A few weeks ago I was introduced to WCA member Margaret Parker. It was suggested that her story would be perfect for the blog. One of the things I truly enjoy about being a member of WCA is connecting with other women artists, art historians and curators from all over the world. Through correspondence and FaceTime conversation I learned about her project, the Castine Bicentennial Quilt. This collaborative creative project, designed by Parker and produced by a large group of talented, dedicated women, continues to educate and delight both locals and visitors of Castine, Maine.
Many thanks again to Margaret Parker for sharing her work and contributing to the blog this month. I truly enjoyed meeting her and learning about the Castine Bicentennial Quilt. It prompted me to think about other textile works from art history and revisit the Bayeux Tapestry – What connections do you find in the quilt? As always, if you have an idea for a post, we welcome your contributions. – Marianne McGrath
Margaret Parker grew up in an art making family and continues that path with artwork that invites viewers to interact with the complex issues of our day. Early experience in dance and theatre led her to collaborations that cross media boundaries. Her art has been shown nationally, in Canada and Mexico, is in the permanent collection of the United States Capitol, the State Department Art Bank, the Maine Maritime Academy, the University of Michigan Museum of Art, the UM Rackham Graduate School, the Chelsea Medical Center, and many private collections. Since 2014 she has been bringing her poetry to the public as well.
Parker attended the School of the Art Institute of Chicago during middle school, Bennington College for two years, and received a BFA from the University of Michigan School of Art and Design in 1969. Parker lived in Ann Arbor after graduating and began painting and showing her work. She also designed for theatre and the University Opera. She met her husband, Mark Hodesh, there and in 1979 they moved to New York City. From 1981 to 1997, Margaret and her family moved to Castine, Maine, where they owned and ran the Castine Inn. She continued to paint, and became increasingly interested in public art, making her first public art works as community projects in Castine. Creating the design for the Castine Bicentennial Quilt and working with the community throughout the project was the largest and most intricate project she’d done, which took 80 people to complete and a year to finish. In 1997, the family moved back to Ann Arbor, Michigan, where she continues to work. Parker’s a founding member of the Michigan Chapter of the WCA, Chapter President from 2015-19, and was on the National WCA Board from 2016-18.
In 1995, my husband, daughter and I were living in Castine, Maine, a small town on a peninsula in the Penobscot Bay where we owned and ran a twenty room summer hotel, the Castine Inn. I was also painting murals of the town and coastline, including one that circled the dining room of the Inn which was very popular. With the bicentennial of Castine approaching, a group of women in town proposed making a quilt to commemorate the town’s changing role in the early European settlement of the continent, and they asked me to design it. My mother, Pauline Parker, had made many quilts, so I was familiar with the process, though I hadn’t done it myself. So I depended completely on the skills and compatibility of the steering committee and all the participants. The core group of quilters had already collaborated on several quilts, one of the churches in town, another of boats built there, they had established a working relationship. Charleen Wiseman, an established quilter and quilting teacher, led the group. The steering committee had secured funds for the project, and a permanent exhibition space for the finished piece had been reserved in the newly renovated Castine Historical Society building. My only job was to come up with a design.
I attended many early meetings where the themes for the quilt were endlessly discussed – the history of the area, it’s rich natural habitat, the ships that had been built or sailed into the harbor, and of course the flags! I researched the history for months, found old photographs, and began drawing that summer. I aimed to include as many of the themes as possible.
The historical themes suggested a long horizontal format, eventually seven historic scenes became the backbone of the design. On each side of them were eight nature panels, that were tall and narrow. Above the history squares, descriptions of each scene were stitched in embroidery. Six flags fit above the nature panels, filled out on the two ends with the sun and moon, a tribute to the indigenous peoples.
A strip of water all along the bottom made room for the boats, ships, canoes and kayaks that had sailed through the town’s 200 year history. Above and below, the piece is framed by a dark curve suggesting the edge of the earth, a world view, stitched with white clouds.
Many people were eager to work on this piece. So another design requirement was that it had to start with small sections that people could work on at home, that would then be sewn together into it’s completed form. This dictated how the composition was composed.
Participants organized into groups and selection the section that they wanted to complete. The original drawings were printed as blueprints in sections, so each group could take home their section along with its selected fabrics. They then copied elements of the design from the blueprint and used those patterns to cut the fabric. This gave very exact replicas of the drawings. A great suggestion from Charleen was to leave extra fabric along the edges of the panels that could overlap onto the next panels. When the overlap was sewn down, the whole piece became seamless. The masts and sails of the ships also overlapped onto the panels above them, making it look like the boats were sailing in front of the scenes on land. This was one of the central unifying elements of the whole design.
The 24 ft. long, 6 ft. high quilted tapestry took a year to complete, using the labor of nearly 50 people, mostly women over fifty. I worked throughout the project, solving design problems at every step from fabric selection and thread color to techniques of couching and beadwork, and ensuring that the project was completed by the July 4, 1996, deadline. It is on permanent display at the Castine Historical Society.
