Who Dat?

Baskets are not usually considered “art.”  They are made by regular people for practical purposes.  But sometimes there’s an artist working in a traditional medium that is so innovative and original that the quotidian is surpassed and voila! There’s a fucking sculpture that happens to be made out of willow fiber.  Dat So La Lee (real name Louisa Keyser) was so skilled and so creative she made baskets that belong in museums, that are unquestionably art, and that are ridiculously beautiful.

DatSoLaLeePortrait

We aren’t exactly sure when Louisa Keyser was born, but it may have been around 1829 in Nevada.  As a member of the Washoe tribe, she learned the art of basket weaving as a young girl.  Baskets were essential to life in the Great Basin: they were used to store food and drink, in cooking, to separate seeds from their chaff, to carry babies, and in ceremonies.  But they were not just practical items, they were aesthetic as well.  And Keyser made the most fucking aesthetic baskets there are.

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Keyser made a living doing domestic work and in 1895 she was working as a laundress for Abram and Amy Cohn.  Abram (or Abe) saw her baskets and was so impressed he offered to sell them in his clothing store.  The Cohns wanted exclusivity as her art dealers and offered in exchange food, lodging, and medical care as needed.  Over the next 30 years they documented all of her work and managed her artistic career.  While the Cohns did make sure Keyser was cared for, comfortable, and able to practice her art, they were also big fat liars and prone to hyperbole.  They decided the baskets would sell better if Keyser had a more Native-American-y sounding name and changed her name to Dat So La Lee.  The name has no meaning and was purely a marketing stunt.  Much of what they say in their records is untrue, but we do know that Keyser made an estimated 300 baskets in her lifetime.  Nevada bought 20 of her baskets in 1945 and sent half to the Historical Society and half to the State Museum.  Four of those baskets were stolen in 1979 and took 20 years to be recovered.  Keyser’s baskets were included in the “Tahoe: a Visual History” exhibit at the Nevada Museum of Art in 2015 and are part of the Smithsonian’s collection.  Keyser died in 1925 in Carson City, Nevada, after a four-day death ritual performed by a medicine man.  Her grave reads:

Dat So La Lee

Famous Washoe

Basket Maker

Died 12.6.25

There is a historic marker nearby commemorating her.

DatSoLaLeeBasket1

But what was so cool about her baskets and how did she make them?  The three primary materials were willow, bracken fern, and red bush.  All three are native to the Washoe lands.  The bracken fern was dyed in the mud to get a deep black color.  The willow was taken from under the bark and cut to a thickness of 1/33 of an inch or less.  Keyser would begin a basket with three willow rods and then weave in willow twigs, bracken fern, and red bush.  On the surface of the basket, there are about 35 stitches per inch; a large completed basket has over 50,000 stitches.  No wonder it could take a year to create one piece.  The style Keyser used and made her own was called degikup.  Degikup baskets were round and watertight.  Keyser created a shape that was flat on the bottom, flared out, came back in, and had a hole on top the same size as the bottom.  A few of her baskets flared out and did not come back in, creating a wide mouth at the top, but these are rare.  Keyser did not read, write, or sketch and all the designs and patterns were done in her head.  She took a traditional craft and transformed it into art and that makes Louisa Keyser, aka Dat So La Lee, pretty fucking awesome.

 

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Saimdang It!

Just wait until you’re older.  You’ll change your mind.  But you have to!  You haven’t met the right guy yet.  You’d be missing out on so much.  That seems kind of selfish.  What’s wrong with you?  Are you one of those career women?  No one will marry you.  And my favorite, you’ll die alone.  All these (horribly cis- and hetero-normative) things and more are said to women who dare to express that they don’t want to have children.  Let’s translate these comments into what is really being said: how could you, a baby maker, reject baby making?  Women are repeatedly told that their value lies in their relationships with men, in their ability to have men’s babies and to nurture and meet men’s needs.

Modern women are still viewed as baby factories-where men deposit their oh-so-special raw materials and then kachunk, kachunk, an oh-so-special baby plops out.  But as we continue to fight for reproductive rights (and protect the rights we’ve already won), women are allowed to have somewhat more say in the matter.  In the 1500’s, not so much.  Our art warrior goddess of the day, Korean creator Shin (alt. Sin) Saimdang, was a painter, poet, calligrapher, writer, and happened to be the mother of 7 children.

