Friday, April 05, 2002

Artists set out to define 'woman'

YWCA exhibit brings together works that represent 177 countries

By Marilyn Bauer,
The Cincinnati Enquirer

[photo] Gallery curators Mary Ann Meanwell (left) and Ali Hansen and YWCA of Greater Cincinnati president and CEO Charlene Ventura are surrounded by the ŒŒWomen of the Worldıı exhibit.
(Michael E. Keating photo)
| ZOOM |
        What if someone asked you “What is woman?” and then asked you to respond through art? What would your representation look like? What message would you want to convey?

        It's a daunting task, but one that 177 women artists embraced — all within the parameters of 8- by 8-inch blocks. The women represented 177 countries, and many included written statements to enhance their visual responses. From Afghanistan to Zimbabwe, they chose acrylics, oil, mosaic and needle arts to express the experience of being a woman in their world.

        The results, Women of the World: A Global Collection of Art,opens Friday at the downtown YWCA.

        “I think this exhibit gives all of us an opportunity to understand, at a much deeper level, the diversity of women throughout the world,” says Charlene Ventura, president and CEO of the YWCA of Greater Cincinnati. “Our issues and struggles may be very different, but as the art testifies, our resilience and strength connect us in a unique way.”

Preserving differences

        Organized by New York artist, activist and University of Maryland professor Claudia DeMonte, the exhibition is a moving, sometimes disturbing look at the ethnic identities of international women. The work takes the form of traditional crafts, contemporary abstractions and digital representations.

    What: Women of the World: A Global Collection of Art
    When: Friday-June 7
    Where: YWCA Women's Art Gallery, 898 Walnut St., downtown.
    Opening reception: 6-8 p.m. Friday
    RSVP and information: 361-2152
    Admission: Free
    Catalog: $35, benefits the gallery
        The artist from China chose the ancient art of paper cutting to depict women embroidering in their gardens. The life of Caribbean women is presented through stitches and beads added to felt to create powerful internal landscapes.

        A Dominican artist works with abstractions in a painting of a grid that stands for the multifaceted lives of women enhanced by color: red for pain and strength, ultramarine for the soul and yellow for divine energy.

        The artist from Greece chose a digitized composition of newspaper clippings about crime and violence as a way to rebuild reality into something “sarcastic, sometimes biting, but always filled with my threats and desires.”

        And although the quality of the work varies, the humanistic principle that unites the 8-inch squares shines through.

Cambodia, Theoung Mim
        “I had no idea how difficult it would be,” Ms. DeMonte says, “or how rewarding.”

        Her intent was to preserve the diverse styles and traditions of each country, not to judge the work by the standards of the Western art world.

        “The project was designed to be expansive, not restrictive,” she says. “I wanted to underscore the difference in how art is made and perceived.”

Highs and lows

Dominica, Carla Armour Hutchinson
        Arranged alphabetically, the small-scale works encompass images of dignity — in the Zambian beadwork depicting a woman carrying the world on her head — and indignity — a woman kneeling at her husband's feet in a Bhutanese embroidery.

        There are images of work, war, childbirth and strength, but in every case the work stands for the creative sensibilities and cultural identities of the woman artists.

        “The exhibition gives these women a voice,” says gallery curator Ali Hansen. “And it broadens our understanding and respect for them.”

        “Despite poverty and war there is a need to create and express the human spirit,” Ms. DeMonte adds.
Costa Rica, Marite Vidales

Image and identity

        Women of the World was inspired by a trip Ms. DeMonte took with her husband to Tibet and a happenstance visit to a tent factory.

        “There, in medieval conditions, we found women engaged in the multilayered process of creating appliques,” Ms. DeMonte writes in the forward to the book that accompanies the exhibition.

        “Bolts of cloth were strewn on cold dirt or cement floors in dimly lit rooms abuzz with sewing machines and hands stitching at a fast, steady pace. The factory was run by men, but all the work was done by women. We were so inspired by the creative energy we wanted to work on our own ideas.”

        Ms. DeMonte's ideas took the form of everyday objects usually associated with women: high-heeled shoes, toasters and handbags. What she soon discovered was these simple images did not translate across cultural lines. The Tibetan tentmakers didn't understand the Western icons. They were culture-specific. This led Ms. DeMonte to wonder what might represent another woman's society.

        “I wondered,” she says, “what image means "woman' in all cultures.”

A worldwide web

        Known for what she calls “female fetishes,” sculptural pieces commenting on female stereotypes, she saw the exhibition as a chance to translate her work into global terms.

        Without consideration for time or money, she set out to ask one artist in each country on Earth to send her a representation of woman. She used contacts she had accumulated as an artist and instructor and everything from chat rooms to an international roster of embassies.

        “It took three years of hard work, slow mail, finding people, learning where Palau (Micronesia) is,” she says.

        “Women are the best. Every woman in the show gave her work to be donated to an auction to raise money to help other women through the New York Women's Foundation. I now have a friend in every country in the world.”

        “The YWCA's mission is to empower women and eliminate racism,” Ms. Ventura says. “I truly believe that our diversity makes us and our community stronger, richer and more interesting.”


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