Tomur Atagök a leading feminist artist from Turkey, was born in Istanbul. After graduating from Robert College in Istanbul, she trained in the United States from 1960-1973, first at Oklahoma State University where she immersed herself in abstract painting and earned a BFA. She then went on to the California College of Arts and Crafts and the University of California, Berkeley for an MA. During her years in Berkeley, she experienced the Free Speech movement, then the civil rights uprisings, and third, protests by feminist artists .
After returning to Turkey in 1973, she pioneered, first of all as a painter, then as a teacher, curator, and historian. In the 1980s her painting focused on contemporary women, often painting on a metallic surface. Several works featured Madonna as a contemporary icon.
During these same years she was the Assistant Director of Mimar Sinan University Museum of Painting and Sculpture , where she also earned a Ph.D. in Museology. She then moved to Yildiz Technical University where she founded and chaired the first Museum Studies Program in Turkey in 1989. Atagök has trained many of the current museum professionals in Turkey. At the same time she began collaborating on ground breaking exhibitions of contemporary Turkish artists with several focusing on women artists. In honor of the 75th anniversary of the founding of the Turkish Republic in 1993, she co organized the first exhibition of the history of women artists in Turkey “Woman in Anatolia” and “Contemporary Turkish Women Artists, organized by the Ministry of Culture.
Part II Feminism
Tomur states: “My approach has always been that of considering “feminism in art” from both artistic and activist points of view, and I have been concerned that women artists are unable to construct their identities despite their art. My mission was first based on making the women artists aware of the hegemony of the white-male artist of the Western world. Since I was working as the assistant director at the only art museum in Istanbul, it was relatively easy for me to research, give lectures, and later organize exhibitions of women artists. However, I must add that my attempts were often received with disinterest by all. Nevertheless, my own practice as an artist used “woman” as the subject from as early as the late 1970s.” (n. paradoxa, 2002)
Tomur’s work follows several intersecting themes although feminism is a central focus throughout her career. In her works of the 1980s, we see her assertion of the figurative in the midst of dynamic abstract expressionist brushstrokes. these dynamic paintings exude incredible energy of the brushstrokes and the figures.
She began to paint on metal on 1981 and already by 1983 she won an award with a three dimensional work called Symmetric Altar with Madonna facing the Christian Mary .
The artist explains: “The pictorial reality and space on a metallic surface contains the hints the artist gets from the environment, the symbols and the descriptions she uses in making references to the outside world, the different realities of the materials and the techniques, the images reflected from the environment and the perceiver on the surface of the metallic work, and finally the interpretation of the perceiver each time create different subjective and materialistic realities of art.
On the other hand pictorial reality and real space, change physically with the reflections from the environment and the perceiver himself, and join with the physical environment and movement, creating a connection of life with art.”
In 1990 the critic William Zimmer asked the artist about the frequent use of the color pink “It’s a color which she confided in me she cannot abide, but which also stands for humanity from a feminist perspective. Pink which traditionally connotes softness is applied to metal, meaning toughness.”
Part 3 The Goddesses
In 1996 Tomur was awarded a Fulbright Research Grant to American University to study American feminist art. While there she had a meeting with Professor Norma Broude who made the suggestion that she look at feminism in Turkey through the lens of the goddess traditions from Anatolia. When she returned to Turkey she took on that challenge a produced a stunning installation on ten metal panels that alternate between various goddess images, abstraction and references to women’s bodies.
Dominating this series is the great Anatolian Mother Goddess from Çatalhöyük. That twenty centimeter statuette, excavated from the oldest city in the world, dates from around 5700 BC. The small figure has enormous power: she is seated comfortably between subdued leopards as she gives birth. Her breasts, hips and buttocks swell to enormous proportions, further increasing her power. Far removed from the slender, even emaciated, ideal for a female body that is now common for some contemporary societies (notably the United States), this goddess proclaims her physical presence and her authority at the same time.
In the paintings by Tomur Atagök, the Goddess assumes much larger dimensions as she joins our world as a life size figure who stands as a guardian. Rather than a fertility symbol, she is now a symbol simply of the power of women. She is an affirmation of women’s energy and authority. On her head she wears a type of mechanical diadem/crown in one painting, and sits in front of a golden shower of sun in another.
Two of these large goddesses frame a third panel that makes reference to the interior of woman, specifically here, the vertebrae and ovaries ( see image at top of post). The woman’s interior, so often altered today by contemporary medical science, is here protected by powerful traditional forces.
Another of these grand paintings is based on Artemis of Ephesus. Artemis, later changed to a slender virgin hunter by the Romans, is here seen in her guise as Cybele, another Anatolian mother goddess.
