Have you seen Ralph Fiennes’ powerful new film The Invisible Woman about Charles Dickens and his lover Ellen “Nelly” Ternan? Based on real life events, the film is beautifully acted by Fiennes, Felicity Jones, Kristen Scott Thomas, and others including Joanna Scalan as Catherine Dicken’s (Mrs. Charles Dickens). The film can be seen as a powerful meditation on the role of women in Victorian society. Without giving too much away, it is worth thinking about who exactly is “The Invisible Woman” in the story. The art direction and cinematography reminded me of Black Pearls, a drawing I did years ago based on an 1862 century photograph by the French photographer Onésipe Aguado titled “Woman Seen From the Back.” The drawing is in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. I first saw it in the wonderful photography show The Waking Dream: Photography’s First Century: Selections from the Gilman Paper Company Collection. The links above take you to interesting commentary on the image from the Met’s site as well as a link to the show’s catalogue.
This video, which incorporates first person testimony, interviews, and kindling gathered by local mothers, was inspired by the precarious condition of women in refugee camps who often fall victim to violence as they seek to meet the basic needs of their children. It accompanies my series Kindling. The artist statement for the series is below.
How different are the concerns of mothers the world over? How different are the needs of families—in cities, villages, refugee camps? Children need care. They must be tended to—fed, clothed, sheltered. These essential truths do not change no matter where you live, or what condition you find yourself in. These are the thoughts which occupied my mind as I took a group of local mothers to collect firewood in the town in which I live, and interviewed them to find out what the essential needs of their families are, and how these needs are met.
Traditionally home is the center of the family, the hearth is the heart of the home, a place where families come together for comfort and warmth. The kindling in these drawings echo this ancient ideal of comfort and security, just as the fragile and unsteady piles of wood echo the vulnerable position of women struggling to sustain their families in the most severe conditions imaginable. These drawings of kindling gathered by individual local mothers, and accompanied by their own quotes obtained in interviews, reveal how universal are the needs of families, just as it made clear how precarious and out of reach these most basic of needs are for hundreds of thousands of mothers, fathers, and their children, world wide.
For Darfuri women, driven from their homes in the Darfur region of Sudan, into refugee camps in eastern Chad, basic needs are as scarce, as they are plentiful for my own children. Since 2003, persecution has driven over two million people, the majority of them women and children, into crowded camps that are scattered in areas with scarce wood for fire. Venturing outside the camps in search of wood to cook their meals often ends in rape and other forms of violence. The search for firewood takes on new meaning, as essential for survival as the quest for fire, food, and shelter from the elements since time immemorial.
Below is revised version of the video of the Perfect Stone series. I’ve reposted the artist statement for the series below:
This visual essay and collection of stones was first inspired by an interview I read regarding the then recent conviction of a young mother who was accused of adultery, and sentenced to death by stoning. The subject of the interview was the public official who was put in charge of carrying out the execution. In reading the interview I was struck not only by the horror of the penalty—what does it mean that in the 21st century there are still women being stoned to death—but by the thoughtful way in which this official ruminated on the correct way to carry out the sentence: a pit would need to be dug, many volunteers would be needed to throw stones, and the right size stones would need to be decided on. This last item, though chilling, made me think—what is the perfect stone for killing a woman?
There are few outdoor places where stones are not plentiful, even in the town where I live, so I began looking for the perfect stone. What would it look like? What shape would it be? How large? Little things we take for granted take on new meaning when studied up close. Stones are natural and varied, they are often quite beautiful. They have no malice on their own. When drawing them they began to appear as fragile and helpless as the young girl whose recent death by stoning is described from an eye witness account below each image.
In the end of the interview, the public official drew his own conclusion of what the perfect stone would be as he held up his own closed hand “about the size of a man’s fist”.
Has anyone seen the latest episode of PBS’s Frontline called “Outlawed in Pakistan”? It features the story of a brave young woman – really just a girl – 13 year old Kainat Soomro, who takes on law and custom when she accuses four men of gang rape. If you haven’t, I’ve linked to the program here http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/outlawed-in-pakistan/.
The show raises many of the questions I was exploring in my series, Is This the Answer https://smithgarcesart.com/is-this-the-answer/.
What is the answer to keeping the world’s women and girls safe from physical and sexual abuse? What will it take for our sisters, mothers, and daughters to live in safety without shame? “Is this the Answer?” reflects on the prevalence of physical and sexual abuse, victim’s internalized feelings of shame, and the failure world wide to provide women and girls with protection and redress. The juxtaposition of these medieval instruments of torture, with western proverbs taken from history, are comments on the continued vulnerability of women in the 21st century. Together the proverbs and images underscore mixed messages that women still struggle to reconcile today.
In the middle ages women could be sentenced to wear shaming devices for being too outspoken, for dressing in a way that was considered shameful, or simply walking in a way that was considered enticing to men. Today, women no longer are sentenced to wear a branks, or mask of shame, but may still be silenced by internalized notions of self-blame. Feelings of guilt are frequent among victims of physical and sexual abuse. Women continue to “Suffer and Be Still”, witnessed by the continued under reporting of rape world wide. Women, young and old, frequently internalize blame in domestic assault cases, insisting that they elicit abuse by provoking their partners or by not being docile enough. The double pillory presented in “It Takes Two to Make a Quarrel”, literally binds both victim and abuser together, making no distinction between them, in much the same way women have been known to make excuses for an abusive partner.
Despite the romanticization of the chastity belt, women who were locked in this devise (“Under Lock and Key”) to maintain their “honor” despite it’s inability to protect, were more often inflicted with physical and emotional pain. Then, as now, women who lose their “purity”, even in cases of rape, can face a punishment of death. A cage or “gibbet, ” like the one featured above, once used to inflict a slow and torturous death, might today be put to better use as a protective devise for a young woman coming of age.
I invite you to share your thoughts.