Monday, December 9, 2013

Update Regarding Affiliation with Peaceful Streets

Due to the volume of press releases written by the Peaceful Streets Project, the Austin City Police Department, along with articles, and other online references to my arrest with the Peaceful Streets Project, I want to clarify that I have not been a part of the organization since November 2012. I believe in the general mission of police accountability activism, but since my departure from the organization I have not and do not endorse the methodology or tactics of the Peaceful Streets Project.  All press releases regarding my experiences and my arrest with the organization were written without my consent or consultation. Additionally, I have not and do not authorize anyone from the organization to speak on my behalf.
Thank you.

Thursday, September 19, 2013

Lalla Essaydi: Reclaiming Identity

Lalla Essaydi was born in 1956 in Marrakesh, Morocco, where she spent her childhood.  She grew up in a harem, and her father had 11 wives, of which her mother was the youngest. For high school, she traveled to France, where she received some basic fine arts education. She married and moved to Saudi Arabia, where she focused on her family for the next twenty years.  Essaydi divorced her husband, but continued to live in Saudi Arabia until she moved to Paris after her children were grown to attend the Ecole des Beaux-Arts.  Shen then relocated to Boston, MA, where she received a BFA from Tufts University and an MFA from the School of the Museum of Fine Arts, in Boston in 2003.   For the vast majority of her life, Essaydi lived in Arab countries, yet her perspective is strongly influenced by her experiences living and studying in Morocco, Saudi Arabia, France, and the United States.

While at art school in France and in the United States, Essaydi was exposed to the Orientalist paintings of 19th-century French artists such as Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres, and Eugène Delacroix.  She recalls laughing at the scenes she saw depicted of women in harems, but was then shocked when she realized her Western colleagues had internalized these images as actual depictions of Arab women.  Although she focused on painting in art school, Essaydi was inspired to reclaim the identity of Arab women through photography.  To expose what she emphasizes as the Western male fantasy of Arab women, she focuses on and defines three main themes in her photographic work: the odalisque, the harem, and the veil.
Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres, La Grande Odalisque, 1814
In her 2003-2004 series, “Converging Territories,” Essaydi directly confronts what she views as the degradation of Arab women in Orientalist painting.  Here we see a transformation of the Odalisque, a word derived from the Turkish term odalik, which means to belong to a place.

Lalla Essaydi, Grande Odalisque, 2008, from “Femmes du Maroc”
Calligraphy in Morocco is strictly reserved for males, and the use of Henna, a popular plant-based dye, is traditionally applied on a woman during the various celebrations in her life–For example, coming of age rituals, marriage, and birth.  By fusing these two polarized and gender specific techniques, she challenges the boundaries between traditional Arab male and female identity.

Another theme Essaydi examines is that of the harem and how the term harem itself can refer either the group of women, or the architectural space of a house reserved for women.  Visually, she manipulates this dual definition by blending these women into the architecture around them. For her “Harem” series, she specially designed the fabric of her model’s garments to blend into the architectural patterning around them, playing with the question of where precisely women belong.  The answer to this implicit question is typically that women belong in domestic spaces. The harem itself addresses issues of public versus private space in traditional Islamic culture. Women are traditionally associated with and confined to domestic spaces, and men are associated with public spaces.  Essaydi and Moroccan sociologist, Fatema Mernissi, argue that even interior Islamic ornament and architecture speak to the confinement of women (1).

Lalla Essaydi, Harem #2, 2009
Lalla Essaydi, Harem #14C, 2009

Essaydi emphasizes this psychological confinement of women in her compositions. Essaydi argues that the veil is yet another representation of private space for women. (2)

Lalla Essaydi, Converging Territories #26, 2003
Lalla Essaydi
Les Femmes du Maroc: Moorish Woman, 2008

Although Essaydi criticizes the Western male fantasy of Orient, she also mentions her appreciation for at least some level of beauty captured in their paintings, and it is precisely that beauty of her culture that she says she wants to capture and promote. Essaydi emphasizes that she speaks for herself and thinks it would be naïve to say she could speak for all Arab women but that she hopes the work still speaks to all Arab women in some capacity.

1. Mernissi, Fatema., and Lalla Essaydi. Les Femmes du Maroc. Brooklyn, NY: powerHouse Books, 2009.

Mernissi writes a text specifically for Essaydi’s exhibition “Les Femmes du Maroc,” in which she places Essaydi’s work in the historical context of female communication in Morocco.  She compares Essaydi’s subversive use of writing to the cleverness of Scheherazade’s storytelling in an era that sought to silence women.  She also addresses contemporary issues of consumerism and Essaydi’s work in resisting globalization and her ability to reclaim female agency and confidence.