Her many breasts carry the power of nurturing and life. In place of the animals under her protection on the traditional statues, this painting has guns, tanks and other references to military warfare. Artemis also has black gloves and a contemporary face with bold red lipstick and blond hair. It was done in response the violation of sacred lands by military weapons, particularly during the Gulf War. This powerful statement could be about any war and its destructive effect on life as a whole
The collective presence of these goddesses is a powerful commentary on contemporary women and their connection to historical traditions. They are major examples of contemporary art in Turkey.
Part 4 Opposition to War and Violence
Atagok often inserts text into her work. One of her most famous is an homage to Uğur Mumcu an investigative journalist researching terrorism in Turkey who was murdered in 1993. In her homage Tomur wrote on the painting in Turkish a quote from the journalist:
Translated into English it said:
There are those who have preferred a lifestyle of silence
pulling inward as a personal symbol.
Their freedom and weapons do not speak.
Every injustice takes strength in a way from their passivity.
The artist called the entire series dedicated to the journalist “Games, Toys, Children, War, Love,” completed in 1999-2000. In some works metal scraps seem to invoke the violence of Mumcu’s death. A complete heart in another offers a brighter tone. The heart is only partially visible as a double or single curve in some works. Against that motif emerge silhouettes of guns, toy soldiers, bones, paper doll cutouts, hands, dots, crosses, and crescents. In addition the artist uses stones, sticks, feathers, and glossy advertising images of beautiful people. Scattered throughout many of the works are poetic phrases, of various moods, hopeful, sad, cynical.
The series as a whole is an homage to Mumcu, but also a response to him. Atagök has decided not to remain passively silent in the face of her own distress at his death and her support for his ideas.
Part 5 Nature
Another theme that intersects with women both politics and women is nature. It takes many forms. Her home is filled with examples of recreating nature in the midst of her life–she even created a forest in her basement and had an exhibition in 2011 that featured an installation of branches, paintings, diaries and other pieces.
Her commitment to calling attention to the small details of branches or bones and repositioning them on the surface of her painting or simply suspending them in a frame results in a subtle relationship between abstraction and realism. In other works she takes random trash found in the woods and creates constructions.
When asked what is most important to her at this time in her life (she turned 82 in May), she answered her nature installations. She lives in the midst of nature. She has been living and working in rural Demirciköy, Sarıyer, İstanbul since her retirement in 2006. It is close to the Black Sea and in the midst of trees and flowers. She is deeply concerned about climate change and the effects of humans on the destruction of the fragile ecosystem.
Part 6 The Diaries
In addition to all of these major works, Tomur has made hundreds of small works, part of her ongoing Diaries. Each one is composed of a the detritus of everyday life, a candy wrapper, a ticket to an exhibition framed in a small format with her signature expressionist gestures added. These small diaries tell the story of her life in collage. They have been exhibited on their own and in connection with larger works (such as perched on top of the goddess series). They tell us as much about who this prolific artist is as do the large scale works.
As the Elgiz Museum described the Diaries in 2006 :
“a collage of over 1000 post card sized mixed media works produced between 1990 and 2006. Journeys through France, Germany, Italy, USA, UK, Macedonia, Greece, Azerbaijan, South Korea, Yugoslavia and Turkey represent the subjects for the artist’s reflection; instead of following the conventional literary format of a diary where passages are added simultaneously with the event, Atagök chooses to reflect on each event after a period of time has passed; this allows her to effectively fuse the past with the present. She chooses not to focus on isolated moments but on a collection of memories illustrated through everyday items such as tickets, wrappings and photos. ‘The Diaries’ does not function as a commentary on life but is intended as an accumulation of recycled materials intercepted by art. These works are more personal, informal and social compared to her recent series ‘Anatolian Goddesses’ and ‘War and Peace’ executed on metal and reflective surfaces.”
Part 7 Views of her house
Tomur Atagök is an artist, a feminist, a pioneering writer and historian of art by women in Turkey, an educator of museum professionals, an activist. Yet all of these identities still do not fully encompass her accomplishments.
She is profoundly committed to continuity of art and life. She is above all a deeply feeling human being who when asked about her dream project stated: “ I would like to work more on the human equality with man and woman feelings of separation. We are all equal!”
Amalia Mesa-Bains is an internationally renowned artist, scholar, and curator. Throughout her career, Mesa-Bains has expanded understandings of Latina/o artists’ references to spiritual practices and vernacular traditions through her altar installations, articles and exhibitions. In 1992 she was awarded a Distinguished Fellowship from the MacArthur Foundation. Her work has been shown at institutions that include: the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the Whitney Museum of American Art at Phillip Morris, and the New Museum, as well as international venues in Mexico, Colombia, Venezuela, Ireland, Sweden, England, France and Spain. In 2011, her work was featured as part of NeoHooDoo: Art for A Forgotten Faith, and in 2013, she recontextualized objects from the collections of the Fowler Museum at the University of California, Los Angeles in New World Wunderkammer. As a cultural critic she has co-authored along with bell hooks, Homegrown: Engaged Cultural Criticism. Mesa-Bains founded and directed the Visual and Public Art department at California State University at Monterey Bay where she is now Professor Emerita. Mesa-Bains community work includes board of trustee positions with the Mexican Museum in San Francisco and advisory boards for the Galeria de la Raza, and the Social Public Resource Center in Los Angeles.
