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Homage of Women Painters

Author: NULL      Publications: Time - Review (p.11)      Dated: NULL

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Homage to Frida Kahlo was the title of one of the paintings at the recent group show at Ziggurat. Yet none of the reviews I read commented on the powerful connections between Kahlos work and some of the work by women in the show. Those connections are important and intimate, offering insight into the context of which these women artists are a part.

Frida Kahlo (1907-1954) was an extraordinary Mexican painter who lived an extraordinary life. Her beautiful and terrifying self-portraits are suffused with agonizing imagery and personal symbolism that draw on events in her life: her nearly fatal accident that left her in constant pain, her miscarriages and her fraught relationships. She used to cite her birth date as 1910, the year the Mexican Revolution broke out, and identified strongly with the revival of Mexican culture that occurred with the Revolution.

Susana Gamboa, an artist and curator, wrote that her paintings were “full of age, old Mexican symbolism which has less to do with Frida as an individual than with Mexico as an aesthetic heritagc”. But despite the importance of the particulars of her life and the Mexican context, there is a visual genealogy in her work which links it with that of the Pakistani women artists who exhibited their work at Ziggurat.

Samina Mansuris paintings in the show have an exciting umbilical connection to Kahlos work. The connection is based on the tension both artists manage to create between the intensely beautiful surfaces and the acutely painful content. Kahlo creates surface texture with rich details, fine brushstrokes, and warm colours. Saminas canvases are: energized with beeswax, short tense brushwork and warm colours. But the content of the paintings, on the other hand, is fiery, violent, and sexual. Saminas use of phallic cacti in Rumours of Heaven is similar to Kahlos use of the thorn necklace and the hummingbird in her Self-portrait by that title (1940) – both are potent and loaded symbols. In another painting, Samina transforms the placenta – the organ from which the foetus derives maternal nourishment – to symbolise the piercingly painful process of creation. Kahlo recurrently used organs, ripped out of the context of the anatomical system, to tangibly express her. Two Fridas (1939), where Kahlo used two hearts and one circulatory system to symbolize the dichotomy of her two selves, is one example. Ultimately, it is the emotional impact of their work that draws from the same blood and unifies their work.

Also of genealogical importance is the way women artists use their own body to express themselves. Because of the repeated objectification of the female form in artistic tradition and media, it has always been problematic for women to express and define their sense of self through their body. But so acute was Fridas identification with her body that it became a part of her private language. For example, in Broken Column (1944), she depicts herself nude, with nails piercing her skin and her broken spinal column exposed. The personal agony conveyed through her body defies objectification.  Similarly, Naizas Adam-and-Eve-like nudes in Why This Necessity to Type an Exile from the Naming World are, similarly, unnervingly personal. The fact that they are headless does not make them generic, but leaves you with the feeling that their identity is important, intimate. The short, tense line energizes them with anxiety and restlessness, and leaves the viewer uncomfortable. On the other hand, Durriyas comforting womb-like forms (Orbit and Everlasting Kiss) capture the intense interdependence and warmth of maternal bonding (she is the mother of two children). The way these artists use their body, in personal, vital relationships, challenges the passive, traditional representations by artists like Iqbal Mehdi and Jamil Naqsh.

“I painted my own reality”. Kahlo had said about her work. And the reasons for this visual genealogy may have something to do with womens lives and the place of creative work within that context. Most women have to cook, clean, suffer labour paints, raise children, and also find time for their creative works. The daily struggles of life and creative work overlap for women; whereas they can be separate for men (they can have wives do their cooking and cleaning). Also the kind of violence women experience (incest, rape, battery) is shrouded in social silence and shame, whereas men who die in wars are hailed herose. Women have, therefore, had to turn to themselves to make sense of their experiences and that in turn is often reflected in their creative work.

Visual genealogy becomes a political issue when used to exclude and judge womens work. For a long time, the direct way Kahlo expressed her pain, anger, fears was categorized as “feminine”. Andre Breton, who had gone to Mexico in 1938 and had adopted her as a Surrealist, wrote in the preface to her exhibition at the julien Levy Gallery in Newyork: “I would like to add now that there is no art more exclusively feminine, in that sense that, in order to be as seductive as possible, it is only too willing to play alternatively at being absolutely pure and absolutely pernicious.”

Being called “exclusively feminine” was a put down. The notion behind it was that men were capable of grand philosophical ideas and concepts, while women were concerned with simple everyday details. Only when personal emotions were objectified and universalised could they be subjects of Great Art, otherwise they were merely “seductive”. So while the anguish of Picassos Guernica and Munchs Scream was seen as embodying something universal, Kathe Kollowitzs work (Munchs contemporary who made powerful prints about poverty, war, and children dying) was seen as particular, literal and therefore marginal. My point is that if the work of Kahlo, Kollowitz, Durriya, Samina and Naiza is “feminine” – then so is that of Van Gogh. But Van Gogh has never been called “feminine”, because calling him feminine would mean acknowledging the power and courage of this personal way of expression.

So much work by women artists has been lost because of this categorization that much is at stake. Therefore making visual genealogies and celebrating connections is important, urgent, and necessary.

If the work of Kahlo, Kollowitz, Durriya, Samina and Naiza is “feminine”- then so is that of Van Gogh. But Van Gogh has never   been called “feminine”, because calling him feminine would mean acknowledging the power and courage of this personal way of expression