Is Whispering Nothing?

Sometimes I randomly accede to the frivolous demands of boredom, but more frequently I am goaded, and approach not of my own volition, but like Don Quixote, hoping to right some wrong. At those times I am, I like to think, teleology’s servant. I assume that it is the purposes they end up championing, rather than the initial inciting events that deserve my interest. After all, Curiosity is the lust of the mind, as Thomas Hobbes reminded us.

So, when I happened upon an article questioning whether women were less important than cows in India, I was intrigued: I claim no omniscience of societal customs –not even of my own, perhaps- and I have to admit that my background is in Gynaecology, not Anthropology, but nonetheless I couldn’t resist the allure of a sociological pentimento. Is a mask really meant to deceive, or merely illustrate a reality that is otherwise hidden? Unnoticed when undisguised?

‘The striking photos are the brainchild of Sujatro Ghosh, a Delhi-based photographer, who believes that Indian society values the lives of cattle more highly than the lives of women. In order to call attention to endemic misogyny that he feels disfigures cultural life in India (where authorities, Ghosh says, are more likely to punish the mistreatment of a cow than the abuse of a woman or a girl), the photographer invited his female friends to pose for photos wearing a cow mask […].’

The idea of metaphor to illustrate perceived inequity whether social or gendered, is certainly not new of course –not even in art: ‘Ghosh’s photos echo earlier efforts by artists to expose the sexist instincts of cultural institutions. Preferring the visual pun provided by gorilla (as opposed to cow) masks, members of the all-female collective known as the Guerrilla Girls have, for the past three decades, been committed to raising awareness of issues of gender (and racial) bias in the international art world.

‘Relying on street art to communicate their message, the anonymous activists are perhaps best known for a series of arresting posters from the 1980s that have become as recognisable as any works of contemporary art from the period. […] The Guerilla Girls’ provocative poster was rejected by city officials from display on New York transport on the grounds that it was too risqué. The banner satirises French artist Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres’s lounging portrait of a concubine, La Grande Odalisque (1814), slipping an ape mask over her head and turning the image into one that is impossible to ignore.’ In fact, the striking metaphor has not been lost in other venues, either: ‘Placed alongside Ghosh’s viral photos from this week, the Guerrilla Girls’ memorable poster corroborates a recent claim made by another incognito icon, Banksy: “If you want to say something and have people listen, then you have to wear a mask.”’ (Banksy –to quote Wikipedia- is ‘an anonymous England-based graffiti artist as well as a political activist.’ His ‘works of political and social commentary have been featured on streets, walls, and bridges of cities throughout the world.’)

I suppose we are all inclined to read between the lines at times. To wonder why a particular thought needs to be portrayed covertly. There is a thrill in deciphering a metaphor, I think –first of all in knowing that it is indeed a metaphor and not really meant to trick the wary… More to beguile them. But more importantly perhaps, the ability to peek behind the curtain suggests membership in a cadre of like minds. Or at least an awareness that someone else has noticed something that is often masked. Something usually hidden by equivocation or, to use a word I can rarely justify, sesquipedalianism –obfuscation, in slightly less confusing terms.

Sometimes we need to be jolted by the unexpected, the unusual, to even notice something. We are, by and large, creatures of context; it is where we feel most comfortable. Incongruity is unsettling and, as in harmony, we feel a need for a resolution of any dissonance. But whereas in music we can passively await the adjustment, in art there is a need to actively pursue accommodation. To decide what it is that makes us feel uneasy and why. It is a goad that brooks no turning away.

It’s no accident, that art has been with us from the beginning of Time, I suspect. That we have been compelled to draw things on whatever surface was available, speaks to our need interpret whatever we felt was important. Whether it was animals in motion, the beauty of the sky, or the mysteries of pregnancy, a visual representation seemed as necessary and important as the thing itself. And as full of meaning. Who knows what metaphors hide within the Palaeolithic paintings in the caves at Lascaux, or in the Venus of Laussel?

The risk, I suppose, is the temptation to view every creative act as serving a purpose other than the sheer joy of craftsmanship, the ecstasy of virtuosity, the fulfilment of imagination. And yet, to assume the cause might be merely one of portrayal, or even propitiation, is to denigrate the accomplishment, I think. We all see the world through our own eyes, naturally, but it is the ability to share our view and allow it to seep silently into other eyes, that is the gift of art. And if that opens minds –or, perhaps, even alters them- then maybe the circle is complete.



We Know Not What We May Be

There are times when we only seem to hear in sentences, and forget that their meaning and colour is dependent on the words –it’s like ignoring the rivers that feed a lake. It’s like assuming that the story of a wall is written in the bricks we notice, not the mortar we don’t. History can become like that, too: a sentence, a reality -until we parse the words that is. Each word.