An Interview with Amalia Mesa-Bains
Marianne K. McGrath
MKM: Tell us about your childhood, where did you grow up? Were you always creative?
AMB: I grew up in Sunnyvale California in 1943 when it was rural and an agricultural center with orchards and canneries. Yes, I was creative and the third generation of artists in my family.
MKM: You began your education with a degree in art and ultimately earned a PhD in psychology. Can you tell us about this multi-disciplinary journey and how it informs your work?
AMB: I began with an art degree in painting, but eventually turned to new media and materials that include spray painted constructions. When I began my master’s degree, I was part of Teacher Corps, a program that recruited minorities to serve in minority communities. Because of Teacher Corps at San Francisco State University, I was lucky to be on a team assigned to schools in the Mission district with fellow Latino team members and a veteran educator Yolanda Garfias Woo, who became my mentor. She was good friends with many of the Chicano and Latin leaders in the Mission. Through her I was drawn into the Chicano Movement and dedicated my art to the cultural work of the movement. While teaching I began to realize the emotional and psychological needs of my students, so I began taking night classes in psychology. At the same time, I was in an artist’s dream group guided by my mentor and friend Renaldo Maduro, which led to my interest in clinical psychology. Eventually I went to the Wright Institute which moved me toward a multidisciplinary approach to art, culture and women’s development. This disposition has informed much of my work as an educator, artist and activist.
MKM: You are an artist, curator, educator, author and activist – how do each of these practices inform, inspire and support the other in your varied projects and your work in general?
AMB: I think my curiosity has driven much of the interconnected fields that I work in. Many of the themes and directions in my work are also present in my curating, writing and activism. In particular my commitment to making visible the work of Chicana and Latina artists.
MKM: When you’re creating what’s your daily routine? Rituals, patterns?
AMB: I generally gestate on projects for quite a while which involves a great deal of reading, research, and even interviews to put together the guiding concepts. This will lead me to image collecting – all of which eventually helps me frame the final project. I always keep a drawing project book as I go along where I paste in images, notes and drawings as the project unfolds. I don’t work in the morning, mainly the afternoon, and particularly afternoon and often middle of the night note taking. I have no rituals other than being sure the studio is ready with tools and art supplies in order and tables cleared.
MKM: Has your practice changed over time?
AMB: Only in so far as age and illness have required more planning for other fabricators and scheduling of supplies etc.
MKM: What is your most important tool when you are making art? Is there something you can’t live without in your studio?
AMB: Only my imagination, since I depend more on fabricators such as glass blowers, box builders etc.
MKM: Is there an artwork/installation you are most proud of? Why?
AMB: My favorite piece as an experience and process has been the “New World Wunderkammer” which allowed me to work with all the departments at the Fowler UCLA Museum, including their extraordinary collections. It was a two-year project with multiple visits and direct work with specialists, designers, education folks and others.
MKM: What has been a seminal experience?
AMB: In my early years as an artist, I was mentored by Yolanda Garfias Woo who introduced me to the Meso American world, as well as the traditions of Mexican folk forms including the Days of the Dead. My long mentorship and friendship with her has been life changing.
MKM: What memorable responses have you had to your work?
AMB: I have had many reviews and recognitions. The recent review in the New York Times for the opening of the new Kinder building at Museum of Fine Arts Houston was especially positive, but my very first review in “Art in America” in 1987 when my show “Grotto of the Virgins” at INTAR in New York was acclaimed as one of the 10 best shows in alternative galleries that year, it was inspiring.
MKM: What’s the best piece of advice you’ve been given?
AMB: Hang on and stay with your purpose.
MKM: You often work with objects and collections – Do you maintain any of your own collections or live with other artists’ work?
AMB: Yes, we have an extensive collection of Chicano, Latino and Black art.
MKM: What is your dream project?
AMB: I have always imagined a residency in a museum where I could rearrange my objects into different installations each week.
MKM: What are you working on right now?
AMB: I am currently working on a project for the Mac Arthur Fellows 40th Anniversary which is called “Dos Mundos: Mexican Chicago.” It will be at two sites and tell the story of the invisible history of Mexicans in the building of Chicago as well as an homage to my own family who were very active in the Mexican communities of Chicago.
MKM: Is there any subject or theme you’ve been particularly interested in lately?
AMB: I am always interested in the issues of the immigrant experience and also in the change in the natural world.
MKM: What do you have planned for the year ahead?
AMB: Completing the Chicago project, writing and readying myself for a potential retrospective in 2023.
New World Wunderkammer
One of Amalia Mesa-Bains’ favorite projects, for both the experience and process, was New World Wunderkammer. She was invited to create this installation at UCLA’s Fowler Museum in honor of the Fowler’s 50th anniversary, fall 2013 to spring 2014. New World Wunderkammer featured more than 75 rare and historic objects from the museum’s permanent collection. The objects were combined and recontextualized with many of Amalia Mesa-Bains personal items from previous installations.
