Because My Mother Did It to Me
A ritual can morph into a totally unrecognizable version of itself over time. For example, a potent archaic ceremony to celebrate a young man’s coming of age and the acknowledgement of his Jewish education (a bar mitzvah) was not available to young women. The bat or bas mitzvah, the female version of the bar mitzvah, didn’t even exist in the United States until the 1920’s. How did young observant American Jewish women pass into adulthood before that?
One way was to be slapped in the face at the onset of menses. A barbaric custom, which by the way is not in accordance with Jewish law, is practiced as a well-guarded old country tradition handed down the matriarchal line. Confusing and traumatic, this ritual made me question its origin when I was slapped at thirteen. My mother’s answer to “why?” was, “because my mother did it to me”.
Keep it Under Wraps
Mystical education was always unavailable to young Jewish women, but Home Economics was freely shared. Domestic creativity -- once the great practical art and science of creating and keeping a home (which includes object-making and handicrafts, cleaning and preservation of goods, community rituals, and of course, the culinary arts) was considered a blessing to one’s family and loved ones. I’m ever curious at what point did all that bliss and blessing descend into domestic obligation?
The division of labor in the home is always a loaded topic. Aprons have become a costume in the performance of domestic theatre. The sexy domestic goddess is a thing; just check out a Halloween store this October. Aprons, which also at times serve as billboards for gender commentary, hide the very part of the female anatomy that oozes sexuality and power. It’s no wonder then, that the very piece of cloth that announces “domestic laborer in the house” could be used to diminish and belittle the feminine force of nature called Creativity. Put on an apron like your mother and your mother’s mother and you instantly become part of the lineage that keeps it all under control.
The Economics of Domestic Bliss
The piece Made by Hand began with finding an x-ray of a Chinese woman’s bound feet; an image that I first found particularly compelling because of its symmetry. I was researching cultural practices and rituals handed down from mothers to daughters and binding feet was certainly one of the more horrifying ones. The deeply disturbing practice is difficult to imagine until you look hard and long at an x-ray of a pair of bound feet.
The brutal breaking, manipulation and folding of the bones and subsequent wrapping of the feet (as seen in old photographs and descriptions) is not for the faint of heart. The limitation of mobility and pain endured by young girls -- that stayed with them through the rest of their lives -- is incomprehensible. Interestingly enough, like many people, I had heard that creating “lotus feet” was not only a sadistic cultural practice designed to keep women in their place, but also a fetishistic practice that produced extremities resembling a woman’s sexual organs; regarded by many men to be a sexual delicacy.
A recent study led by Melissa Brown, the managing editor of the Harvard Journal of Asiatic studies, suggests that food binding’s real motivation was economic. Based on interviews with thousands of elderly women who underwent foot binding, the study suggests that the practice was used to keep girls (in some cases as young as 5 yrs. old) on task producing handicrafts. These included spinning thread, sewing, crocheting or weaving cloth which could be sold to support their families and family businesses.
This practice, like many stories of women’s labor throughout history, is passed down through the matriarchal line. Chinese mothers bound their daughter’s feet and thus Chinese daughters contributed to the economic stability of their families. In China like in other parts of the world, a woman’s financial contribution to the family was often overlooked or ignored. This practice, which is believed to have begun around the 10th Century ended only recently in the mid 20th Century. It is believed to have ended when textile mills came into being and home-based handicrafts were no longer economically viable. Young girls who lived in areas where there were no textile mills had a greater chance of having their feet bound than those who lived in more industrialized parts of the country.
What is the complicity of mothers in horrific cultural rituals that has kept young women “in their place” for centuries? Is it purely motivated by economics? Or is it motivated by the hierarchy of power? Again, cultural practices that reinforce inequality and imbalance are still practiced and handed down from mother to daughter; low self-esteem, self-degradation, and self-mutilation still exist in epic proportions. Don’t you think slapping a young woman’s face on the precipice of womanhood is a self-fulfilling prophecy? Somebody has to break the spell.
