Shattering reflections

In every worthy cause, in every struggle for emancipation, there is, perhaps, risk of fatigue. Feminism fatigue is widely felt, echoing other unannounceable fatigues. To note the fatigue is not to diminish the issue in hand, simply to acknowledge an exhaustion horizon.
We navigate that fatigue in a variety of ways. That navigation signals both our recognition of what has been achieved and our recognition that the problem remains, in profound and disturbing ways.

So what happens when we are presented with a study of works by women artists? Does the category “women artists” sustain itself in the face of that fatigue? In the case of Brenda Schmahmann’s Through the Looking Glass (David Krut Publishing) the answer is a resounding yes, because of the fine-tuning of the topic. This book, and the exhibition on which it is based, examines representations of self by women artists, framed by the device of its title.

The fact that Charles Dodgson (aka Lewis Carroll), photographed girl children as “reclining nudes” and “beautiful little odalisques” is not the explanation for the title of Schmahmann’s book — although precisely such practices are challenged by the works discussed in this volume. Rather, the meaning of “going through the looking glass” developed in 1870, when Dodgson invited young Alice Raikes to put an orange in her right hand and asked her which hand was holding the fruit. Then he put her in front of the mirror and asked in which hand the child in the mirror was holding the orange. Raikes told him that it was her left hand. She went on to ask: “Supposing I was on the other side of the mirror, would the orange still be in my right hand?” Through the looking glass, things are not as they seem. In Through the Looking Glass, the explanation of the title is threaded through the book.

The text is framed by two particular efforts at self-portraiture: the first is a representation of the mirror reflection of artist Dorothy Kay having her hair cut; the final one is a series of prints, Thresholds, by Christine Dixie.

Both works, Schmahmann points out, explicitly invoke the motif of the mirror, which is central to self-portraiture, but in ways that subvert the motif’s central role in emphasising male subjectivities and creative drives in representing women.

Both use the mirror not to reflect reality but to explore the complex construction of female identity.

Like all the works in the book, these are analysed by the author in a manner that enables us to see they are self-representations produced not by gazing at the mirror but, as Schmahmann so eloquently puts it, by moving through it, working through the ideas of self-portraiture as a genre — and working through the multiple ways female identity is controlled, contained, challenged and produced. The term “looking glass” alerts us to act of looking rather than to processes of reflection.

Within that elegant and clear framework, the book discusses the work of 24 women artists. It is very much a book rather than a catalogue, and as such it works very differently to a catalogue.

Certainly, the book offers all the pleasures of a catalogue: exquisite reproductions of the works, assembled as a group in a form that will outlive — and come to stand for — the exhibition for which the works are currently being gathered together.

But it is a book because it processes the chosen works systematically and thoroughly, locating each one in the relevant context of production, with reference to the intentions of the artist. It provides a detailed and rich visual analysis, paying close attention in each case to the nature of the act of self-portraiture.

The works are discussed in terms of four themes broken into chapters, each one building on the one before: self as artist; self and family; self and locale; self and body; and enactments (of possible selves).

As theme follows theme, the strategy of the book is revealed. Each work (each case study, if you like) yields its own nuggets of insight into the nature of the relationship between art and gendered subjectivity. In the early parts of the book, these feel familiar — as indeed they are.

We work through relatively well- known terrain: conventions of male self-representation and male representations of females, the power relations that underpin the conventions involved, the ideologies that underlie the norms invoked.

We encounter in the works a host of strategies for challenging, subverting or circumnavigating those conventions and norms.

Even when the points are familiar, Schmahmann’s book is remarkable for its combination of sophistication and clarity, always stretching us a little further. In each case the work presented is well-chosen and compelling, the commentary enriching.

But the great strength of the book begins to emerge as the works and the themes accumulate, one following the next, layer upon layer, insisting on the enormous range and depth of the relationship between art and gendered subjectivity, in every case refracted through the act of self-portraiture. This device works to banish the fatigue that threatens this topic in other forums.

There are many possible themes. I want to focus on one: the mixture of the familiar and the strange that is involved in the motif of the looking glass, and the act of self-portraiture itself.

One of the most powerful intellectual moves possible in seeking to analyse the conditions of our existence involves making the familiar strange.

To do this we need to retain sufficient recognition of self in whatever we are dealing with to enable us to continue to identify with the project at hand.

At the same time, however, we must actively make it strange, obliging us to challenge conventions, notice norms for what they are — in effect, anthropologise our native ideas sufficiently both to understand them and their constructedness.

The works selected all have these properties: Schmahmann travels through the looking glass to analyse them, giving us enough “self” in each case to keep us engaged, and making enough “strange” to destabilise us productively. (Imagine my personal consternation at seeing the convent that made the girl-me as the back-drop to Tracey Rose’s triple-screen DVD projection, Ciao Bella, in which a schoolmarmish character cleans up a bunny-girl’s bloodbath.)

Many of the works chosen are, in their own right, potent pieces. The book is an artefact, an art work of a different kind, but an equally potent piece. It does not simply make the works accessible — although it does that, magnificently.

It is itself an energetic and sophisticated contribution to public debate around questions of gender that will itself circulate, invite engagement and banish fatigue.

This is an edited version of Carolyn Hamilton’s speech delivered at the launch of the book that took place at the new Gallery@157 in Parkwood, Johannesburg on May 29. Hamilton is the director of a research project exploring the consultation of public intellectual life at the University of the Witwatersrand. Hamilton and Schmahmann were school friends at the convent depicted in Tracey Rose’s work, Ciao Bella

The details:

An exhibition of South African women’s art accompanies the launch of Brenda Schmahmann’s Through the Looking Glass. The exhibition runs at the Alumni Gallery at the Albany History Museum on Somerset Street in Grahamstown during the National Arts Festival until mid September.

In early October the exhibition will open at the Nelson Mandela Metropolitan Art Museum in Port Elizabeth and will run until 2005.

The exhibition will show in Gauteng in February 2005 at the Standard Bank Art Gallery, and will show at the Durban Art Gallery from April to June 2005.

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