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A new lens

Author:
Kabul. Afghanistan. 2012
A meeting of Mirman Baheer, the Ladies’ Literary Society, in Kabul.  The group has roughly one hundred members in Kabul, where they meet openly on most Saturdays. The city of Kabul is, in many ways, a bubble. Its security allows women to gather openly, a near impossibility across most of the country. Outside Kabul, there are as many as three hundred members in the outlying provinces of Khost, Paktia, Wardak, Mazar, Kunduz, Jalalabad, Kandahar, Herat, and Farah. Exact numbers of members are impossible to come by, since the society operates in secret by necessity.

By Kaylen Forsyth

For a poet language is land on the water, is water on the land. The poem becomes necessary to existence, a way of transforming the physical world into something that can’t die. Like with many other art forms, its greatest assets are its humanness and intimacy. “I composed my first poems in the dark“, says Philip Levine in My Lost Poets. This is a small window into the understanding that happens between a writer and the words they either chose or don’t.

“I dream of lost vocabularies that might express some of what we no longer can”, laments Jack Gilbert, as though deprived of self-expression his entire life.

This brings him to a shared affinity with so many women across the globe, today and always, who may be able to fathom even more thoroughly than him exactly what it’s like to be stifled. To have so much pent-up rage and passion that there is no way to coordinate any coherence. This is why poetry plays such a vital role in the lives of many women in Afghanistan.

Recently, it has become clearer than ever just how essential it is for women to have a platform that cannot be deterred by men. Such deterrence is now symptomatic of a growing rather than declining patriarchy. This struggle for a stage is a problem that the women of Afghanistan have faced so much they’ve now formed their own kind of barracks, built out of language. Amidst a country that has seen vast amounts of violence and duplicity, a number of incredibly courageous women are voicing their political and emotional concern through the power of poetry. It takes the form of a “landay”.

The simple structure of the “landay poem” features couplets with nine syllables in the first line and thirteen in the second. This frame is used by many Afghan women who constantly search for new ways to articulate in a society wishing for their silence. Women write and share their poetry any way possible. Sometimes they share via phone calls with other women who are unable to leave their homes. Or other times, they meet up secretly to discuss their creations and merge them. Distribution always takes precedence over attribution.

Western representation of Afghan women would like to ignore this. Instead, it attempts a powerless portrayal. There is such an ethnocentric trend in Western media. It wants us to view other cultures as inherently alien in their differences. This leads to mass polarisation. Some begin to view those who live differently as outlandish. Evidently, this eliminates empathy and the ability to see with human perspective. It is the cause of an inaccurate depiction of Afghan women.

Journalists, specifically the tabloid sensationalists, would love us to view these women as voiceless victims, completely unable to have an opinion that hasn’t been indoctrinated by a patriarch. It’s inaccurate, and reading their “landays” emphasise this massively. Most suggest raw and often bursting passions of lust and love. There are hints of fury over the Taliban and the U.S., and foreign occupation.

My lover is fair as an American soldier can be. / To him I looked dark as a Talib, so he martyred me.
Landay lines like these cut deep and reveal strength, the strength that we all must see. Too prevalently, there is a manipulated view of Muslim women as direct results of oppression. Obviously, the consequence of this is their immediate dehumanisation. They are then seen through a lens that fails to attribute any agency or depth. Even their initiative is brushed aside.

Since the recent inauguration of Trump, women across the globe have risen up in a unified voice against his despicable policies. It’s fantastic! It’s inspiring to see that his government’s blatant misogyny and bigotry is not going unchallenged. People can address the politics of the women marching in the US and Europe, their agency, their intelligence. Yet, there still remains a struggle to identify these qualities in women from Islamic countries. Their acts of revolution and activism are either ignored, dismissed or played down. It’s easy to look at a middle-class American woman and call her a political revolutionary but people don’t want to call an Afghan woman anything of the sort.

In the West there is an erroneous thought that women from Islamic backgrounds are in need of salvation. This has been helpful to politicians in the past, allowing them to justify certain invasions. But to look at these “landays” is to understand that perhaps, these Afghanistan poets are the revolutionaries we should be taking examples from, rather than forcing our examples onto them.

Fatphobia and food: A review of the improbability of love

Author:
improbability of love

By Anna Hill

Content note: anorexia [breifly], fatphobia, racial stereotyping, very brief mention of rape

The Improbability of Love by Hannah Rothschild is a novel ostensibly about the transformative power of art and as such has been shortlisted for the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction this year. The novel follows a woman named Annie who stumbles across a masterful painting in a junk shop, and the consequences of her purchasing it. She is plunged into the art world full of salacious gossip and billionaires and a potential new lover.

