Kara Walker, Black Lives & White Lies

Kara Walker is a U.S contemporary painter, silhouettist, installation artist, print-maker, and film-maker, known for her exploration of themes on race, gender role, violence and cultural identity.

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She was born in 1969 in California, however her family moved to the state of Georgia when she was 13 years old due to her artist father’s work commitments. Her new home was an area that still held rallies by the white supremacist Klu Klux Klan, a shock to Walker after the more relaxed atmosphere of her early years. It was here that she faced regular racial abuse during her education. The young artist, therefore, was often afraid to address issues of race during this period in her artworks, however her youthful experiences would fortify her expression in later life, on a journey leading to international artistic acclaim.

Walker states of her early years;

“I was really trying to explore the problematics of making art as a young black woman, when constantly barraged and faced with a host of stereotypes about what it even means to be a young black woman.”

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After later gaining a Masters In Art at the Rhode Island School of Design in 1994, one of her first works to capture world attention was her 15 meter long panoramic frieze entitled ‘Gone: An Historical Romance of a Civil War as It Occurred b’tween the Dusky Thighs of One Young Negress and Her Heart’ (1994). The work sought to rewrite a ‘Gone with the Wind’ style, mythological past on slavery and power relations by exploring, as the artist herself said “a sadomasochistic construct that underlies the American history narrative”.

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Walker sought to lay bare the injustices of racism and abuses of white cultural and economic power by using the medium of the black silhouette on a white background. The information for the viewer is literally in black and white, a metaphor for race, created as a powerful, stark and confrontational message. However, the medium of the silhouette also bypasses details, so is paradoxically unclear and potentially misleading. Walker states of her work;

“I really liked that association, there’s a similarity between the silhouette and other types of stereotyping, racial stereotyping in particular”.

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Continuing to create a huge body of work, Walker has reimagined, subverted and challenged ideas embedded in historical art and genre painting by exposing the rotten underbelly of a dark past.  She pays particular attention to the plight of African American women and the combined attacks of racism plus misogynistic abuse and in doing so, does not shy away from images such as rape.

Walker created a huge sculptural work using materials such as sugar during 2014 of a naked black woman in the form of the Sphinx entitled ‘A Subtlety’. It is a work that has layers of meaning. The story of Western sugar consumption is entwined with slavery, but the artwork not only reminds the viewer of the interactive relationship between capitalism, power and gross oppression. The positioning of the sculpture links to the abuse of women, a not so sweet consequence of white male power.

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Walker also does not hide from images of lynching or mutilation and many other horrors inflicted on those othered as subhuman. The artist’s work, however, was never intended to simply address a bygone age, but how historical attitudes and events relate to our present. Walker, herself, recognises the Black Lives Matters campaign as “the current incarnation of a civil rights movement” under the shadow of racist figures such as Trump. Her latest works explore not only the history of black oppression but also efforts to create change, which the artist reflects without sentiment and often in terms of nightmarish violence and grotesque suppression.

kara blog afrika.  The Republic of New Afrika at a Crossroads, 2016. Kara Walker

Whether in the fields of Southern states U.S. plantations or on the streets of Minneapolis, Walker captures a centuries long struggle. Her work is a shocking kick to the guts, created to express an absence of humanity, coupled with a vital and ever needed reminder of it. In doing so, Kara Walker is one of the most significant artists of our age.

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“As soon as you start telling the story of racism, you start reliving the story,” Walker states “You keep creating a monster that swallows you”.

Tove Jansson, Moomins Creator, Artist & Author.

Tove Jansson was born in the capital of Finland, Helsinki, the eldest of her siblings. Both her parents were artists and from a young age Tove aided her mother, illustrator Signe Hammarsten-Jansson, with her commissions. As an adolescent she began created books with her own illustrations. It would be the start of a lifelong love affair with creativity for the future artist, illustrator and author.

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Signe Hammarsten-Jansson’s self portrait.

Tove’s enrolment at the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris in 1938, after studying art in her homeland, would eventually lead to exhibitions of her work. During the pre World War 2 era, Tove would regularly have illustrations published in magazines. It was at this time, the artist began to be involved with Garm, an anti-fascist Finnish-Swedish satirical magazine for whom she created many illustrations.

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Tove’s illustrations for ‘Garm‘ magazine (c.1939)

Although she was once briefly engaged, Tove met her life partner Tuulikki Pietilä, a US born, Finnish graphic artist who was also a professor in Seattle, during the 1950s. The two began working on projects together, a circumstance that would later lead to a deep romantic connection. Same-sex relationships were illegal in Finland at the time and would remain so until as late as 1971. Their early love affair had to be hidden and at first demonstrated through coded messages and discreet meetings.

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Tuulikki and Tove (c.1960)

Tove’s first Moomins book, The Moomins and the Great Flood, was created in 1945 at the end of a very grim period of European and global history involving two world wars and the unleashing of atomic bombs on Japan. Her early books often metaphorically reflected such times as a result. In her first work Tove invented a forested world beset with hidden dangers for her Moomin characters to navigate, while her second, Comet in Moominland (1946), contemplated a world of catastrophes and natural disasters. Highlighting the darkness often found in traditional folk and fairytales, the books however, would also reflect the relationships of family members and the values of kinship. In this way Tove explored themes for children and adults without simple sentimentality, but an honest awareness of life as consisting of both light and shade… and the world in-between.