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In researching this post, I excitedly came across several article/essays that had titles that lauded her art, poetry, and writing.  When I began to read them, I sadly found out that while the first sentence or two talked about her as an individual and as a gifted artist or poet, the rest of the article was all about her amazing sons and their amazing accomplishments.  ___ was a brilliant scholar.  ___ was a government official.  ___ founded a new Confucianism.  Honestly, I don’t give a rat’s ass.  The authors then all ended by applauding not her skills and artistic legacy, but by gushing over what a good mother she was to all these important men.  Ugh.  Even more ugh is that there is an award given out named after and honoring Saimdang, but it is not for art or writing.  It is given to women as a mother-of-the-year award, pooh-poohing their professional and personal accomplishments.  You run a company, rescue dogs, and discovered a new branch of mathematics?  That’s cool and all, but we really only care that you are a good mother.  I think I just threw up a little.  I am not ok brushing her art and innovation aside because she had kids in a time when she had no reproductive choice at all.

SaimdangPainting

Saimdang was born in 1504 in Korea.  Her real name is not known, her pen names also included Saim, Inimdang, and Imsajae.  She grew up with four sisters and received the education that a male would have received.  In the strict Confucian society of the time, this was practically unheard of.  She began painting at age seven.  At 19, Saimdang married, but continued to live with and attend to her parents.  Despite being required to care for her aging parents, husband, and ever-increasing brood of children, she continued to paint, write poetry, and do calligraphy.  Badass.  Her work was known and praised during her lifetime.  She began a type of painting called Chochungdo, which depicts insects and plants.  Saimdang painted landscapes or garden scenes featuring insects, plants, fish, and animals.  They are bright, detailed, and so visually accurate, legend has it, that chickens once poked holes in the screen trying to peck at the bugs.  The tiny holes in the work were only where the insects were.  There are 40 of her known works surviving, though she did many more.  Being a woman meant she did not have a seal or signature, which makes it difficult to identify or trace her works.  Plus, a lot of shit can happen in 500 years and many have also been lost over time as well.  In 2017, there was an exhibition of her work at the Seoul Museum titled “Saimdang, Her Garden.”  Other non-artistic distinctions have been made that highlight her motherhood and femininity, and I don’t really care about those.  Saimdang died in 1551 at the young age of 46.  Saimdang was a brilliant and innovative artist who found a way to create in a society that told her not to.  Her legacy continues, for me and I hope for you, in her beautiful art and words and not in her children.

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Sew Amazing

Oil paintings, charcoal drawings, and marble sculptures are all accepted as “art.”  Photography, digital media, and conceptual performances are newcomers but still welcomed into the nose-in-the-air “art” fold.  But what about weaving or quilting or embroidery?  Those practices are usually lumped into the “craft” category or dismissed as “women’s work.”  Now, when we have stopped gagging and rolling our eyes because the concept that some work is inherently feminine still exists, let’s look at this.  Historically, women were denied access to instruction, materials, and safe spaces for all kinds of subjects and activities, including art and art-making.  Women were instructed in how to keep a household and a family together and functional.  These sorts of skills included cooking, cleaning, childcare, maintaining health, and sewing.  As women demanded, and got, more access to the world outside the home the patriarchy responded by denigrated the same activities that they told women were required of them, that gave them value.  These activities sneered at as “women’s work” and dismissed by big, important men.  Until, that is, the men began to do those activities themselves; cooking, sewing, and care-giving gained legitimacy and appreciation over time, as long as men were doing them.  Textile work could be seen as art, as long as Bernaert van Orley or Picasso created the tapestries.  But, we all know, textile work is intricate and beautiful and fucking legit whether it’s made by a little, bald, syphilitic Spaniard or a brilliant, bitchin’ Malawian woman.

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Billie Zangewa was born in Blantyre, Malawi in 1973.  She grew up in both Malawi and Botswana.  When she was a little girl she would do fashion drawings.  Zangewa studied fine arts at Rhodes University, specifically print-making, graphics, and textiles.  After graduating she made miniature oil paintings before beginning to experiment with fabric making purses and bags.  In 1997, Zangewa moved to Johannesburg, South Africa, and worked in fashion advertising.  She also wrote songs and performed them under the name “Billie Starr.”   Starr-tlingly awesome.  In 2004, she won the Most Stylish Person in South Africa Award.  Zangewa then began to transition her textile work away from handbags and into tapestries using a sewing technique similar to appliqué.  Zangewa had her first solo show in 1997 in Botswana.  She has had multiple solo shows in South Africa, Paris, Tokyo, and Madrid and won the Gerard Sekoto Award at the L’Atlelier Award Exhibition, also in 2004.  Zangewa’s work has been in many group shows around the world from New York to Germany to Morocco to London.  She is currently represented by Afro Nova Gallery.

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Zangewa begins each piece with an experience, an emotion, and/or an image.  She then does research on the concept and creates a template drawing.  Then comes the cutting, pinning, and finally the sewing.  Her favorite material to use is silk, which is so slippery and ridiculously hard to work with that it makes her work all the more impressive. The subject matter of her pieces is personal, often autobiographical.  This gives her a sense of power and agency: “I am using my own image and body to tell my story,” Zangewa said.  “What could be more empowering than that?”  Right on.  Her work highlights the female experience, motherhood (especially her experiences with her son), and the empowerment of the female subject.  Zangewa stated, “I am a woman in charge of my own stories and I encourage other women to do the same in their own special way.”  Fuck yes, Billie.  You super rock!

