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.

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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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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.

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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.

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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.

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.

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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?

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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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The Longhi and Short of It

Ah, the Italian Renaissance.  An age of artistic mastery and amazing men: Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, Raphael, Titian, Sandro Botticelli, Donatello, and so many more.  The Renaissance Man is believed to be a multi-talented gentlemen with a thirst for knowledge and a cosmopolitan outlook.  Except actual Renaissance men advocated strict social classism, didn’t want women to read or write because the idea frightened them, settled disputes by stabbing each other with pointy metal sticks, and were adamant that the world was flat.  Sounds fancy.  And yet, they are idealized and admired.  It’s the Renaissance women who should be applauded.  Not only did they have to put up with the men, but they had to fight to be included in any field of study or practice.  Women were believed to ruin creativity, but a few still managed to become great artists.

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Barbara Longhi was born in Ravenna, Italy in 1552, during the Counter-Reformation.  Her father was a Mannerist painter and she learned to paint in his studio.  She was involved in all aspects of the business: she helped on large commissions, modeled, interacted with patrons, and worked on her own paintings and commissions.  Longhi was well-known in the artistic community of Ravenna and respected for her talent.  She was prolific, but many of her works were lost and many were unsigned and thus unknown.  Longhi has only 15 known works, though some of the paintings attributed to her father may well be hers.  Only one of her known works depicts an adult man; the ‘Camaldolese Monk’ was done in either 1570 or 1573.  Longhi was commissioned by a monastery to paint St. Catherine and the resulting ‘Saint Catherine of Alexandria’ is believed to be a self-portrait.  Most of her subjects are religious and devotional.  Longhi painted several St. Catherines, Judith with the head of Holofernes, and many depictions of the Virgin and child.  She was included in Vasari’s Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects in 1568.  Her paintings can be seen at the Museo d’Arte della Citta di Ravenna, the Louvre in Paris, the Pinacoteca di Brera in Milan, the Pinacoteca Nazionale di Bologna, the Museo Biblioteca del Grappa, the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore, the Indianapolis Museum of Art, and the Santa Maria Maggiore in Ravenna.  Longhi died in 1638.

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Mannerism reacted to High Renaissance styles that emphasized balance, drama, symmetry, and proportion (i.e. the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel).  Mannerism exaggerated proportion and played with asymmetry.  It emphasized elegance over emotions and grand gestures.  Longhi’s father was a Mannerist and some of these stylistic components can be seen in her works.  Longhi’s works are serene and elegant.  She did small works with simple compositions and a warmer color palette.  The subjects of her paintings convey a sense of peace and introspection.  Longhi’s paintings are great and her ability to be a successful, respected, talented artist in the time of Renaissance men shows her badassness.

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B. Yourself

Life in rural India is pretty shitty for women.  They struggle with poverty, hunger, homelessness, strict gender roles, misogyny, and physical and sexual violence.  But women are strong as hell and B. Prabha set out to show it.

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B. Prabha was born in rural India near Maharashtra in 1933.  She studied at the Nagpur School of Art and later received her degree from the Sir J.J. School of Art in Mumbai.  Prabha had her first exhibit in 1956.  In 1958, her paintings were shown in the State Art Exhibition and she won first prize.  Hell yes.  She had solo shows in 1959, 1961, and 1993.  In 1996, Prabha’s paintings were included in the Contemporary Indian Painters show in Mumbai.  Her work has been in more than 50 exhibitions around the world and she has paintings in India’s National Gallery of Modern Art.  B. Prabha died in Nagpur, India in 2001.

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Prabha was a painter in a time when women were still fairly excluded from the Indian artistic community.  After experimenting with a variety of media while she was young, Prabha stuck with oil painting.  Her subjects are rural women, portrayed in daily life, elongated, elegant, and haunting.  The seemingly simple scenes show courage in the face of suffering, oppression, and poverty.  These images of poor women in rural communities were revolutionary at the time, and they still make a big impact today.  By showing the plight of women in her work, Prabha was able to bring attention to social and economic inequities and to give these women a voice in the wider world.  She stated that “I have yet to see one happy woman” in rural India, which was probably 100% true and 100% sad.  These women needed to be seen and heard, and Prabha made that happen.

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B. Prabha broke traditions and made some great fucking art in the process.  She was an artist when women rarely were.  She painted people who were neglected and ignored, all while affirming their personhood and their strength.  She brought attention to issues that were avoided.  And she did it all with skill, talent, and conviction. B. Prabha is an awesome Indian painter, and we should all know who she is and pay attention to what her paintings have to say.

Don’t Cry For Me, Norah Borges

I’m going to get this out of the way.  Leonor Fanny Borges Acevedo, or Norah for short, had a famous brother who wrote a bunch of stuff.  I could talk about him, but I’m not going to.  Women artists deserve to stand on their own, without having a brother or husband or father to give them legitimacy and attention.  All I want to talk about is Norah Borges and her art.

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Norah Borges was born in 1901 in Buenos Aires, Argentina.  She was outgoing, adventurous, and daring.  She moved to Switzerland as a child so her father could receive specialized medical treatment there.  Then World War I started and the family was stuck in Europe.  While the Borges clan twiddled their thumbs, Norah attended the Ecole Des Beaux-Artes in Geneva.  In 1915, Borges wrote and illustrated her first book of poetry, ‘Notas Lejanas.’  She studied with Maurice Sarkisoff and Arnaldo Bossi, among many others.  Borges then traveled to Spain and began to do work for magazines involved in the Ultraism movement and illustrated books of poetry.  In 1921, Borges returned to Buenos Aires.  A surrealist magazine, ‘Manometre,’ published pictures of her paintings in 1923.  Her work was again published one year later in the Argentinean literature magazine, ‘Martin Fierro.’  In 1926, Borges showed over 75 paintings, drawings, wood carvings, and other works in the Asociacion Amigos del Arte exhibition.  She got married in 1928 to Guillermo del Torre, an author and artist also involved in Ultraism.  During World War II, Borges actively and loudly supported la Junta de la Victoria, an anti-fascist feminist group.  She spoke out against president Juan Domingo Peron and went to jail.  After being released, Borges went right back to illustrating books and making art.  She also served as art critic for the Anales de Buenos Aires under a male pseudonym, because, you know, a woman couldn’t possibly know anything about art.  Sigh.  Norah Borges died in 1998.  Over the course of her life, she illustrated almost 80 books, had illustrations in several Avant Garde magazines, and was an artistic pioneer in the Avant Garde and Ultraism movements.

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Borges, despite being prolific and active for decades, did not exhibit often and preferred to give her works away instead of selling them.  Perhaps this contributes to the rarity of seeing her art in museums and her obscurity as an artist.  But, her work is beautiful and deserves notice and appreciation.  Ultraism railed against modernism and sentimentalism, and rejected ornamental aspects and lack of substance.  Borges embraced these ideas and added many of her own.  Her style also incorporated expressionism, cubism, and futurism.  When at the Ecole des Beaux-Artes, Sarkisoff told Borges to reject the rules of art school and to forge her own style and artistic path.  She certainly did that.  Borges was an artistic trailblazer, a kickass artist, a proud feminist and activist, and managed to put up with decades of whiny poets and their poetry.  You’re a better woman than I, Norah Borges.

Borges Woodcut