An intelligent woman could be forgiven for getting fed up with stubborn inequities that denigrate a lifetime of effort. For Carrie Gracie, one of the BBC’s best journalists, enough was enough when she learned that two male colleagues doing comparable work were making scads more money than she was. At the start of 2018 she resigned, accusing the BBC in an open letter of perpetuating a pay structure that is ‘secretive and illegal’. Just weeks later, the broadcaster announced that its top male talent would take a pay cut in a show of solidarity with their female colleagues. But while some of these battles are symbolic, the problems are endemic. Last year, a survey of Australian businesses revealed that there are more men named John, David or Peter running companies than there are women CEOs of any name. When progress seems to have stalled, we turn to rousing examples of women fighting the good fight: Pakistani education advocate and Nobel Laureate Malala Yousafzai, or Chinese activist and filmmaker Nanfu Wang. We turn as well to the pioneering work of figures less squarely in the limelight, such as the Surrealist artist Meret Oppenheim and the documentarian Alanis Obomsawin. Alice Walker observed that ‘the most common way people give up their power is by thinking they don’t have any’—let us not forget, then, the strength in our midst.
‘It is not I who looked for the Surrealists,’ said Meret Oppenheim (1913–1985), ‘[but] they who found me.’ In 1932, as a student at the Académie de la Grande Chaumière, she fell in with Picasso, Giacometti and Man Ray (for whom she modelled nude), and was soon making entrancing objets, such as Das Paar (The Couple)—a pair of boots conjoined at the toe—and a collaboration with Elsa Schiaparelli that produced marvellous gloves with bony protrusions, gold claws and even veins. (Surrealism, wrote André Breton in the Surrealist Manifesto, ‘glove[s] your hand’.) Oppenheim was born in Berlin, and fine, whimsical hands were part of her ancestry: her grandmother was a celebrated children’s illustrator whose drawings featured smiling anthropomorphic trees. Add to this the Surrealists’ embrace of the unconscious and the influence of Jungian psychology—in which Oppenheim was well-versed—and it is hardly surprising that her spin on the movement was so playful and independent, tied to the caprices of Dadaism. Critics viewing her early work assumed her to be a man; she held the human mind to be androgynous. Through August 12, a retrospective of her work is on view at Finland’s Espoo Museum of Modern Art, supplemented with photographs and portraits of the artist and a selection of pieces by her contemporaries, including Man Ray and Daniel Spoerri.
Betty Davis, née Mabry, born in 1945, is often mentioned adjacent to the famous musicians she befriended, dated and/or married: Jimi Hendrix, Sly Stone, Hugh Masekela, Miles Davis. But she has talent and a sound all her own—a funky, groovy, sexy R&B fuelled by a powerful voice that ranges from a husky whisper to a howl. Despite two promising earlier studio albums, her third, 1975’s Nasty Gal, backed by a major label, failed to achieve commercial success. The world wasn’t ready for Davis’s kinetic sexuality. ‘Miss Davis is trying to tell us something real and basic about our irrational needs’, wrote the New York Times a year before the album’s release. ‘Western civilization puts its highest premiums on conformity and rationality and rarely recognises the Bessies or the Bettys until they’re gone.’ Davis was a pathbreaker who foresaw and in various ways influenced a bevy of women artists, including contemporary Grace Jones, Erykah Badu and SATE (Saidah Baba Talibah). Nasty Gal was recently reissued by Light in the Attic, and its sultry tracks bewitch the listener. ‘You and I’, arranged by Gil Evans, is a ballad about lost love that Davis co-wrote with her ex-husband Miles. He plays a gorgeous trumpet solo against her plaintive cry. Prince said of Davis’s music, ‘This is what we aim for.’
The poet, short story writer and essayist Mary Ruefle has a gift for capturing certain transitional periods that leave you listing queasily, wondering what has happened to the life you used to recognise. In the delightful essay ‘Pause’, which appeared in Granta in 2015, she explores the inevitable squaring of one’s inner and outer selves during menopause. Ruefle starts out sounding rather rueful about ageing, writing of the stormy feelings menopause brings, akin to those of adolescence but without parents or corralling school teachers to steer you through. And as she emphasises, while we tend to think of this rite of passage as an event, it is more an unpredictable unfolding. ‘You may decide to take up an insane and hopeless cause. You may decide to walk to Canada, or that it is high time you begin to collect old blue china, three thousand pieces of which will leave you bankrupt. Suddenly the solution to all problems lies in selling your grandmother’s gold watch or drinking your bodyweight in cider vinegar. A kind of wild forest blood runs in your veins.’ Eventually, that wild forest blood sloughs off a lifetime of self-consciousness. ‘If you are young and you are reading this, perhaps you will understand the gleam in the eye of any woman who is sixty, seventy, eighty, or ninety: they cannot take you seriously (sorry) for you are just a girl to them, despite your babies and shoes and lovemaking and all of that. You are just a girl playing at life.’
