompasses your life all the time, it’s part of your character, or you wouldn’t do that job. I think the job sort of reflects who you are, I don’t think everybody could be a photo journalist, I don’t think everybody could be a drone journalist.  I don’t think most people could go into a conflict zone and do what I do.  It’s a very unique job and I’m very blessed that I have the ability to be published where I can show people the faces that have been left behind and the faces that are struggling.  And even if one person or ten people see these that could have an impact and if I am the first there and news get to humanitarian agencies then that’s wonderful.  Because that information is passed along and then charities start coming and so we have the ability to have an impact, we can’t necessarily change the world so much, but we can let important people know that this is what’s happening on the ground, this is what’s being made so far available on the ground and can you send more help.  Can you send more aid, can you start a relief fund, so we do have the ability to change the situation, we don’t have the ability to necessarily stop the situation?  But even if you can save a life, then you can walk away feeling pretty good, if you can go back and visit and see that those people now have a regular home to live in, rather than a refugee camp.  I think you know, you can feel good about that, there’s a lot that I don’t feel good about I know people still living in refugee camps.  So, you never really switch off and especially when you’re in your studio looking at this footage, you always wonder what happened to this person, I remember this day when this family.  I remember this family leaving Mosel, I remember this family leaving Kobani in Syria.  Where are they now, that’s a question I always ask myself, it’s a question you know I live with but when you return, and you see sometimes there is rebuilding going on, sometimes there’s not and you have to live with those consequences.  So, you never really do leave, you never leave this, it’s always with you.  What you try and do is you try and out of it, you try to make an empowering situation for those that you have left through connections and through humanitarian organisations and through locals who you know have the power to change things on the ground. So, one hopes that you know when you show, and you have the power to also show your work in art galleries and things like that and donate some money and make a difference.  There are a lot of ways you as a person can go about doing your work, everybody does it very different when they leave a crisis situation but for me it’s just encompasses me all the time and it’s something that I am proud of and it’s something that you have to be a very social creature because when you finish, you still have a lot of people that you’re responsible too and so it never really does leave you, I think it stays with you forever and it helps you think of better ways as you get older especially using a drone.  Now I am thinking about how is it that I can go to these areas and do food drops as a drone journalist, so I think it helps you develop as a person, that’s what I hope it does for others, I can’t speak for others but for me I am always looking for ways to help people in my next journey.

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Thank you for this interview I hope you enjoyed it.

I did Gail, good luck in your work and thank you.


for more information: http://www.gailorenstein.com/

Book Review: ‘The Lost Words’ by Jackie Morris and Robert Macfarlane

The book entitled The Lost Words is a collaborative work highlighting the illustrations of artist and author Jackie Morris and the words of writer Robert Macfarlane, both based in the UK. The idea was conceived after a campaign involving artists, poets and writers, including Margaret Atwood, Andrew Motion and Morris and Macfarlane themselves, who were dismayed at the loss of certain words from the Oxford Junior Dictionary. Attempting to appear more relevant to today’s younger people, words often relating to the natural world, such as ‘buttercup’ or ‘lark’ were removed in favour of more contemporary terms such as ‘broadband’ and ‘blog’. The OJD, in doing so, highlighted a growing and concerning separation of children from nature and the outside world, indicative of a trend for a somewhat more isolated childhood spent mostly indoors and behind computer screens.



It was Morris’ idea, at first, to address the issue by creating a ‘wild dictionary’ incorporating many of the missing words. After a meeting with Macfarlane however, a collaboration of poetic incantations and accompanying poignant artwork was born. The resulting book is not intended solely for children, but, the authors suggest, may appeal to everyone. In turn, it is certainly a work that aroused a melancholic nostalgia for my own lucky childhood making willow bows and hazel arrows in the hazy clover filled meadows of my memories.