Mesa-Bains is well known for her groundbreaking work creating altar installations reminiscent of the ofrenda, a traditional home altar intended to honor and memorialize the departed. Along with the spirit of the domestic ofrenda, Mesa-Bains incorporated an age-old institutional method of display for New World Wunderkammer: the “cabinet of curiosities” or “cabinet of wonder”. The cabinet of curiosity has its origins in Renaissance Europe as a mode for storing and displaying collected items intended to illustrate an owner’s knowledge of the world.
The Fowler Museum provided Mesa-Bains access to all of its collections and the freedom to compose New World Wunderkammer as she envisioned. Over the course of two years, she became familiar with thousands of precious objects and ultimately assembled three connected cabinets of curiosity, representing “Africa, the indigenous Americas and the complex cultural and racial mixture (Colonial mestizaje) that typifies the New World.” 1 In this setting Mesa-Bains invited viewers to explore the “collision” of these colonized cultures while offering new paths of understanding and healing for the objects, the people encountering them and the museum in which they reside. 2
In addition to composing the cabinets, Mesa-Bains created eight giclée prints featuring images of specific objects in the exhibit. The object image is situated within compositions that include photographs, maps and plants that illustrate the context and history of the object’s origin. The prints were installed in proximity to the actual objects in the gallery cabinets. Study tables provided an interactive component within the gallery space, inviting visitors to participate in examining objects and history together.
It is easy to understand why New World Wunderkammer is Amalia Mesa-Bains’ favorite exhibit for the experience and process. Through her vision and inspirational creative process, Mesa-Bains produced a profound, multi-layered, inclusive and interconnected exhibition. New World Wunderkammer, brought together communities and cultures to create connection, honor memory and history, cultivate understanding and promote healing.
Testimonios,Blanca Santander’s poignant digital installation about migrant children forcibly separated from their parents and put into cages by the US government, speaks directly to our hearts. The artist created seven soft sculptures representing children, each inscribed with words of the children who were placed into insufferable conditions in what is known as the Ursula Processing Center. Santander then arranged them in a digital exhibition, they seem to come and speak to us. Friends and students of the artist spoke the words written on the sculpture.
Blanca Describes the Work:
“In 2018, President Donald Trump enacted a “Zero-Tolerance” border policy that superseded all prior border policies, allowing immediate persecution of all persons who crossed the border. This abrupt and aggressive executive order led to an infamous and much-undeserved crisis, where children were forcibly separated from their parents. Lost and afraid without their guardians, these children lived in awful and inhumane conditions–cramped in detention facilities with more than maximum occupancy, stuffed in rooms filled with complete strangers, little to no privacy for restroom usage, no clothes to change into, little to nothing to wash themselves with, no beds, no blankets, no one to console them. Around 5,500 children were separated after the policy was signed by President Trump, and more were separated even after the policy was rescinded. These children, who were left crying for their parents, for decent treatment, for freedom, are still today traumatized and scared, being put through an oppressive and confusing border-law system, with complex litigation and paperwork, as well as hiding from past and current terrors on either side of the southern borders.”
As many as 2000 children were crowded together in cages. According to one report there were a dozen cages each with 140 children. The facility near McAllen Texas was within the hundred mile border zone, so Border Patrol has broad authority to ignore Constitutionally protected rights. So mindlessly obsessed driven were the White House administrators to create a strong stand against immigration, that even infants were separated from their parents, left completely alone ( over the objections of the attorney generals from the border states). In a few cases older siblings looked out for them, or at least tried to, given the horrendous situation.
These children have now been placed in foster homes, still separated from their families, or in shelters run by the Office of Refuge and Resettlement. A few have been reunited with a parent in the US that they never knew. The trauma they suffered can never be erased either from their own psyches, or from our own. Many of the parents have been deported to Mexico. As of February 2020 r there are still 500 children whose parents cannot be found in spite of efforts to find them in Mexico and elsewhere.
The artwork bears the testimonies of the children who were kept in detention near the border, where they plead for places to sleep, to eat, bathe, and see their families once again. The work is inspired by the information released to the public, dedicated to spreading awareness and drawing compassion for these children within our own borders, children who need our help and even more so with the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic, which makes them subject to more stress and legal and humane trouble.”
This collage is a study for the final work.
The Ursula Processing Center is being “remodeled,” a rather ominous idea, perhaps indicating that in the future, children will once again go there. According to the New York Times, “the renovated facility is designed for 1100 children.” The facility opened under Obama as a short term solution (even then illegal and unacceptable), but under the political machinations of the last four years, the children were left there for months and the chaos of trying to find the parents has gone on for years because virtually no record keeping happened. There are still many children who have not been reunited with family. Yesterday we heard that the Biden Administration is opening a new facility for children. It looks to be less inhumane, but the fact that it exists at all is terrible.