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It’s All Greek to Me

Let’s talk Greek.  Women could not be citizens, vote, or own property.  They weren’t even important enough to be included in the census counts.  Lower class women could be sold by their male relatives to other men as slaves.  Fun fact: the Greeks believed menstrual blood would sour wine and make dogs become rabid.  Sounds super sciencey.  It is remarkable, given this misogyny and oppression, that there were any ancient Greek women artists at all.  But women are badass and there were successful women making beautiful art whenever they took a break from making dogs lose their minds.  They painted and sculpted, ran workshops, and taught.

helenaportrait

Helena of Egypt was one of these remarkable women.  Sadly, very little is known about her.  She lived and worked in Egypt during the 4th century BCE.  Her father, Timon, was also an artist and her instructor when she began creating art.  The one work that is known to be hers is a wall painting depicting the defeat of Darius III by Alexander the Great.  “Alexander the Great Confronts Darius III at the Battle of Issus” would have been lost forever, but it was so admired that a mosaic reproduction was done in Pompeii and later found and preserved.  Her other works have not survived.

helenamosaic

Helena and her female cohorts didn’t let an ignorant and shitty pluto-patriarchy get them down.  They made awesome art in a difficult and oppressive environment.  They are an inspiration to us as we enter into a new era of misogyny, racism, and stupidity.

Inuit-ive Art

I am cold all the fucking time.  So, the thought of being born in an igloo in Canada’s Northwest Territories makes me cringe.  But for Kenojuak Ashevak, badass lady and Inuit artistic ground-breaker, it was just fine.  She was born in 1927 on Baffin Island.  Her father made his living by hunting and trading in furs.  He was also a shaman.  Pretty cool.  Ashevak’s grandmother, who she lived with as a girl, taught her many of the traditional Inuit crafts.  When Ashevak was 19, she got married.  She had many children (16!), both adopted and biological, but lost seven of them to diseases.  Ashevak herself was hospitalized for three years starting in 1950 for tuberculosis.  In 1959, she and other artists from Cape Dorset, Canada started the West Baffin Eskimo Cooperative, which offered workshops and classes for all kinds of artists.  In 1963, the National Film Board of Canada made a documentary about her and her art.  In the decades that followed, Ashevak received honorary doctorates, earned a place on the Canada Walk of Fame (the first Inuit to do so), was elected to the Royal Canadian Academy of Arts, and won the Governor General’s Award in Visual and Media Arts.  Ashevak passed away in 2013 from lung cancer.

ashevakportrait

Ashevak worked in a variety of mediums: drawing (in graphite, pens, colored pencils), etching (including copper-etching and sugar-lift etching), stone carving, beadwork, and print-making.  Over the course of her life, she created thousands of works.  Her drawings have been on Canadian stamps and coins.  She has done multiple murals and did the first Inuit-designed stained-glass window for the John Bell Chapel in Ontario.  She exhibited her work in Ontario, British Columbia, Manitoba, and Quebec.  Ashevak’s art is in collections all across Canada, the Tate Gallery in London, and the Victoria and Albert Museum.  In 2015, Ashevak’s “Rabbit Eating Seaweed” sold for $59,000.  She even had her very own Google Doodle in 2014.

ashevakrabbit

Ashevak’s work is beautiful and vibrant.  Her subjects are the beings and places that surrounded her: owls, rabbits, Inuit people, wolves, and fish.  Although it may seem like her subjects are simple, the works are quite complex and striking.  Ashevak drew on her heritage and her land to share her world with us and we are all lucky that she did.

ashevakbird

Back to the Futurism

A lot can happen in a lifetime, even when that lifetime is only 32 years long.  Russian artists at the beginning of the 20th Century witnessed massive amounts of upheaval.  1914 marked the start of the First World War.  Russia allied with Britain and France against Germany and Austria-Hungary.  This violent conflict ended in 1918.  In 1917, the Tsarist rule was overthrown in the Russian Revolution and a Communist government took over, eventually placing Vladimir Lenin and the Bolsheviks in power.  Civil war followed.  The Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) was established in 1922.  That’s a lot of shit for 8 years.