As the illustrations here both metaphorically and literally weave around words as heather roots in pebbles or otters diving playfully in bubbling eddies, Morris aids in not only the retrieval of lost words but in the creation of a beguiling and hopefully not lost natural world. The illustrator’s use of perspective whether depicting heron or dandelion, situates the viewer within the landscape, thus cleverly creating a connection with the image. While stimulating the senses in this way, the book raises conservation concerns without overt instruction therefore, subtlety allowing consideration of the kinship between the death of specific language with the loss of many species of flora and fauna. In turn, and fittingly, part of the profits from the book will be forwarded to a conservation charity who work with disadvantaged children. The Lost Words has also been part of a campaign to place it into many schools, so that the message reaches a new generation, perhaps before it is too late. It is a work based on hope however, to maintain both language and natural life, and the bridge that connects the two, which is indeed a pertinent point for all to contemplate.


It is obvious that this is a symbiotic work, both writer and artist gracefully enabling and enchantingly enhancing the other’s input. However, in the research for this article, it was apparent that much of the press coverage concentrated on Macfarlane as the main and sometimes only creative protagonist involved. In turn, a Google search indicated this shocking bias was widespread (certainly not the fault of Macfarlane himself who has always stated the equal and collaborative nature of the work).

Intrigued by this finding, I asked Jackie Morris if she had noted this lack of equity. The artist replied that this had been a common response and that a hierarchy of what she described as “word over image” was even apparent at an exhibition involving the artwork. The artist further added that in publicity events, Robert had been approached on occasions and asked to speak, while it seemed her own voice had been somewhat ignored and seemingly was “enough in images”. Articles had also focused on Macfarlane’s role in the project while illustrating the story with Morris´artwork and giving her only a minor credit. Morris declared a weary lack of surprise at the apparent sexism at work here, including an absence of support even from many fellow women in the business of promoting art…

“Why aren’t women more successful in the arts? Why are all the big names illustration men? I ____ wonder…..” the illustrator replied.

While certainly highlighting a familiar gendered bias, this lack of recognition also relates to a campaign Morris herself has supported. The Pictures Mean Business was created to raise concerns specifically for illustrators, from a common absence of sufficient credit, status and publicity to copyright issues. Judging from many of the responses to this collaborative work, these concerns are clearly justified.


Such matters, however, should not detract from the book itself, a compelling visual and poetic feast of captivating imagery and winsome wordsmithing which delightfully and provocatively align a sense of the natural world with human well-being.


Fittingly, the last word on The Lost Words should go to the illustrator herself however…

“This book was crafted with author and illustrator working closely together with the wild and wild things, to try to give a voice to the wild and to give a focus onto the nearby wild that we often take for granted. Image and word hand in hand…..The idea and the shape of the book grew from two creative minds working together with the support of one of the best publishing teams in Britain today….

“I love how the book is finding its natural habitat; libraries, homes, bookshops, and the hearts of families, uniting reading across generations…”



‘The Lost Words’ by Jackie Morris and Robert Macfarlane is published by Hamish Hamilton, and is currently the subject of an exhibition at The Foundling Museum, London, until 06 May 2018.

Also read: http://www.jackiemorris.co.uk/blog/the-lost-words-sexism-and-the-press-the-curious-case-of-the-lost-illustrator/



(Amrita Sher-Gil (Indian painter) 1913 – 1941 Tribal Women, 1938)

‘Othering’ is the process of viewing or treating a person or group of people as intrinsically different from and alien to yourself. It may be ascribed to the historical treatment of Western women artists (as discussed in the previous blog post) by the male-run art establishment. However, it also applies to the way in which the reading of art has been skewed to suit a particular Western narrative.

Western art history is viewed in terms of the development of European ‘high art’. This progression is considered to have Greco/Roman classical foundations, a Renaissance ‘rebirth’, progressing to the modern era. Particular ideas are associated with Western art, such as that of the individual artist genius. Great artists were not only perceived as male, but also as white and European.

Unsurprisingly such ideals were formulated and established by white European men.

When contemplating the work of women artists globally, it is therefore imperative to contemplate the impact of such dominating and oppressive cultural ideals.