As one advocate for the children stated “It’s unnecessary, it’s costly, and it goes absolutely against everything [President] Biden promised he was going to do,” said Linda Brandmiller, a San Antonio-based immigration lawyer who represents unaccompanied minors. “It’s a step backward, is what it is. It’s a huge step backward.”
Testimoniosbears witness to Santander’s own deep feelings for migrants. She herself came from Peru . She knows first hand why these migrants are coming. As she told me “ The Shining Path terrorism in Peru lasted 18-20 years. Because of my work, I was constantly in the heart of terrorism that was in the mountain regions of Peru. I was working with NGOs like UNICEF to help create educational materials for children in impoverished areas. Alongside these educational materials were things such as sustainable agricultural techniques and being aware of and protecting endangered wildlife. To have cultural relevance in my illustrations I had to travel across my country and see how impoverished and/or indigenous people lived. Every community is different than other ones. There were difficult times in my country and the communities needed authentic support.”
Esperanza Abandonada (Abandoned Hope) 2017 poignantly and succinctly refers to the tragedy of immigration for children. It foretells Testimonios. It depicts a doll impaled on the other side of a barbwire fence.
As the artist said “It depicts a doll impaled on the other side of a barbwire fence. Its poignant image of a child who has lost her beloved doll, crossing the line into another land, speaks directly to the hardships of fleeing home to enter an unfamiliar place. Even when working hard within the borders of their new land, they have to flee from those who would take their new life away, often leaving behind what is most precious to them in the process.”
But these works are only one aspect of Santander’s work. She has addressed many topics, followed many directions, including public art in Seattle. She often approaches her work with celebration and joy.
She declared “It is difficult to express my emotions and thoughts in words, so illustrating and painting are extremely important to me. They get my message out to the world, where I am not bound by a language barrier. I feel free when I paint, because I can pour out the feeling tethered to my existence.: that I am a mother, a woman, a warrior, lover of peace, my culture and mother nature. I rarely express sorrow or lack of color, as I find more happiness and freedom in painting liveliness of nature and the female body. But sometimes the sorrow I feel for the world and its woes must exit through my hand onto paper or canvas. I want viewers to feel happiness for the world and what it has to offer – trees and flowers that give us beauty and protection; the strength and momentousness of women and the Mother Earth.”
An example of this more joyful work is Daughters of Immigration, “Immigration to this land means you have emigrated from another. You have left behind family, tradition, culture, and language. All here is new and strange. The feeling of home becomes divided, and you don’t feel like you belong to one culture or the other. Then your children are born here and they are North American. They grow up only knowing this land and only memories and shadows of the other.
They are sons and daughters of immigration. We live out of suitcases full of our heritage and culture. Does being different make us stronger? Are life’s struggles really just a shared experience calling us to unite our energies for a better world? I have learned to identify with immigrants from all over the world. I feel sisterhood with all immigrant women. In my paintings women are celebrated as the nucleus of the family. Being a mother gives us incredible strength to draw from an inner power to fight for a better life for our families. We also have an insight and connection as creators of life when it comes to our feelings for our planet.”
Blanca Santander is a Peruvian-American artist who has lived in Seattle since immigrating in 1996. Her artwork focuses on environmental and social justice, as well as her identity and her heritage. Either by teaching art to children, or by providing artwork that is colorful, informative, or uplifting to those who may come across it, Blanca uses the passions that inform her art to help uplift others in her community.
Nazanin Hedayat Munroe is an artist, designer and historian specializing in textiles and costume. Dr. Hedayat Munroe received her Ph.D. from University of Bern, Switzerland and M.A. from San Jose State University in art history, specializing in historic textiles from the Early Modern Persianate World. Dr. Hedayat Munroe is currently Director of Textile Technology and a tenure-track Assistant Professor of Business & Technology of Fashion at CUNY – NYC College of Technology, where she lectures on textiles, historic dress, and contemporary issues in the fashion industry. From 2011—2016 she worked at The Metropolitan Museum as a textile specialist, publishing several articles and teaching courses at the museum in her area of expertise.
A nationally acclaimed textile artist and NEA grant recipient, her installations and research focus on expressions of cultural identity expressed through clothing, ranging from complex woven designs to digitally printed and smart textiles. She received her M.F.A. from Cranbrook Academy of Art and B.F.A. from Savannah College of Art and Design in textile design and fiber art. She has exhibited her garments and textile-based installations at several museums including the M.H. De Young Memorial Museum, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Cranbrook Art Museum, San Jose Museum of Art, and The San Jose Museum of Quilts and Textiles.
MKM: Why did you pursue art? Were you always creative?
NHM: I was always creative; from the age of about six, I spent many hours writing stories about characters who traveled back in time. Then I would draw and paint their elaborate wardrobes by looking at history books. I started making clothes around this time too, I had a little miniature sewing machine.
