Unbounded and Unstoppable: Women then, now, and tomorrow.
By Elizabeth Low Sue Mei
Upon reflection and analysis of the works featured in this exhibition, there is a sense of pride in seeing the diverse response delivered by the individual women artists to the theme “female relations”. We share the same gender and have similar experiences. Yet, our individuality and uniqueness shine ever so brightly in the stories and perspectives we choose to share with the world. Affirmatively, the name of the showcase alone, Women Unbounded, suggests a compelling narrative of its own: that women are not bound to the fate we have been handed, and are not confined to roles fixed by societal norms.
Womanhood… there is so much to be said about the experience. From the roles we were (and for some of us, still) expected to play, to the roles we have redefined through the ages, it is clear that strength and resilience is part of our DNA. Undoubtedly, women today have defied the mentalities of our forefathers with everything we have gone on to achieve, from being a working mother, to being CEO, and president. Yet, the core of the traditional roles of being a mother, daughter, sister, granddaughter, and so on, still, and always will hold weight. It is true that we see the world differently; but different is not necessarily wrong. Our experiences gained through the roles we have taken on merely provide us with an alternative perspective and understanding. Perhaps what may be perceived as our weaknesses, is the key to our strengths.
Women, Roles, and Relationships
Since gaining our National Independence in 1957, women in Malaysia today have not only received greater access to areas such as education and employment, but have also gone on to achieve roles that allow us to participate in power-sharing and decision-making developments. Today, we hold seats in parliament, run our own businesses, and hold CEO positions. Basically, we get to chase our dreams and be anything we want to be. While, no doubt, there is still much to be done in terms of reaching gender equality and safeguarding women’s rights and status, our role and place in society have evolved from the time of our grandmothers. Most of us are presented with greater opportunities than of our mothers, and have had the chance to choose our paths.
Familial, platonic, and intimate: the word relationship is vast and multi-layered, extending across multiple roles as a parent, a sibling, a friend, a lover, and so many more. There is a variety of dimensions to the relationships we maintain and hold as women today. On the topic of the roles played by women, the nature of the relationships we share with the people in our lives continue to evolve drastically, like our status and role in the employment sector, where gender roles in some of our relationships have been challenged and redefined.
There are still expectations and stereotypes tied to our position as a woman, especially in more traditional families. Take for example, the notion of a mother as one who educates and nurtures her children, or maintains the household, is still a role widely expected by most traditional families. That is not to say that it is beneath a woman to do so, rather perhaps it is a responsibility to be shared between partners in a relationship. While there is no shame in choosing to take on these responsibilities, the imposition of what a woman’s “duty” is to her family is something that has been challenged and redefined over the last couple of decades.
The term ‘relationships’ also extend to our relationship with ourselves. While there is a long road ahead of us, the formidable stigma surrounding mental health in Malaysia has garnered respectable attention and awareness as of late. Addressed by artists, public figures, institutions, and the media, the concept of nurturing a healthy relationship with ourselves is slowly, but surely, being acknowledged and practiced. Both men and women today have their own challenges, and struggle with defining their roles in society today; however, with this being a showcase by women artists on female relations we shift our focus to women and our relationships with ourselves. I find that the need to take care of everyone besides ourselves is a common trait in women. Some say its part of our DNA to be nurturing and empathetic, others claim it a result of centuries of living in patriarchal society. Needless to say, whatever your opinion is on the matter, we take better care of our loved ones when we take care of ourselves. Most importantly, we would lead a much more contented and meaningful life by making time and space for a relationship with ourselves.
Women as Artists
When we talk about art history, naturally the conversation gravitates towards western art history - at least at some point. First published in 1971, the essay “Why Have There Been No Great Female Artists” by Linda Nochlin is said to be one of the greatest contributions to feminist art history. By looking at the title alone, one might find that to be contradicting. However, this piece of literature presents to us all the reasons why there have been no “great” women artists by the superstar standards of Michelangelo, Picasso, Van Gogh, and Jackson Pollock. Instead of bringing up or “uncovering” hidden female artists in the history of great artists, Nochlin identifies the problem in a very realistic and logical light. The lack of female accomplishment in history of art has little to do with our capabilities as a gender, but rather the obstacles that prevented women from such achievements due to the educational and institutional system. Among some of Nochlin’s arguments included the prohibition of access to nude models for any budding women artists (nude models were essential to the development of an artist’s skill between the Renaissance to the end of the 19th century), the inability to take part in opportunities that would advance their skills, and the insistence against a woman excelling too well in one thing. The latter had to do with the opinion that intellectual attainment would distract a woman from her true responsibility and role towards the welfare of her family.
Nochlin’s point? Despite every obstacle faced, it is by far a miracle that we have still gone on to achieve as much as we have today. Thus, the question of “why are there no great female artists?” has nothing to do with the female incapability, but everything to do with our capabilities in spite of the odds. From the institutional structures themselves, to the questionable social order they imposed on women through the ages, there is a sense of rebellious pride in being a women artist today. We are united by our struggles, our perseverance, and by our habit of defying the status quo. To all women artists, bravo for choosing to look ahead, and redefine the role of great female artists in spite of what history has told the world.