(South African artist Nandipha Mntambo, Europa, 2008)

Western art historians, when considering art created beyond Europe, perpetuated the values of Western culture as the template for all cultural and artistic standards. In turn, ideas of Western and ‘non-Western’ art were created with the assumption of superiority and therefore inferiority.

Such polarity was embedded by the use of certain negative assumptions and stereotypes  ranging from ‘exotic’ to ‘primitive’.

Araya Rasdjarmrearnsook, Manet’s Luncheon on the Grass and the Thai Farmers, 2008, video

(In her short film The Two Planets (Dow Song Duang) 2012, the farmers of small Thai villages discuss several classic works of modern European painting while Thai artist Araya Rasdjarmrearnsook fixes her camera on them).

Imperialist and Eurocentric ideas have been highly influential in the reading of art from many diverse cultural origins. When considering European analysis of Chinese art, for example, the wealth of Chinese written theory and a complex artistic tradition spanning two thousand years (pre-dating European definitions of ‘high art’) threatened the very concept of Western superiority.

Chinese art was therefore viewed from the perception of an advanced history of Western art history. Fundamental and complex concepts such as the significance of brush method as other culturally valuable expressions were often devalued, dismissed or misinterpreted.

Guan Daosheng

(Artwork by Guan Daosheng (1263-1316),  Chinese poet and painter who was active during the early Yuan Dynasty)

Western scholars often ignored or failed to recognise the variety of changing styles, subjects and evolution of ideas within Chinese art as part of a culturally rich and complex culture with its own canons and hierarchies. To emphasise the idea of the East/West binary opposition, Chinese art was largely labelled as ‘traditional’ and therefore not evolving in comparison to ‘progressive’ Western art.

Likewise colonial discourses from the West often considered the historically rich and culturally/religiously diverse India and the many countries and cultures of Africa, for example, as primarily ‘primitive’ and ‘savage’. Assumptions of a more enlightened, modern Western culture were part of the justification for colonialist rule therefore.

Ideas of acceptable forms of artworks to the West from specific cultures were also formed on the basis of concepts like ‘purity’. This meant that ‘non- Western’ art must suit the narrow and often racist assumptions of Western theorists. Artworks read through such Western eyes were therefore often misunderstood in terms of their cultural context, spiritual or social significance and their symbolism and function.

Within the enforcement of Imperialist ideologies, women, and therefore women artists, suffered not only under the influence of such colonialist ideals, but also in terms of being female. The combination of racism and sexism created a particularly hostile climate for women often already subject to their own patriarchal cultures. Women viewed as existing beyond the perceived ‘respectable’ boundaries of European norms of ‘femininity’ were classified as exotic toys for the Western male gaze or labelled as  animalistic and therefore sub-human subordinates. This, in turn, justified the many specific and normalised abuses perpetuated on women, such as sexual violence. The 19th century French male painter Delacroix, for example, promoted titillating myths of the harem in his work, thus creating an eroticizied idea of a ‘wild non-Western’ (and therefore untamed) womanhood to gratify the pornographic fantasies of rich white Western males.

(In her 1982 work, No To Torture (below), Algerian artist Houria Niati questions the exotic stereotype perpetuated by 19th century French painter Delacroix)


The othering of people, of women, of cultures, and the creation of such ideals incorporating the dominating influence of European Imperialism and Christian evangelism sadly remain to some extent, producing a long shadow over the reading of artworks from many diverse and complex origins. However, ongoing challenges from post-colonial and black feminist discourses continue to highlight and counter both the racist and sexist narratives and assumptions which still pervade much of Western culture.

The Elusive Female Artistic Genius

The use of the masculine term ‘master’, or idea of ‘male genius’ encapsulates much of the assumptions of Western historical ideas of ‘the artist’.
However, the view that women artists absence from the canon is due to their incapacity for greatness has been challenged in recent years, citing lack of recognition. Talented Western women artists have always existed….. but often against all the odds….