MKM: You are an artist and scholar – Can you tell us about the interchange between your fine art practice and your academic, art historical work?
NHM: In retrospect, it makes sense that I became a textile and garment designer who also studied art history, bringing these two disciplines together in my work. I research my garments pretty extensively while I’m designing, and when I’m writing about historic objects, I experiment in the studio to put myself in the place of the artist. These two approaches fit together nicely for me.
MKM:What inspires you? other artists, your process, research, a theme?
NHM: Most of my work is inspired by Persian culture and literature, contemplating themes such as destiny and divination; as well as issues pertaining to women and their idealized representations in art and literature as passive beings, when in fact they were often master strategists and mediators. The ideas become distilled into key words and images (I usually include text in my work), and then I create my installations to invite viewers into the psychic or physical space. If there is a common goal with all my work, it’s to take ideas from Sufi poetry and give them physicality, so the viewer is walking into a poem.
MKM: In your fine art practice, what is your most important tool? Is there something you can’t live without in your studio?
NHM: I like to think of tools and techniques as a means to an end; I start with a vision of a piece, which usually consists of an installation and a garment(s), and then apply the technique that will express that vision. I work with paintings, sketches and textile samples before making the larger piece. Some of my favorite techniques are silk painting, dyeing and screen printing; color and motif are major elements in my work. I started as a weaver, but it’s difficult to make large work without an appropriately sized loom, and in New York I just don’t have the space for it.
MKM: What memorable responses have you had to your work?
NHM: I’ve always been pleasantly surprised by viewers, who are truly so generous with their enthusiasm and willingness to contemplate the ideas in my work and share their responses. The most memorable responses have been at venues in California and New York. The “Permanent Madness” performance and exhibition at the San Jose Museum of Quilts and Textiles (2006), which played out a scenario from Nizami’s Layla and Majnun, and included audience participation; this was also displayed at The Metropolitan Museum (2012). The performance/exhibition at the San Jose Museum of Art, in which I displayed the “Destiny House” (2007) and gave live Hafez destiny readings (a form of fortune telling with Persian poetry)—viewers were lined up throughout the museum! My artist residency and exhibition “Animedallion” at the de Young Museum (2008) had a great turnout for the closing, which included a live musical performance by a Sufi group. “100 Destinies” (2015) was shown with the Westchester Arts Council in New York at Persian New Year to an enthusiastic audience, with a musical performance of Persian poetry; and the Graduate Theological Union’s Doug Adams Gallery in Berkeley, CA (2017) had a lot of great press, and a beautiful catalog by Carol Bier. The common thread was that these works all involved silk textiles and Persian Sufi poetry as the basis for the work, and included an element of audience participation. I think there is some universal truth that those poets tapped into that comes across to viewers, which is really enhanced by the visual and performing arts.
MKM: How has COVID impacted your practice and teaching?
NHM: COVID-19 has impacted everything. A virtual exhibition, as accessible as it is to global audiences, is not the same as having a live opening and meeting other artists and viewers. There is something magical in that, and the human connection is really missing. As far as teaching—same thing! Online teaching has some advantages, but I miss being in on campus with my students where we can connect face-to-face.
MKM: What can we expect from you in the year ahead?
NHM: This year (2021) I am wrapping up two major publications: a book on Sufi poetry and textiles from the early modern period; and on the other end of the spectrum, a book on the history of fashion from the mid-19th century to the present. Publishing works on these seemingly extreme opposites, I see now that the universe gave me a chance to explore my career as a former apparel designer in tandem with my career as an artist and historian, and find connections between the two.
The Talismanic Garment Series
Nazanin Hedayat Munroe’s recent artwork comes from her Talismanic Garment series. In describing her motivation for this series, she tells us: “I began the Talismanic Garment series in January 2017, prompted by the changes we started seeing in our society—particularly the increase in overt prejudice and scorn. Making a series of protective garments based on the idea of sacred symbols combined with text, I drew upon my research of early modern garments from my own heritage. I felt that protective icons and Sufi poetry by Rumi was the cloud of psycho-spiritual armor that I need to cloak myself—literally and metaphorically—from the evils and hazards lurking in the world. Both garments incorporate Rumi poetry as the protective prayer. I hope someday to live in a world that doesn’t feel overrun by spiritual and physical illnesses and social discord, but I’m not sure we will ever set our talismans aside.”
Talismanic Ensemble for the Era of COVID-19
“The Talismanic Ensemble came from my research of talismanic garments inscribed with astrological symbols and Qur’anic text, used as protective garments during the early modern era in the Islamic world. These garments protected against the “evil eye” (warded off with the image of an eye), black magic, wounds and illness, by creating a barrier with positive language. Words can protect in folk tradition too: mothers in Iranian culture pray for the well-being of their children by whispering protective verses and blowing the words around their heads like a magic cloud—something that my own mother did for me as a child. This ensemble is my attempt to create a protective cloud in this era of COVID-19, which is marked not only by illness, but also by fear and anger—things that have been present in civilization for millennia. These talismanic garments were traditionally worn underneath regular clothes, as if they would lose their power if exposed. In this series, I am reversing this practice by putting the protective images, and verses—which include mystic poetry and personal supplications—on the outside of the garment. The dress is printed with a pattern of a head sprouting positive thoughts, representing the inner self. The cloak is a physical barrier representing the social distance that separates all of us into bubbles of fear and isolation.”