Take, for example, women in the workforce. Until relatively recently, their collective contribution was both underestimated, and definitely undervalued. In fact, if there was anything for which they were eminently suited other than family matters or, perhaps, a subordinate role in cleaning and food preparation, it was seldom apparent in the prevailing ethos. But, like the image on a developing photograph, it was there, but blurred. Hard to see… and yet there, however indistinct.

The invisible is all around us –like the nuns. And, as an abstract from a 2005 issue of Women’s History Review informs us, ‘Despite their exclusion from historical texts, these women featured prominently in negotiating the boundaries of religious life […]Prescriptive literature gave one model of womanhood, married life, with a second model, single life, clearly an inauspicious alternative. Women religious provided a different model and created a religious, occupational and professional identity that varied from the prescriptive literature of the day.’ –the workplace, in other words. We see the world but through a glass darkly, indeed; maybe change is the only constant. There are none so blind as those who will not see. A BBC article forced me to look again:

‘Becoming a nun [was] not often associated with women’s emancipation. But it did offer an interesting career option for women. […]But Catholicism in the 20th Century saw the world of work as fraught with dangers for women, and could only reconcile female professionals with the notion of them entering professions in a wider spirit of religious charity and sacrifice.’

It would be too much to expect that their rewards would be commensurate with their worth, but rewards come in different forms. ‘Revelations of women being paid less than men for doing the same job make it clear that society has a serious issue when it comes to valuing women’s work. Nuns offer a unique insight into how work is divided between the sexes and rewarded accordingly.’

In fact, in spite of the widely held belief in the subordinate and often inadequate abilities of women at the time, ‘The testimonies I [the author: Flora Derounian] collected shared many commonalities, the most striking of which is the contrast to the existences of most other women living in the epoch between 1947 and 1965, otherwise known as “the era of the housewife”.’ So, for example, ‘[…] interviewees had founded communities in rural Burundi, housed victims of civil war, and set up pharmacies in the Pakistani desert. Many others had taught in schools, cared for the elderly, worked with drug addicts, or given communion and comfort to the dying.’

The article reminded me of  the time I found  myself sitting beside a nun on the bus a few weeks ago. I didn’t know they even took buses, but maybe that’s because many of them nowadays are like unmarked police cars –you don’t know until they catch you unawares. Anyway, I don’t know that I was so much caught as observed, staring at the Bible she was reading. Well, more likely the spreadsheet under it on her lap. The combination seemed jarring.

I could see her smiling as she noticed my interest. “Is it the Bible, or the spreadsheet that caught your eye?” she said with a mischievous grin. A short woman with even shorter auburn hair, she was wrapped in a dark grey raincoat, and except for the oversized briefcase at her feet, looked like any other person on the bus.

I have to admit I was embarrassed at the question and I think I shrugged. “Oh…” I tried to think of a quick answer. “… Is that a Bible?” Stupid thing to say, and my face immediately reddened.

I could swear she winked at me before I hastily withdrew my eyes, though.

“I prefer the King James, but my Order decided to go modern over traditional…”

“So… what…?”

“New Jerusalem Bible…” She watched me for a second. “Less literary, I’m afraid, but more literal… Maybe they chose it because it’s also more gender neutral. Anyway, I use it for work now and then.”

I allowed my eyes to hover around her face for a moment and then called them home.

“We like to believe we were the first feminists, but…” she studied my reaction with a steady, almost practiced gaze, and then relented. “… It depends on the motherhouse, of course. I was fortunate, as it turns out.”

“Oh? And why is that?” I said, hypnotized by her eyes. And her voice was so soft and reassuring, I couldn’t help smiling. She could have sold me tundra in the far north and I would have felt honoured.

“We’re allowed to work in the world at large, as long as we donate our salaries to the Order.” I could see her watching my eyes hover above the spreadsheet. “I find it’s easier to work with this,” she said, touching the paper, “rather than booting up my computer on the bus.”

“I see,” I said, pretending I actually did. “So… Are you an accountant, or…?”

Her eyes twinkled and she giggled softly. “Why don’t you try to guess?”

I shook my head. “I don’t know. An office manager? A bookie…?”

We both laughed. “Nobody gets it right,” she said and shrugged as if it wasn’t all that mysterious nowadays. “I started a company with a group of my sister nuns…” She glanced out of the window to see if the bus was approaching her stop. “We’re a compassionate order serving single moms and homeless or troubled girls in the city and we -okay I– thought maybe we could be more proactive about it. Should be, in fact…”

I sat up straighter in my seat as she pulled the cord for the next stop. “How, can you be proactive about that?”

A mischievous smile gradually surfaced and she winked again –this time for sure- as she stood up to squeeze past me. “I’m the CEO of an online dating service,” she said and squeezed my left hand naughtily as she reached the aisle. “No ring, eh?” she whispered, and handed me her card.

I glanced at it as the bus pulled away again. There was just one word, Inundate, superimposed over a picture of a large crowd. Clever.

I’m tempted to send in a profile…