Alanis Obomsawin’s We Can’t Make the Same Mistake Twice (2016) tells the story of the First Nations activist Cindy Blackstock, who sued the federal government of Canada for depriving Indigenous children of crucial social services. The making of the documentary took six years. Obomsawin’s next film, Our People Will Be Healed (2017), was her fiftieth, and its release coincided with the filmmaker’s 85th birthday. It is a somewhat happier story about a remarkable school in northern Manitoba that has created a robust and original curriculum which celebrates its Indigenous students’ heritage. Along with standard math and science courses, the Helen Betty Osborne Ininiw Education Resource Centre at Norway House offers lessons in the Cree language and traditional fiddle music. ‘The children are kings there’, Obomsawin told the Globe and Mail. The film ends with the sun dance, a ritual prayer that is rarely seen and which was nearly eradicated by an official policy of suppression lasting until 1951. Obomsawin’s subjects trust her to depict their experiences with dignity, sensitivity and compassion. As an Abenaki born in New Hampshire and raised in Quebec, she knows firsthand the historical burdens they contend with, and embodies the success they deserve.
Cecilia Vicuña: About to Happen began as an exhibition focused on environmental degradation at the mouth of the Aconcagua River, organised by the Contemporary Arts Center in New Orleans, in March 2017; it lives on in a full-colour monograph put out by Siglio Press. Vicuña is a Chilean poet and multidisciplinary artist whose work is influenced by her homeland’s landscape and folklore. Her sculpture consists of found materials interwoven with knotted fabric that resembles a quipu, an ancient record-keeping device consisting of plied cord whose knots, in a base-ten positional system, denote numbers or momentous events. Vicuña’s work has elements of decay, loneliness and exile, and investigates the upheaval caused by global warming. Water Songs (Cantos del Agua), a ‘sound-weaving improvisation’, was the artist’s response to the privatisation of the water supply in Chile. About to Happen includes an essay by the critic Lucy Lippard that suggests Vicuña’s environmental activism and focus on displacement are outgrowths of her complicated ancestry. Conceptually ambitious and expertly crafted, Vicuña’s practice reflects an abiding interest in what makes (and splinters) communities all over the world.
Thai architect and community activist Patama Roonrakwit’s ambitious and intelligent designs seek to improve living conditions for Thailand’s poorest people. She has built housing in the slums of Bangkok and shelters for residents displaced by the 2004 tsunami. She makes graceful, resourceful use of light and angles, in particular the steep pitch of her lightweight roofs. ‘Slum rehabilitation, if sensitively done, can accommodate the needs of everyone’, she told a journalist last year. ‘In a project in the centre of Bangkok, we have to rehabilitate 78 families. So I asked them what they wanted in the new space. While one person had concerns about feeding the monks, another worried about his stall of barbecue chicken and his customers.’ In east Bangkok’s Min Buri Market, what had been a de facto dumping ground was turned into a playground. From there, Roonrakwit worked with the community to build a common library. She works on a sliding scale, figuring out a way to make her services available while allowing her clients to ‘be their own catalysts’. ‘There is always a way to work out the money’, she says. ‘But if you don’t do anything, nothing is going to happen. And I also get paid in kind, with the best seafood because most of my clients are fisherfolk.’
‘The Listening Forest’, the seventh episode of the Paris Review Podcast, begins with the English actress Glynis Bell reading Denise Levertov’s 1981 poem ‘Sound of the Axe’ in memorably haunting timbre—‘Once a woman went into the woods. / The birds were silent. Why? she said.’ Next comes George Plimpton in conversation with Eudora Welty, the interviewer-narrator the quintessence of congeniality: ‘We visited, as a Southerner would say, with Eudora Welty in the parlour of her home.’ It’s hard to say which of their accents is more charming, Plimpton’s preposterously plummy tones or Welty’s molasses-gummy drawl. She tells Plimpton that she had to put a sign in the garden to dissuade autograph-seekers. Mississippians were so thrilled to have a homegrown national treasure in their midst that they were constantly knocking on the door, bearing gifts of fruit preserves and books they wanted inscribed. ‘For a while I heard I was on a chamber of commerce list of curiosities.’ Then there’s her laconically scathing take on Henry Miller… The episode concludes with Ottessa Moshfegh reading her short story ‘A Dark and Winding Road’—a characteristically unsettling tale of ignoble appetites.
The Japanese poet Yosano Akiko (1878–1942) was born in Sakai, where her father managed a candy store. At a young age, she began sending her poems to the prestigious literary journal Myojo, whose editor, Yosano (aka Tekkan) Hiroshi, she fell in love with. He divorced his first wife and married Akiko in 1901. Following this union, she gave birth to 13 children and published more than 20 books of poetry. Akiko’s verses have a quiet candour that anticipates the style of more recent female Japanese poets such as Kazuko Shiraishi and Hiromi Ito. She writes poignantly about the impermanent incandescence of beauty. ‘Her hair at twenty / Flowing long and black / Through the teeth of her comb / Oh beautiful spring / Extravagant spring! / My skin is so soft / Fresh from my bath / It pains me to see it covered / By the fabric / Of an everyday world.’ And beyond the page, her feminism found passionate expression; she spoke frequently about the importance of education for women, and founded a women’s college, Bunka Gakuin, in 1923.
Illustrations by Jeffrey Cheung.
‘Any great change must expect opposition, because it shakes the very foundation of privilege.’