Essaydi writes an Artist Statement similar to that in Converging Territories, but she elaborates more on spatial relationships and questions Western influence on the repression of Arab women.  She expands more on her own geographic position in the world, and how her fluidity between different West and Arab countries influences her art.

2.Mernissi, Fatema. Beyond the Veil : Male-female Dynamics in a Muslim Society. London: Saqi Books, 2011. (accessed November 25, 2012)

In her New Introduction, Mernissi discusses contemporary discourse in France surrounding Muslim women who wear the veil and argues against this Western conception of women in veils as “victims.”  This is relevant to what Essaydi is also trying to address in the problematic use of the veil in Islamic culture and how she depicts the veil in her work.  “The Meaning of Spatial Boundaries” is incredibly important in discussing the psycho-sexual boundaries of Arab men and women, particularly how those boundaries are constructed in Islamic architecture.  This historical and contemporary analyses of the division between private and public spaces in Arab countries helps explain Essaydi’s depicted space in her photography.

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Defying the Gender Binary: A Comparative Feminist Analysis of Marcel Duchamp’s The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even and Rrose Sélavy PART I


The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even (La mariée mise à nu par ses célibataires, même) is perhaps Marcel Duchamp’s most complex conceptual oeuvre. Because of its ambiguity and radical deconstruction of sexual relations, of desire, of gender identity, and of identity in general, it is challenging to formulate a coherent feminist analysis. Paradoxically, Duchamp created this work based on a definite binary of sexual desire, yet he compromises this binary by adopting a female alter ego, Rrose Sélavy. What does gender identity mean to an artist who devoted years to constructing a work of binary sexual desire yet who fused genders through his own performance of a feminine identity?  I argue that Duchamp held a radical stance on the deconstruction of gender long before many postmodern feminist scholars, and his ability to not only adopt a female alter ego, but to have it accepted and lauded by his otherwise sexist colleagues is a testament to his clever genius and stature as an artist.

To grasp the feminist paradoxes in The Bride Stripped Bare, I will begin by analyzing Duchamp’s use of a masculine and feminine binary.  The first indication that the Bride retains a stereotypically passive ‘feminine’ position is in the title of the work itself. She is the Bride Stripped. Despite Duchamp’s laborious notes, the French title and English translation indicate that she is the recipient of a gesture, not the actor.  In the French title, “La mariée” is definitely feminine, as it is worth noting that the French language employs masculine and feminine nouns and pronouns. We know from the rest of the title that the Bride is “stripped bare by her bachelors.”  These bachelors represent the actors in this scenario, a stereotypically ‘masculine’ role, as it is by them that the Bride is stripped.

The Bride Stripped Bare By Her Bachelors, Even (The Large Glass)
Marcel Duchamp
created from Duchamp's notes by Jean Suquet (includes parts never completed). (Courtesy of Jean Suquet.)

Saturday, May 11, 2013

From Here I Saw What Happened and I Cried


In her body of work, “From Here I Saw What Happened and I Cried,” Carrie Mae Weems exposes the subjective nature of historical photography as it serves to stereotype Black subjects.  Weems shows through this collection of 33 chromogenic prints of appropriated photographs how the narrative of African American history is skewed in favor of a white hegemonic perspective.  Through her repatriation of early photographs, we see how attempts at portraying African people served to prove their inferiority and to justify white dominance.  By fusing photographs with more contemporary words, music, and popular culture references, Weems picks apart African American history, or lack thereof, to create a new, more empowering narrative.

Carrie Mae Weems grew up in Portland, Oregon and left at the age of seventeen to become a Marxist activist and later a dancer in Anna Halprin’s progressive San Francisco Dancers’ Workshop.  For her twenty-first birthday she received a camera and began studying documentary photography while experimenting with her own work. She received a bachelor of fine arts degree in photography from the California Institute of the Arts in 1981 and then a master of arts degree in 1984 from the University of California, San Diego. She also pursued graduate studies in African folkore. This fusion of folklore and photography is evident in “From Here I Saw What Happened”  through Weems’s use of appropriated photographs and through her narrative etchings on the glass in front of each image.