The existence of women artists has to be recognised in a highly significant historical and social context of restricted female access to public life, lack of economic independence, education, art academies, patronage, family limitations and so on.

The very ideals of Western art were formalised in institutions in which women were excluded. This has, in turn, greatly impacted on ideas surrounding women artists, included notions of women’s creativity being afforded a lesser cultural status. In turn, male artists have created and controlled female representation, often coded as passive, decorative or sexually objectified, to suit a male consumer of art. This was both an image and a social landscape at odds with that of a capable, intelligent and professional female artist.

During the Renaissance, a sixteenth century Italian female context was one of extreme restriction, enforced dependence, and life within the limited arena of the family. In an era emphasising learning and the academy, female artists had to rely on the cooperation and kindness of male relatives to provide tutorage in the home, due to lack of access to public education.


German Renaissance male artist Albrecht Dürer’s Christ-like self portrait, 1500

As male artists began to increase their wealth, power and status separating from craft, there was a corresponding strengthening hostility towards women in the arts. As females were perceived to lack the ability for ‘genius’ of their male counterparts, they were largely excluded from highly regarded fields/genres and therefore high artistic merit.Male creators of art began to produce self-portraits as signatures or bystander portraits reflecting status and accomplishments, to gain patronage and individual recognition. Although the act of painting was itself often personified as ‘female’, the tradition for depicting the male as artist (including the self-portrait) continued to develop. The few women who were lucky enough to gain some private tuition in painting, in comparison, had to promote the very idea that they even existed as artists, often having to depict themselves at the easel in the process of creating.As a trend for portraits of the wealthy (from the fifteenth century) began, ideas of femininity were embedded by male artists reflecting contemporary gendered social mores. Women were depicted by promoting their dependent status as decorative appendages, maidens, wives or widows (highlighting passiveness, modesty, honour, attractiveness, availability, for the ‘male gaze’/gendered viewer). If we compare the artwork of (rare) female artist Lavinia Fontana, Self Portrait (1579)….

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…..and male artist Cornelis Cort, after Jan van der Straet An Ideal Roman Academy (1578), we are able to gain some interesting insights.

Fontana’s artwork is itself representative of a gendered restriction to the field of painting (rather than sculpture) and the lesser valued genre of portraiture. It is however, also a rare and challenging reflection of female artist within this historical, social, cultural context.

It is a particularly small painting, linking to the idea of female restriction, women’s tradition for embroidery and miniature painting. Fontana also conventionally reflects her respectable married status and wealth by foregrounding her wedding ring and (sexually modest) wealthy apparel.

As the painting was intended for display amongst male scholars (a rare honour) and aimed at a male audience, Fontana constructs her own image with significant care. Her outward direct gaze suggests control as she engages the viewer’s eye. By emphasising her knowledge and skill, placing herself within a defined scholarly and scientific space with classical statuettes and anatomical casts, she portrays herself as learned artist rather than crafts-person.

In production and representation Fontana cleverly and complexly depicts herself as both woman within the limitations of her society and artist.

Fontana’s work emphasises that the female artist has portrayed herself in a limited, isolated and introspective space.

In contrast, Cort’s engraving reveals a hectic scene of exclusive male learning, a busy masculine collective of shared skills and knowledge. The work reveals what we may refer to today as an absolute ‘boy’s club’.


Cort’s composition and theme emphasises new hierarchical ideas of genres. The artist reflects much iconography of Renaissance humanist ideas. The acquirement of artistic skill and study is portrayed, for example, as learning anatomy from a flayed corpse, (reflecting one of many areas from which women were excluded).

Females are represented within the work only as objects/sculptures reflecting beauty (mid-right) and allegorical figures (top right). Cort presents the ‘ideal’ Renaissance academy, as the title reflects, a gendered model reflecting intrinsic assumptions for much future artistic practice in Europe, further embedded by male discourses on art (promoting the male artist and genre/canon hierarchies reflective of male dominance).