“I love borders….Twilight is the border between day and night, and the shore is the border between sea and land. The border is longing: when both have fallen in love but still haven’t said anything. The border is to be on the way. It is the way that is the most important thing.”― Tove Jansson

The Moomin characters related to Tove’s own family. The wise and practical Too-Ticky, however, who was introduced in Moominland Midwinter (1957), was based on her lover who had inspired and motivated her to write the book. It was a work which incorporated a theme of the dread of winter corresponding with Tove’s own depression, only to end with the eventual and inevitable light of spring. In turn, Tove saw herself as a combination of Moomintroll, a character portrayed as a dreamer and a thinker and the fiery and irritable Little My.

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Moomintroll and Too-Ticky 

Tove’s female characters were often far from stereotypical. The mischievous Little My, for example, represented a girlhood that could be bold and defiant. Meanwhile Too-Ticky, reflected a gender non-conformity and skilful practicality far from common in the era the character was created. Both, in turn, highlighting Tove’s own perceptive insights and progressive ideas.

In the 1960s, the partners created their own house on a small uninhabited island in the Gulf of Finland. Klovharu would became their summer home for almost 30 years. Tove and Tuulikki captured many of their experiences there on 8 mm film, documentation of romantic lives entwined in nature and creativity.

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Klovharu Island

Their alternating urban life was spent in the city of Helsinki, in adjoining apartments with connecting studios.

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Tove Jansson in her Helsinki home and studio,1956

In addition to her continuing Moomin books, Tove was a painter who worked in both impressionist and abstract styles and had a number of exhibitions. She was also a serious writer and, in addition collaborated in many theatrical works, including creating set designs for the Finnish National Ballet.

Jansson died in 2001 aged 86 years old, leaving a heart broken Tuulikki who survived her for eight more years.

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Tove’s legacy includes leaving the world with a lifetime of successful creative endeavours which have continued to fascinate and enthral people without barriers of age. The artist, author and illustrator herself once stated wisely …

“It is simply this: do not tire, never lose interest, never grow indifferent—lose your invaluable curiosity and you let yourself die. It’s as simple as that.”

Tove Jansson (1914-2001)

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Little My

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’.

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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.’

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. 
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‘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’. 
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‘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.
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´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. 
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‘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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

 

 

 

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.

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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.

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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.

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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…”

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‘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/

Othering

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(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.

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(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.

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(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.

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(Contemporary artist Jessica So Ren Tang explores Chinese-American cultural identity through textiles and embroidery)

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)

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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.

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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’.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

 

Jeanne Mammen & the Women of Berlin’s Cabaret

German painter Jeanne Mammen was born in Berlin in 1890, however she spent her early years living in Paris. Here, Mammen’s formative years were immersed in a love of French literature and the arts of the age. The artist’s privileged upbringing enabled her to study painting and drawing at various top academies in Paris, Brussels and Rome. With the outbreak of World War I, Mammen’s family had their assets confiscated as they were categorised as a foreign enemy, leading to impoverished conditions for the artist. Mammen, however, also benefited from the experience, as she was able to associate with a variety of people from various backgrounds, an eclectic world once hidden from the limited niceties of her middle class social circle. This, in turn, would have a major influence on her later artwork.

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After moving back to Berlin, in 1921 Mammen began a professional career in art, first as a poster designer for films and later as a magazine illustrator. However, it was the colourful and daring nightlife of the Weimar Republic that caught Mammen’s artistic attention. Between the period of the mid-1920s to the mid-1930s, the artist began to create many sketches and watercolour artworks capturing the raucous nightclubs, cafes and cabarets of the city. Here Mammen could quietly observe, sketch and present the vibrancy of a world inhabited by Jewish intellectuals, fellow artists, bohemians, performers and a flourishing lesbian scene, amidst the chaotic pleasures and passions of  the metropolis after dark.

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Mammen’s work is especially noted for her focus on women. The artist did not simply portray shallow, passive props, but presented her women as subjects. Mammen’s females are alive, strong, confronting and confident in their sex and sexuality. Her portrayal of lesbians is ground-breaking from a female perspective, while ignoring both the taboos of the age and cliched sexualised presentation for the male gaze. Mammen’s watercolours often reflected a humorous narrative quality while portraying women simply enjoying the company of other women.

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The artist was involved in many art shows, including an exhibition of female artists in Berlin. However, it was Mammen’s  disregard for apparent ‘appropriate’ female submissiveness in her expression and her subjects which caused the Nazis to later ban her lesbian work and brand her work degenerate and ‘Jewish’. Despite this, Mammen refused to comply and join in with the Nazi regime’s artistic propaganda machine and for much of World War II the artist did no more artworks, even selling books from a cart to survive.

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Having survived the war, in her later years the painter moved into more abstract expressions of art. However, it was her observations of a particular period of German history which are perhaps most remarkable. Her courage to resist the onslaught of the Nazis and to observe and capture a much marginalised yet positive portrayal of life is certainly worth celebrating. The artist’s portrayal of women especially should be honored as a joyful and valuable expression of confident womanhood and sexuality.

In her final years the artist looked back on her work…

“I have always wanted to be just a pair of eyes, walking through the world unseen, only to be able to see others….”.

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Jeanne Mammen, in turn, continued her observations and painting until her death in 1976.

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