I will be up front with you – I didn’t think this should have been shortlisted; it’s not that I didn’t enjoy it at all (for example, some chapters where written from the paintings perspective which was fun), I just felt like any kind of authenticity or innovation was missing. Not only was it structurally and linguistically dull, but it also employed tropes and traits that are actively harmful, repeated everywhere in media.

In some novels it doesn’t matter if the characters are two-dimensional because you are reading for the plot, but with The Improbability of Love, neither the characters nor the plot where interesting enough to really propel the story. Even the main character Annie is fairly simplistic and more disturbingly there are racialized caricatures throughout the novel. For example “Filipino servants”, who are only ever mentioned in connection to their race (and never say a word) and the wealthy Arabs; The Emir of Alwabbi and his domineering wife Sheika Midora who supposedly have links with Al-Qaeda. Add to the racist stereotyping an incredibly stereotypical representation of queerness, and more lazy and uninteresting writing occurs. There is one token queer person in the book – Barty is a socially mobile, white cisgender gay man who, unlike the majority of the other characters is left with no relationship and is seemingly only motivated by what he should wear to the next ridiculously extravagant art world event.

The book, as you might assume, features descriptions of art, but almost more intensely describes food – Annie works as a chef so we often hear about her love of food and her work in creating banquets for rich art dealers, collectors and historians. As a self-confessed food lover (I will consume as much chocolate as humanely possible in my life time!!) I tend to enjoy great descriptions of food that revel in the sensuality and vibrancy and fun of food and eating, like how Ruby Tandoh waxes lyrical about fast food in her vice column Dirty Eating, or how much I enjoy anyone talking to me about the pleasures of butter. Unfortunately though I have some major issues with Rothschild’s descriptions. Firstly a lot of the descriptions are incredibly contrived with clichéd phrases such as “each variety of vegetable suggested a story” or moments when Annie asks herself: “how could anyone think of an aubergine in such a disparaging way?”. And secondly, they are harmful in the simultaneous elevating of slim people who enjoy food and denigrating of fat people who do the same.

The fatphobia of the Improbability of love first comes to light with the overweight and lonely art historian Delores. Described in unfavourable terms and often supposed to provide comic relief, because, for example, she has leftover food on her face or clothing, Rothschild plays into the hegemonic idea that fat people and especially fat women are jokes and are not deserving of respect. Delores’ size is remarked on multiple times and in a lot of ways her fat body is seen as something to consume, something to watch, to point at. At her birthday banquet Annie describes her as “a vast animated sea anemone shimmying across the floor”, whilst all the other (slim) guests’ outfits are described in detail and without immediate judgement or animalisation. The representation of Annie’s love and obsession with food is palatable and serious only because she is slim; if a fat woman were to describe food at the length Annie does it would be comedic. When Annie gets a bit of food on her face Jesse (the love interest) finds it charming, but on a fat body it is repugnant, unattractive, gross. Annie herself is described in incredibly anorexic terms, for Jesse, the main love interest, “she had an ethereal dreamy quality, as if she wasn’t quite grounded but floating above earthly matters”. In other words it looks like she was light, thin, not heavy and full, the opposite of fat.

The other, even more worrying representation of fatness, comes in the form of Delia – a textbook example of fatphobic assumptions; Delia knows the TV schedule off by heart, is uncaring, eats too much food (according to her husband, “you…eat enough for nine”), is unintelligent (when she asks what a word means she is met with silence) and is jealous of the conventionally attractive slim women she sees on TV. In a really disgusting moment Delia says “he might have been a rapist” of Jesse when she refuses to let him in the house and her husband replies, disgustingly; “in your dreams woman, in your dreams.”.

When we consume media about food, particularly those that celebrate the creation and consumption of it, we need to keep questioning who is palatable and who isn’t. Fat characters and fat people are mistreated and affected negatively in most texts that focus on the pleasures of eating (and even those that don’t, such as the Harry Potter series). And this affects fat people’s quality of life. Fat people are more likely to struggle with employment and bullying/death threats or being told that the one way to solve any kind of illness or disability is to lose weight. Next time Hannah Rothschild writes a novel I hope she radically deconstructs her views on fatness and desirability instead of regurgitating tired, boring and harmful views.

An Interview with Elizabeth Farrell

Author:
Screen Shot 2015-09-26 at 12.52.23

By Anna Hill

A continuation of my series of interviews with various UK Teen activists to showcase the diverse and innovative landscape of UK feminism and to inspire other teens and teen girls particularly to get involved in any way they can! To read the other interview in this series go here.

The next person is Elizabeth Farrell, more commonly known as glacier996girl and whose project Remember the Glaciers was started during her gap year – as her instagram says she is “ raising awareness about climate change, adapting the aesthetic of ‘eco-friendly’ to appeal to the iGeneration”. She is also now writing a column for polyester zine, which you can read here and here for a more in depth look at her work.