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A comparison of the work with Natoire’s The Life Class at the Academie Royale, Paris (1746) (above) reflects such influence. Here men are also presented as active participants requiring and sharing artistic skill and knowledge, while women are absent or only represented as decorative allegorical objects/sculptures. The representation of females in terms of beauty or mythological status interpreted for the presumed male consumer of art  is also reflected in Zoffany’s The Tribuna of the Uffizi (1772-7) (below).

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Cort’s work may be considered therefore, as aiding in the creation of a gendered view of the artist and artistic practice and ideals of masculinity and femininity.

Although we may associate such enforced restrictions and detrimental norms on the female artist, and women more generally, as a thing of the past, such ideas have resonated through the centuries. In turn, even in our modern cultural landscape, women, including those who create art, still face many embedded gendered obstacles and inequalities.


Louise Bourgeois, Maman the Mother

Maman, the vast steel and marble sculpture in the form of a giant arachnid was created by the French artist Louise Bourgeois in 1999.

The sculpture, at thirty feet high and more than 30 feet wide, is one of the largest sculptures in the world. It was first unveiled as a commission of the artist for The Unilever Series, at Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall in 2000. However, several versions of the sculpture were cast in bronze, many of which were placed on permanent display at galleries around the globe, from Spain, to Canada and Korea.

maman titlew 2

Evoking the nightmarish and surreal, Bourgeois’ huge spider installation may be viewed in terms of  Western arts ability to embody both wonder and terror. The 18th century Irish born philosopher Edmund Burke’s definition of the sublime was one involving a complex physiological and emotional response, easily related to the feelings inspired by viewing Bourgeois’ own work. Burke stated:

“Whatever is fitted in any sort to excite the ideas of pain, and danger, that is to say, whatever is in any sort terrible, or is conversant about terrible objects, or operates in a manner analogous to terror, is a source of the sublime; that is, it is productive of the strongest emotion which the mind is capable of feeling.”

Maman, with its sinewy long legs and towering presence, in turn, certainly excites the imagination, as if a horror creeping from the pages a Gothic novel or a malevolent invader from an apocalyptic B-movie.


Despite an arachnophobic response to the artwork however, Bourgeois’ own philosophy regarding her work is both convoluted and surprisingly sensitive. The spider first appeared as a motif in the artist’s work in 1947 in a small drawing and has continued to be part of Bourgeois’ themes throughout her long artistic career. ‘Maman’ is the French word for mother and the sculpture itself is representative of Bourgeois’ own maternal parent.

The artist’s mother died when Bourgeois was a young woman, leaving a deep emotional scar. Her grief was so profound in fact, that a few days after her mother’s death the artist tried to drown herself. The trauma which began in her childhood, including her father’s infidelity which caused much instability within the family, was compounded by her loss. Rather than a symbol of horror, the spider is representative of a protective presence for Bourgeois therefore.  Her mother worked with tapestries and hence the connection of the spider spinner and weaver with maternal womanhood. Maman, while carefully storing her marble eggs, is not only a fierce female protector but also a repairer, both literally and metaphorically a mender of the emotions of fear, loss and abandonment. Her scale, in turn, is representative of her importance, while the structure itself is one of strength combined with a certain vulnerability.

“The Spider is an ode to my mother. She was my best friend. Like a spider, my mother was a weaver. My family was in the business of tapestry restoration, and my mother was in charge of the workshop. Like spiders, my mother was very clever. Spiders are friendly presences that eat mosquitoes. We know that mosquitoes spread diseases and are therefore unwanted. So, spiders are helpful and protective, just like my mother.”

“…..my best friend was my mother and she was deliberate, clever, patient, soothing, reasonable, dainty, subtle, indispensable, neat, and as useful as a spider. She could also defend herself, and me…” Louise Bourgeois.

maman title


Maman, the mother as a sculptural embodiment of fear, vulnerability, female protection and awesome power is an iconic and complexly beautiful artwork from a prolific and hugely gifted artist.