“The Talismanic Kaftan is based on my research of cloth and garments as protective devices in Middle Eastern culture. It is based on a warrior garment, representing my outer life working as an artist and professor in New York City, photographed on site for the performative image “NY: Struggle for Space” (2018). For this piece, I constructed a “Smart textile” that speaks to the viewer, rather than the wearer: if the viewer gets too close, the colors change and blink. Using a proximity sensor, the lights turn green, yellow, or red to indicate safe, close, or too close. They hold a steady light in green when the viewer maintains a safe distance. Although this piece was constructed before the 2020 pandemic, the concept of social distancing has added additional challenges to establishing individual comfort levels with physical interaction, making it that much more important to communicate with visual symbols. The use of light here is also a reference to Divine protection and enlightenment.The digital print on the kaftan is based on a “Khamsa,” a talismanic symbol usually made of metal and carried on the top of a standard when soldiers went into battle or worn as jewelry around the neck. Protective talismanic clothing was also worn on the body, inscribed with Qur’anic verse or Sufi poetry. Here, I have united these separate practices by creating a repeat pattern and printing it on the fabric. The undergown contains verses by Jalaluddin Rūmī, a twelfth century poet whose poetry was often reproduced in other media. The poem is translated to English, but I have kept the Persian word Khamūsh: in Rūmī’s medieval poems this means “silence” and is used by Rūmī to indicate the end of his ecstatic rantings; in contemporary vernacular, this means “to turn off,” i.e. lights. Essentially, the garment in this context functions as psycho-spiritual armor.”
“My inner life is about supplication and the search for internal peace, as seen in the Talismanic Gownand the performative image “CA: Supplication for Serenity” (2018). The gown is my West Coast prayer dress, photographed in California as I stood in a gesture of supplication at the edge of the Pacific Ocean.The Talismanic Gown is based on my research of garments as protective devices and images on clothing as a powerful tool for communicating identity. The sheer overgarment is digitally printed with a design inspired by a 17th century Safavid velvet, referenced as the “Supplicant” pattern by scholars. The supplicant depicted on cloth is in a traditional pose of du’a (supplication) as she converses with the Divine. By donning the garment, the wearer becomes the supplicant by displaying her image on the garment, indicating her piety to the viewer. The undergown contains verses by Jalaluddin Rūmī, a twelfth century poet whose poetry was often reproduced in other media, digitally printed here on cotton. The poem creates a protective forcefield around the wearer, whose prayer becomes mingled with Sufi mystic expression. Sometimes we communicate the most through silence.”
Welcome to the rebooted national WCA blog,Art Insights! Editors Marianne McGrath and Susan Noyes Platt are committed to offering fresh perspectives every month on women working in the arts, in the form of interviews, studio visits, and reflections. We think you’ll enjoy it and hope you’ll visit regularly. If you have an idea for a post, Marianne and Susan welcome your contributions.
Updating the WCA blog is one of the significant initiatives of the WCA Art Writers Committee which formed after the June 2020 Board Meeting as a way of enhancing the visibility of writers in the organization. Art historians helped to found WCA 50 years ago and continue to advance its mission alongside critics, essayists, and bloggers. Re-envisioning Artlines as a substantive arts journal has been our other project (with credit due former WCA President Susan M. King for starting the process).
The relaunched Artlines will be published on the national website this month. Edited by Rosemary Meza-DesPlas and Shantay Robinson, it features articles that consider the intersection of activist arts and social justice in relationship to the Black Lives Matter movement. An elegant new design by Allicette Torres and Sahiti Bonam makes space for longer form writing and ample illustrations. The managing editorial team of myself, Patti Jordan, and Jess Long are working on a call for participation for future issues—look for it here and in PULSE this spring.
After many years as a tenured professor of art history, Susan is currently an independent art historian and freelance art critic and curator, based in Seattle. Her most recent book is the first volume of her collected writings, Breaking Ground Art Modernisms, 1920–1950 (Ingram, 2020). She is currently working on Volume 2, to be titled Setting Our Hearts on Fire. She writes a monthly column for Leschi News and maintains her own website and blog at www.artandpoliticsnow.com
Marianne is an independent art curator. After a successful decade working in museums curating exhibits and presenting art and education programs, she founded MKM Art Consulting, which offers curatorial projects and consulting services to art institutions, galleries, and artists. Marianne holds a BA degree in Art, MA degree in Art History and her professional affiliations include ArtTable, College Art Association and the Women’s Caucus for Art. mkmartconsulting.com