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Olga Rozanova was born in a village in Russia in 1886.  In 1904, she moved to Moscow and studied at K. Bolshakov’s and Konstantin Yuon’s art studios.  She also attended the Stroganov School of Applied Art.  Her art was seen in exhibitions in St. Petersburg starting in 1911.  Rozanova was very interested in Italian Futurism.  She became friends with many of the Russian Futurist poets of the time and married one of them, Aleksei Kruchenykh. She illustrated her husband’s books of poetry starting in 1912.   Her work was seen in Rome in 1914.  In 1916, Rozanova worked at the Verbovka Village Folk Center along with many other Russian artists.  Also in 1916, Rozanova joined Supremus, a group of avant-garde artists led by Kazimir Malevich.  But her art soon grew beyond Futurism and Suprematism, becoming more and more abstract, and utilizing more vibrant colors. She did a series of paintings that reinterpreted playing cards.

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As the country transformed, so did Rozanova’s artwork.  By 1917 and 1918, Rozanova’s paintings, which she called tsv’etopis’, were completely abstract and non-objective.  Rozanova died in 1918 from diphtheria, a bacterial infection that destroys the tissues in the respiratory system.  Diphtheria is pretty fucking gnarly and even with treatment 1 in 10 infected patients die.  Without treatment, that the mortality rate is 1 in 2.  Thank goodness there is a vaccine that prevents the disease.  At least until the anti-vaxers decide that the mumps and whooping cough are passé and need a new disease to bring back into the mix.  Get your kids vaccinated, for fuck’s sake.  Olga Rozanova would approve.  Shit, she’d be first in line.

rozanovapainting

Rozanova had two posthumous exhibitions: one in Moscow in 1919 and one at the Tretyakov Gallery in 2007 that featured her artwork and documents.  Despite her short life, Rozanova’s art explored key artistic movements of the 21st century and her abstract work was beautiful and revolutionary.  Tumultuous times makes for great art and Olga Rozanova certainly made some wonderful, kick-ass art.

Iran So Far Away

If you ask politicians, Iran is a dangerous enemy with fundamentalist ideologies that oppress its people and threaten the West.  I rarely ask politicians anything, though, because I don’t really trust a bunch of old white men who rely on fear-mongering to continue their careers and their paychecks.  How about we ask someone who has lived in both Iran and America?  Someone who has over fifty years of navigating between the two countries and their evolving cultures and who experienced Islam as an Iranian woman and as an American woman?  That seems to make more sense than listening to Lindsey Graham or Donald Trump ignorantly spout off about terrorists.  Fuck that.  How about we learn about Shirin Neshat and her art?

neshatportrait

Shirin Neshat was born in Iran in 1957.  Her parents raised her Muslim, but were open to Western ideas as well as Islamic ones.  Neshat even attended a Catholic school in Tehran.  Her parents encouraged their daughters to become what they wanted to be and do the things they wanted to do.  Go, mom and dad.  In 1974, Neshat moved to California to study art at U.C. Berkeley.  She completed a BA, an MA, and an MFA.  Go, Shirin.  In 1990, she returned to Iran for the first time in 16 years.  After this visit, Neshat began to focus her art on the social climate created by modern Islam and the impact on women.  Her first solo show was in 1993 at the Franklin Furnace in New York.  From 1993 to 1997, Neshat created a series of photos called “Women of Allah.”  They are striking black and white pictures of women wearing the traditional chador and holding weapons.  The skin that is visible is covered in poetry written in Farsi by Iranian women poets.  These photos play with the ideas of femaleness and violence (usually associated with masculinity).  She released many videos during those years as well.  In 1998, Neshat began a three-part video series that utilized dual projection to emphasize the contrasts between men and women, and public and private spaces.  Neshat won First International Prize at the Venice Biennale in 1999.  In 2006, she received the Dorothy and Lillian Gish Prize.  For her film “Women without Men,” Neshat won the Silver Lion at the Venice Film Festival in 2009.  That same year, she participated in a three day hunger strike at the U.N. Headquarters protesting the Iranian presidential elections.  Neshat has had two retrospectives: one in 2013 at the Detroit Institute of Arts and one in 2015 at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in Washington, D.C.  Neshat work has been shown in solo shows across the world from Mexico City to South Africa to Denmark to Singapore.  She participated in multiple film festivals and has been artist in residence at two American art centers.

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Neshat’s work is provocative and intended to open a dialog.  She uses photography and video to highlight contrasts: men and women, femininity and fundamentalist Islam, personhood and society, control and freedom, the West and Islamic culture.  She also addresses the ideal of martyrdom.  Neshat stated that “art is a weapon.  Culture is a form of resistance.”  By showing varying ideas, both conflicting and coexisting, Neshat allows the viewer to examine them.  She asks the viewer if they can be reconciled, if there are inequities, and if they are oppositional or complimentary.  Answers are not necessarily the point; the discussion is Neshat’s goal.  Neshat has turned her experiences, heritage, and observations into conversations about the many issues that relate to modern Islam and modern Iran.  And she’s done a beautiful job of it.

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