In 1995, The J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles invited Carrie Mae Weems to create “From Here I Saw what Happened and I Cried” as a response to a previous exhibition in 1992 on African Americans in photography. This exhibition, entitled “Hidden Witness,” sprang from a study of the Getty Museum’s holding of mid-nineteenth-century photography.  One of the original curators, Weston Naff, recalls, “Considering the potential interest and importance of the subject of African Americans around the time of the abolition of slavery, we wondered why there had never been an exhibition or book devoted to portraits of black people...” "Hidden Witness" was inspired by one of the photographs A Family Seated in its Garden, a charming scene of a white family until one notices a forlorn African man alone in the back, left-hand corner, resting on his shovel. The photographs in “Hidden Witness” were displayed in individual, velvet-lined cases in a dark gallery, evoking the exhibition title and the feeling of something hidden.
Daguerrotype of white family with African American man in background.
The Hidden Witness
c.1848Image Credit: Collection of the J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, California
 "From Here I Saw What Happened" starts and ends with two royal Mangbetu women who act as bookends to the exhibition and who bear witness to the story.  The first four striking images commence Weems’s larger narrative. The first image of a profile of a bare-breasted, Black, woman reads “YOU BECAME A SCIENTIFIC PROFILE”. The second image, of an older Black man staring straight at the viewer, reads “A NEGROID TYPE”. The third photograph, of a younger Black man, has “AN ANTHROPOLOGICAL DEBATE” etched across his chest, and the fourth photograph , of a nude woman with the end of her long breasts cupped by the encircling frame has “& A PHOTOGRAPHIC SUBJECT” scratched across her shoulders. They are all recently rediscovered and now well-known appropriated daguerreotypes from a nineteenth-century study conducted by Harvard University scientist, Louis Agassiz, who commissioned daguerreotypist Joseph T. Zealy to compose these photographs.

From Here I Saw What Happened and I Cried
Louis Agassiz, a celebrated biologist, emigrated from Switzerland in 1846 to work at Harvard University.  It is not clear what peaked his interest in analyzing African American slaves, but in 1850 he commissioned fifteen daguerreotypes to be created of slaves from various African tribes. Alfred came from the Foulah tribe, Jem from the Gullah, Fassena from the Mandingo, two sets of fathers and daughters: Jack and Drana from Guinea, and Renty and Delia from Congo. Agassiz’s objectives in taking these daguerreotypes were to analyze and differentiate physical characteristics of European White and African Black people to prove the superiority of the white race.  The photographs were intended for scientific purposes, and through the evolutionary theory of polygenesis, Agassiz sought to prove that Africans were in fact, a separate species altogether. Agassiz claimed that his attempt to analyze Black bodies had no political motivation, but his claims on polygenesis were popular among southern scientists trying to prove the inferiority of the African American slave. In a letter to his mother, Agassiz wrote about his first interaction with a Black man, “...they are not of the same blood as us.  In seeing their black faces with their thick lips and grimacing teeth, the wool on their head, their bent knees, their elongated hands, their large curved nails, and especially the livid color of their palms, I could not take my eyes off their face in order to tell them to stay far away.”

Perhaps the most striking aspect of these first four photographs of “From Here I Saw What Happened,” is the silence of the subjects.  As slaves, they had no choice but to sit for the photograph anywhere from five to sixty minutes for the exposure, and it is unknown whether they recognized the implications of their participation.  Weems’s etched words onto the glass are almost soothing, as if she recognizes the roles these subjects were forced to play.  In doing so, we as the viewer consuming these images, cannot just sit and wallow in our voyeuristic discomfort, but can join in on recognizing the injustice of being subjected to a pseudoscientific experiment designed to rob someone of their very humanity.

Neither photograph, nor archival system remains completely objective.  Although Agassiz and others insisted that their work was apolitical, it is clear that it was just as political then as it is now.  Harvard University threatened to sue Weems for the appropriation of Zealy’s daguerreotypes in their collection. During an interview for Art21, Weems recalled thinking, “So I thought Harvard’s going to sue me for using these images of Black people in their collection–The richest university in the world. I think that maybe I don’t have a legal case, but I have a moral case that could be made that could be really useful to carry out in public.”  She told Harvard, “I think you suing me is a really good thing, and we should have this conversation in court.”  Weems states that she wanted to be able to set a precedent for other artists who worked with appropriation in the belief that there is more of the story to tell. Paradoxically, Harvard ended up not suing her and actually purchased her photographs for their own collection. 

Weems is not only repatriating these images, she is recuperating these images. Instead of the fetishization of a small, private daguerreotype, Weems enlarges and hangs the photographs.  The images are no longer contained in personal, covered daguerreotypes, they are featured in an exhibition setting.  In “From Here I Saw What Happened,” Weems exposes the exaggerated depictions of Black bodies and communicates the irony of Black subservient roles and stereotypes. As Brian Wallis wrote at the conclusion of his article Black Bodies, White Science: Louis Agassiz’s Slave Daguerreotypes,  “Weems viewed their lives empathetically from a black point of view. She saw these men and women not as representatives of some typology but as living, breathing ancestors. She made them portraits.”