MADE BY HAND
Zen and the Art of Vacuuming
As a young child, I was fascinated with how in some homes, the plush carpeting was vacuumed to perfection; presented in perfect wavelike rows not unlike a Japanese rock garden. The contemplative and creative act of tending a rock garden is respected world-wide as one of the great Buddhist traditions, yet vacuuming a plush living room carpet is just another form of domestic labor.
Japanese rock gardens – or Zen gardens --- are a recognizable aspect of Japanese culture. Intended to bring about a deep meditative state, these beautiful dry landscapes which are a reflection of the cosmic landscape, strip our earthly nature to its bare essentials. I have met many a grown woman who loves to vacuum; it’s a dedicated home ritual like ironing or polishing silver that while not everybody’s joy-ride (like any good cultural hand-me-down), has its place in creating beauty and peace in the home.
The removal of unwanted thoughts, bad habits and even dirt and clutter is a spiritual act that people embrace as a practice. Just google “cleaning as a spiritual act” and you’re likely to find what I did – a page entitled “Spiritual Ecology – The Art of Cleaning”. Of course, the photograph on the page is not of a “regular” housewife hiding behind the illusion of a living doll in a sexy apron, or a young woman washing clothes at the town watering hole showing a “little leg” for the photographer, it depicts a male monk happily sweeping the forest floor at the crack of dawn in an act full of possibility and hope.
Aprons are not inherently bad, and I actually like wearing them to protect my clothing when I make art, or cook with messy, staining foods. However, for some people, taking off the apron represents the freedom from domestic servitude which is why I attached the humble, well-worn and hand-stitched apron to the ink painting In Electrolux. In this piece, the fancy pajamas and the formality of the painted backdrop suggest the Maidenform bra ads; I dreamed I barged down the Nile with my brand, new Electrolux vacuum cleaner. Like some sort of supersonic spaceship, the advertised vacuum cleaner has the potential to whisk you away to a place where you have the freedom and time to pursue your dreams.
The Bar-B-Que and other Saucy Tales
The piece that started all of this was ASADO which, not so oddly enough, started out as a simple ink painting depicting a hand-made barbecue assembled from a broken metal grate; a common site in South America. A friend of mine, from Argentina, commented that it was a very masculine painting and that if he didn’t know better, he would have thought it was painted by a man. I remember thinking…how can a painting have a gender identity? So my gut instinct was to balance it by sewing an apron on it – not much of a challenge since I collect them. I use notions, buttons and other trinkets in my work from time to time, so I got out my needle and thread and my glue gun and got to work. The further along I got in attaching the painting to the apron, the more I felt it was a commentary on the hidden gender roles of the traditionally male meat-cooking and meat-eating ritual, The Asado.
Sometime in the late 1940’s, a young Indian woman is washing her clothes in public and is “caught” by a LIFE magazine photographer. I can hear the photographer saying “give me a little more leg…give me a little more smile”--- can’t you? Yet, at the same time, the Constitution of India was adopted by the elected Constituent Assembly which was in part drafted by fifteen powerful and politically active women. In a speech on the motion to pass the draft Constitution, an optimistic and confident Ammu Swaminathan said, “People outside have been saying that India did not give equal rights to her women. Now we can say that when the Indian people themselves framed their constitution, they have given rights to women equal with every other citizen of the country”. In India, you cannot help being charmed by the exuberant decoration of rickshaws and cabs. Even a humble profession asks for ornament and sparkle…and so it is with how I decorated the painting of the young woman washing her clothes. The gender-bending apron (which I’ve had in my possession for 30+ years) mirrored the pose and composition of the painting and thus their relationship in LIFE was born.
The Asado is not just a thing in Argentina and Brazil, it’s a thing that guys do everywhere – making and tending the fire, perfecting the secret sauce, flipping burgers, poking steaks and so on. But what came to mind is that while the men are poking and prodding the steaks on the fire, the women are usually behind the scenes, working in the kitchen, creating the whole shebang. It’s the domestic paradox presented as a grand performance that has been handed down from generation to generation. You can find this irony in my piece ASADO and you can also find it in LIFE.