Feminism: misinterpretations of the word evoke man-bashing and bra-burning, but at the end of the day, true feminism is dedication to strive for a more just society for everyone, or at least that’s how I see it. Old etiquette books implore women to practice modesty, cross our ankles, and never make too much of a fuss. While I’d like to believe that these tropes are out of style, just read the comments on any article related to any women’s issue, and you’ll see that even in the year 2017, women are still chastised for speaking up. When we are told to be silent, raising our voices becomes even more essential.
In Mexico, Frida Kahlo is known as la heroína del dolor, “the heroine of pain.” Her work evokes not only a woman’s suffering but also a woman’s strength. Kahlo showed injuries from disease and motor accidents, as well as the emotional trauma sustained from her multiple miscarriages and her husband Diego Rivera’s numerous affairs.
I connect to Frida because she confronts her demons and perseveres. Not to get TMI here, but as a self-sufficient twenty-something living in New York, there are days where I feel hella overwhelmed, and life for me ain’t been no crystal stair, to say the least. Somedays I boss up and handle what needs to be handled, but others end with me angry-crying in bed eating my weight in gelato. But her work shows that pain is nothing to feel ashamed of, and focusing on something supposedly trivial doesn’t negate a person’s depth. Guess what? Frida Kahlo cried over a guy. She was cheated on, and she didn’t just ‘get the hell over it.’ She painted her despair, portrayed herself as a wounded fawn, and she reveled in her glorious misery.
Her badassery comes from the fact that she had no shame in her vulnerability, and she strove to make the world a better place for others by participating in the New York Trotskyists of the Communist League of America. She wrote of her art in a diary, “Above all I want to transform it into something useful for the Communist revolutionary movement, since up to now I have only painted the earnest portrayal of myself, but I’m very far from work that could serve the Party. I have to fight with all my strength to contribute the few positive things my health allows me to the revolution. The only true reason to live for.”
Another artist who showed both suffering and strength in their work is photographer Nan Goldin. Goldin’s slideshow The Ballad of Sexual Dependency (1985) interweaves multiple narratives from cities across the globe. Sure—men are present—but the women steal the show. We see women painting their faces for nights on the town. We see them out with glassy eyes with glasses in their hands. We see them making love. And then we see them bruised. Bleeding. Split lips and swollen eyes. Goldin herself is featured in one of the most chilling, prominent images from the collection: ‘Nan, One Month after Being Battered’ (1984), a self-portrait in which she wears red glossed lips, wild curls, yellow bruises, a bloodied left eye, and a stare of defiance.
The strongest message I received from the show is the importance of self-preservation. After we see these women wounded, we see them holding pistols, flexing their muscles, donning boxing gloves. Though no words are used we get the message: we will rise. And the show isn’t about any one thing—the message is complex, more fluid than static. In some ways, it acts as a warning. We see couples in the throes of passion, in the haze of comfort, and still, we see the love give way not only to violence but emotional neglect. I find the photograph ‘Nan and Brian in Bed’ (1983) harder to view than photos depicting blood and bruises. The despondence in her eyes. His indifference to her as he smokes his cigarette. And while a significant amount of real estate is devoted to couples in the exhibit, themes of camaraderie and confidence were distinct as well. I think she’s telling us women are stronger than their lovers, and while sexual dependency can ensnare, we also have the power to break free by supporting one another and cultivating our own power.
There is celebration of the many ways one can be a woman. There is the glitz and glam: bold makeup, tiny outfits, big hair, lingerie, but there are also naked pregnant bellies, women with their newborns clinging to their breasts, women readying themselves before they dance onstage, women wearing wedding gowns; there are women with shaved heads who wear suit jackets and leather. Nude portraits reveal petite frames and generous curves, cellulite, bruises; breasts perky, pointed, and sagging. We see C-Section scars, hair-covered bodies and bodies shaved clean. It’s so easy to compare to others, but when I see the women in the show, I feel like whatever I’m doing is really okay. There is no ‘answer’ for how to be a woman. We have agency, and there’s no shame is breaking the rules because, really, the rules don’t exist. By the show’s end, I heard this: “There’s nothing you can’t overcome. Do what you want. Take back your power. Never hide.”
While Goldin examines the limitless permutations of femininity, Guyanese visual artist Dominique Hunter attacks the harmful portrayal of women’s bodies. Hunter uses collage to “employ and exaggerate popular advertising techniques used in magazines in an attempt to critique the manner in which the female body continues to be idealized and “sold” (to men for consumption and women for validation).”
Her work supports an idea I first heard about in a social psych course sophomore year: the way women are represented in advertisements contributes to violence against them. Men—even the most seemingly ‘feminist’ of them—prove extremely eager to objectify women without considering the ramifications. I’ve personally been let down by men who don’t see the harm in consuming images of women that are either nonconsensual or damaging because they don’t register that the image they’re getting off to is an actual human. To be real, I could rant about my unrelenting wrath concerning men’s entitlement to women’s bodies for pages and pages (and I have), but I’ll just say Hunter portrays this problem elegantly, thoughtfully, and beautifully. She creates collages that are both visually striking and mentally stimulating.
There are many ways to move through the world, many different definitions of the word ‘feminist,’ many definitions of the word ‘artist.’ All I can say is that viewing works by these astounding women reminds me that there is strength in vulnerability, we can be anyone we want, and no matter how much progress has been made, we must stay sharp because there’s still a helluva long way to go.