Our current Writer in Residence is freelance journalist/reporter, radio producer and writer, Melissa Chemam. Melissa writes for many publications such as The Public Art Review, Transfuge Magazine, Le Figaro, Le Monde, Skin Deep, The Bristol Cable, Bristol 24/7, CIRCA Art Magazine, The Times Literary Supplement and Public Pressure. Below, as part of Women’s History Month, our writer in residence Melissa Chemam wanted to share some thoughts about femininity, creativity, masculinity, misogyny and women’s rights.
By Melissa Chemam
After hosting Still I Rise, one of the most feminist exhibitions in the country, the Arnolfini gallery has welcomed two new contemporary female artists: Angelica Mesiti and Amak Mahmoodian – who are from places that have regularly hit the headlines these past few weeks: Australia and Iran.
Born into an Italian Australian family, Angelica is now living in Paris where she teaches at L’Ecole des Beaux Arts, the school of fine art. Her film, ASSEMBLY, represented Australia at the 58th Venice Biennale in Italy last year, and was filmed in the Senate chambers of Australia and Italy, in Canberra and Rome.
Amak was born in Shiraz and studied photography in Tehran then came to pursue her research in Wales, earning a doctorate, before moving to Bristol to teach at University of the West of England. Her Zanjir exhibition retells her family’s story through the mirroring of another Iranian family, the one of the famous feminist princess Taj el-Saltaneh (1883-1936).
None of them are reducible to their place of birth however, having had a life marked by international paths, deepening their gaze as artists through travels and migration. Yes, they have a lot to share with us about two unordinary countries, which can represent two extreme polarised versions of our era: one new nation forged on colonialism and eradication of the past – resulting in the current incendiary crisis that took over the news – and the other one closed up on traditions and politically refusing the rules of modernity.
In these two cases however, the artists’ lives, stories and art show a feminine way of dealing with these environments, and a woman’s way of responding to these with understanding, love and a passion for life, instead of despair.
These past few months Bristol has indeed been a brilliant platform for women artists.
In the autumn, Spike Island exhibited the work of Turkish-born, Sweden-based artist Meriç Algün, Day Craving Night, about separation, love and how to overcome the rules of a world making money out of our state of separateness. This winter, the gallery is dedicating its space to Filipino-American visual artist Pacita Abad (1946-2004) and her work Life in the Margins, created in response to migration, displacement, and political protest, always promoting indigenous cultures and approaches to textiles.
Early March, for International Women’s Day specifically, films like Frida, retelling the life of famous Mexican painter Frida Kahlo, and Portrait of a Lady on Fire were also on display.
In the British art world in general, turning-point moments for women artists have just occurred, with for instance the opening of the Dora Maar exhibition at the Tate Modern in London – finally acknowledging publicly the talent of one of the key members of the Surrealist movement, almost a century after it began – but also the appointment of Sonia Boyce as the next artist to represent the UK at the Venice Biennial.
In the literary world, the 2019 prestigious Booker Prize for Fiction was awarded jointly to two women: Margaret Atwood, for The Testaments, and Bernardine Evaristo, for Girl, Woman, Other.
These are incredible and rare achievements. And evidence of change.
They may seem like small events for people outside of the art world, yet it’s actually a real series of breakthroughs. But they’re not welcome by everyone. Every day I hear men complain about women monopolising the attention of these artistic spaces… Even though they know they have been almost invisible for decades and decades.
Even here, many readers might actually wonder: why such a need to emphasise women all the time? Aren’t we equals now? Women are represented in politics; and even the most famous climate activist is a 17-year-old girl. Well, it might seem like it but the reality of most women’s lives is not well represented in the biggest stories; these are by far not the majority. The art world is just the tip of a large iceberg-like shift. The rest of women’s reality is unfortunately pretty grim still, all around the world.
Just a few statistics and facts:
Women are still not paid equally to their male counterparts, even in the western world.
Women still are not present in equal numbers in business or politics.
And globally women’s education, health and the violence against them are way worse than that of men.
Just in France, a rapid increase in teenage girls working in prostitution has been recently noted as an alarming trend, with an estimated 6,000 to 10,000 young women selling their bodies across the country. Meanwhile, the French sport world has recently been rocked by a series of sex abuse scandals, after the world of cinema.
In Syria, the ongoing refugee crisis has facilitated sex trafficking in Lebanon, where victims are often treated as criminals, as Al Jazeera reported in February 2020.
In India, on 12 December 2019, the government passed a law that fast-tracked citizenship for non-Muslim refugees from Bangladesh, Afghanistan and Pakistan who moved to India before 2015, which essentially made it more difficult for Muslim refugees to claim citizenship. A law that is mostly and primarily affecting women, activists reported.
In Mexico, women are even “urged to disappear for a day” on Monday 9 March to protest against escalating gender-based attacks and murders.
In the UK, domestic abuse is on the rise, and recent reports from charities have shown that “most women who flee domestic violence have nowhere to go,” as the Guardian wrote a few weeks ago. “Government figures show that in the year to June 2019, almost 24,000 people were made homeless in England directly because of domestic abuse.” In a column published on 23 February, the Observer editors asked “How much longer must we tolerate male brutality against women and children?”
In Australia, the murder of Hannah Clarke, 31, and of her three young children, burned to death by her husband and their father, sparked a national outcry over domestic violence…
So, as the arts and culture are often one step ahead of broader societal shifts, where changes are plotted, thought through and experimented with, an increased presence of women in visual art, the publishing world and cinema can only be good news.
In politics, business, but also in music and in the literary world, women are still struggling. I recently read Sammy Stein’s book Women in Jazz, which reveals how much this world has remained very misogynistic since the 1920s…
Yet, I still read, hear and discuss every week with men who think that too much attention is given to women writers, artists, thinkers. “How many novels can you publish per year with the word ‘girl’ in the title?” one asked me a few days ago…
However, to use a cliché, “since the dawn of time” women have been half of humanity… Why should they be 80% of nurses and midwives and only 20% of engineers and artists if it is not what they desire? Why should men be allowed to choose their destiny and not women?
I personally believe feminism will never achieve its goals without men on board.
I also had the chance to meet a couple of men in the past two decades who have been of tremendous help and inspiration for my work and my own personal development.
But unfortunately, in many workplaces, occasions and collaborations, other men I worked with have been cruelly disempowering, unfair, competitive, belittling and using. Despite my faith in some of them, or my dependency – most being my superiors, my bosses, editors in chief or publishers – I had to live through harsh moments of utter pain, manipulation and betrayal.
And that’s without counting the violence, insults, meanness and abuse inflicted by strangers…
Yet, I tried to move on, cut my losses, learn my lessons and forgive.
And as far as I’ve seen, no woman has ever protested to have rights they would refuse to men. Or in order to live in a world where all writers would be women, all of our Prime Ministers or all of the doctors… Never. It’s about having at least the choice and to be able to hope for equal opportunities.
Hopefully, this message will one day come across peacefully and bring us together.
So can art be a place to help women and men to build a space for equality, acceptance, understanding, respect and reciprocity? Could the 2020s be a decade when the glory of women artists and writers will not make any men feel resentful and deprived of their right to dominate the ‘second sex’? The one that Simone de Beauvoir thoroughly explored in her writing? As women still are and most surely will remain half of humanity…
Just like the installations of Meriç Algün, Pacita Abad, Amak Mahmoodian and Angelica Mesiti invite us to do, I hope these words can contribute to extend a hand to the ‘other’ and offer some more room for togetherness. But a togetherness that include equality, respect, protection and fair collaboration.
And in the end, hopefully, men will find comfort in that reconciliation too.