1.What started of your work as a visual activist?

My A-level art project (years 12 &13). My favourite subject was geography and for art I thought it was important to pick something you enjoy and something you can be passionate about. My project was about the correlation between mass consumption, capitalist society and globalization and the environment. I used myself as the subject representing a generation constantly manipulated by advertisement. Remember the Glaciers was a continuation from this.

  1. Before you started your great project Remember the Glaciers, did you have any experience doing activist work?

No, it never even occurred to me until 3 years ago. Now its my life!

  1. How does the internet and tumblr/social media affect the work you make?

It just means I can spread the message to a wider audience of creatives. It’s also important for me that they are visual forms of social media too.

  1. Why do you use the colour blue so much?

From the start I was trying to steer away from the stigma of environmental activism therefore not using ‘eco-green’.  My project being ‘Remember The Glaciers’ made sense to use blue to represent the ice. Glaciers are so powerful and beautiful yet at the same time in their ice form so vulnerable and helpless.

  1. What role does rage and anger play in your work?

My anger can definitely be used as ammunition and a lot of the time is a catalyst for me to work. I remember when I found out about Shell’s plans to drill in the arctic I was crazy angry and didn’t understand why and how this was even being considered? It just made no sense. I thought it was some kind of sick paradoxical joke: the words arctic and oil drilling?!?!! But I took this anger, using it to spark a 2 man protest outside my local shell gas station in London.

  1. How do you keep doing the work you do when you feel like you are making no headway? What keeps you motivated?

Using your emotions to your advantage and using that to push yourself to feel like you are making progress. Remember the achievements you have made previously and know that you will come out of this mindset, and that a mindset is all it really is.

  1. What advice would you give to others who want to get involved with activism [both environmental and other forms]?

Pick a way to do it that you will really enjoy and a medium that you are passionate about. I think it’s really important to  enjoy what you are doing and that people can see that through your work. Maybe try a different approach to the activism that’s already out there?

  1. Now that you are going to university, what are your plans for the future – will you be continuing Remember the Glaciers?

Yes of course! Hopefully just with more knowledge and ideas to share, eventually I want to be a glaciologist but I’ve got a long way to go yet, I guess ill just see how it all goes!

Thanks Lizzie!!

Shout Out To Guerrilla Girls! Thanks For Keeping It Real

Author:

By Guest Blogger, Barbara Mejia

Naked1989

“We’re feminist masked avengers in the tradition of anonymous do-gooders like Robin Hood, Wonder Woman and Batman. How do we expose sexism, racism and corruption in politics, art, and pop culture? With facts, humor and outrageous visuals. We reveal the understory, the subtext, the overlooked, and the downright unfair.”

Guerrilla Girls burst on to the scene in the mid 80’s through the unconventional ways they drew attention to the lack of female representation in art. They made posters, hosted workshops and gave lectures, and here’s the curveball, they did it all wearing gorilla masks. I’m a fan of their campaign for public consciousness about the inequalities women face in all facets of our society, especially the art world, not only because of their important message but because of their radical masked avenger attire and because they receive no profit for their activism.

Each Guerrilla Girl takes the name of a famous artist and wears a gorilla mask, bringing humor and a bit of shock value to make their message the center of attention. The act of removing their identities from their activism ensures the message and information speaks for itself, optimizing the voice behind the mask and serving as a filter for society’s need to critique and judge female appearance. And this is what I love the most: the gorilla mask serves as a majestic metaphor for the fury that women facing invisibility and adversity carry, but are forced to suppress.

Their posters draw attention to the inequalities in the art world. There are so many amazingly talented female artists, but the art world has historically and continues to use the female body as a commodity. One can only imagine the difficulty a female artist faces when her profession views her gender as a prop for beauty and when her body of work doesn’t match up to what a male-defined art world most values.

As someone who works hard to be conscious of the ads and messages that are fed to me via popular media, I find it refreshing to see creative campaigns like the Guerrilla Girls. Their genuine goal to educate and empower the public and to make people more culturally and socially conscious of the inequalities that remain in our immediate surroundings inspires me.

A campaign motivated simply by the desire to educate and bring awareness to people is a rare occurrence in our capitalistic society, where the likes of Dove and Pantene sell products in the guise of making us aware of the adversities and social pressures women face. I don’t like the lingering feeling that I have to buy shampoo and soap in solidarity of their campaign. I don’t like the thought that buying their products to improve my appearance supports a campaign telling me that appearances don’t and shouldn’t matter.

This is a shout out to Guerrilla Girls, the original culture jammers. Thanks for keeping it real. Keep taking the country by storm!

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