Visions of female power and creativity

The arts are starting to offer women a way of expressing themselves in male-dominated cultures.

John Carlin’s piece earlier this month in The Times magazine on Egypt’s Light and Hope Orchestra (£) celebrates women’s visibility and power. Ironically, it was entitled "Female. Arab. Poor. And Blind." The orchestra is composed of 34 blind Muslim women (all wearing hijabs) who can impeccably play "at least 45 pieces of classical music" without notes to read and a conductor to follow, but through their extraordinary memories.

Again, earlier this month Haifaa Al Mansour’s Wadja, the first ever film made by a woman in Saudi Arabia (where cinema is illegal) was screened at the Venice Film Festival. The groundbreaking film tells the story of Wadja (played by Waad Mohammed), a rebellious 11-year-old girl, who enters a local Koran reading competition, planning to use the prize money to buy herself a bicycle, in a culture where women are not encouraged to cycle.

Earlier this year Abeer Zeibak Haddad released her extremely powerful documentary, Duma, about women speaking out about their experiences of rape and sexual assault, generally regarded as the first ever film to shed light on violence against women in Palestine.

Power and creativity resonates within the music of the Light and Hope Orchestra; in the story of the making of Wadja, and in women’s articulation of their damaging experiences in Duma. Each of these examples of women’s work is significant in terms of women’s visibility within cultures and societies that remain male-dominated.

Critical debates around women and the gender politics in the Middle East are increasingly stimulating. In the context of film this is particularly due to the expanding interaction between writing by scholars, critics and filmmakers from Western perspectives and from within Middle Eastern countries.

The issue of representation is important in thinking about women, power and creativity – not only in political terms, but also in relation to the media’s representation of women. Who is representing and who is represented? Can, for instance, filmmakers or journalists represent accurately different people, including those who they are not? Can men represent women and vice versa? In the context of film, for instance, does it matter if there are not many women directors? This last question is especially pertinent if it is believed that only women can represent women, or that they do it generally better than men. It is from this perspective that the absence of women directors leads directly to absences from the films themselves.

Women filmmakers from the Middle East tend to focus on issues including virginity testing, so-called "honour" crimes, female genital mutilation, forced marriages, and rape, which continue to be (at times religiously) practiced. Abortion is illegal or extremely restricted even in cases of rape in some countries. Making these issues more visible through the media is a complex task which may have different implications and reiterate differences between different cultures and societies. Yet, there is an urgent need for women to be more visible, more audible, more powerful. As Wadja’s director Al Mansour has commented in an interview:

"Women have to stick together and believe in themselves and push towards what makes them happy. We just need to push a little bit harder against tradition. We need to do things and make things and tell the stories that we want to tell. And I think the world is ready to listen."

The images in our minds about aspects of women’s issues and womanhood may predominantly come from the field of visual representation. To understand different types of womanhood from around the world more positive images of women are needed. Reality and representations of different realities have a strong connection. To create a positive change in the status of the real requires a parallel change in the media which seeks to represent the real.

 

The Light and Hope Orchestra in concert.
SAMUEL COURTAULD TRUST
Show Hide image

The monochrome set

In Pieter Bruegel’s hands, even black and white paintings can be full of colour.

Grisailles – monochrome images usually painted in shades of grey and white – have a long tradition. Early examples appeared in the 14th century as miniatures or manuscript illuminations and then later on the outside of the folding panels of altarpieces, where they imitated sepulchre statues and offered a stark contrast to the bright colour of the paintings inside. With their minimal palette, grisailles also offered painters a chance both to show off their skill and to add their bit to the age-old artistic debate about paragone: which was superior – sculpture, with its ability to show a figure in three dimensions, or painting, with its powers of illusion? By pretending to be sculpture, grisailles could better it.

The first artist to paint grisailles as independent works for private enjoyment and contemplation was the Netherlander Pieter Bruegel the Elder (circa 1525-69), whose folk scenes of peasants carousing or of hunters in a snowy landscape have long been staples of art’s quotidian, earthy strand. Only about 40 works by him are now known and of those, just three are grisailles (not a term he would have recognised; he referred to the pictures simply as “painted in black and white”). This trio of survivors has been reunited for the first time, at the Courtauld Gallery, with an accompanying selection of copies and engravings – a mere ten pictures in all – for a fascinating one-room exhibition.

The grisailles show a deeper and more intellectual artist than the sometimes slapstick figure who would dress as a peasant in order to gatecrash weddings in the Brabant countryside and record the drunken and playful goings-on in his pictures. They reflect the position of the Low Countries in Bruegel’s time, caught between the Catholicism of their Spanish overlords and the emerging Protestantism that had been sparked by Martin Luther only eight years before Bruegel’s birth. These tensions soon erupted in the Eighty Years War.

Of the three paintings, two show religious subjects – The Death of the Virgin (1562-65) and Christ and the Woman Taken in Adultery (1565) – and one is a scene that would have been familiar in the streets around him, Three Soldiers (1568). This last, lent by the Frick Collection in New York, shows a drummer, a piper and a standard-bearer in the elaborately slashed uniforms of German Landsknechte mercenaries. Such groupings featured often in German prints and Bruegel’s small picture is a clever visual game: painting could imitate not only sculpture, but prints, too. What’s more, the gorgeously coloured uniforms (mercenaries were exempt from the sumptuary laws that restricted clothing to sedate colours) could be shown to be just as arresting even in black and white.

If this is a painting about painting, the ­religious works have, it seems, added layers of meaning – although it is always difficult with Bruegel to work out what that meaning is and how personal it might be. The Courtauld’s Christ and the Woman Taken in Adultery shows Jesus stooping in front of the Pharisees and saving the accused woman from stoning by writing in the dust, “He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her.” That he spells out the words in Dutch rather than Hebrew, which was more usual in other images of the scene (and which he uses on the tunic of one of the learned men observing the mute play), suggests that this picture – a plea for clemency – was intended to serve as a call for religious tolerance amid mounting sectarian antagonism. While the gaping faces of the onlookers recall those of Hieronymus Bosch, the flickering calligraphic touches and passages of great delicacy are all his own.

The picture stayed with Bruegel until his death, so it had a personal meaning for him; more than 20 copies were subsequently made. Included in the exhibition are the copies painted by his sons, Jan and Pieter the Younger (a coloured version), as well as the earliest known print after it, from 1579, by Pieter Perret, which shows some of the detail in the crowd around the central figures that has been lost in the discoloured panel.

If the sombre tones of grisaille are suited to the pared-down faith advocated by Luther, the death of the Virgin was a familiar topic in Catholic and Orthodox iconography. Bruegel’s picture, from Upton House in Warwickshire, depicts an episode that doesn’t actually appear in the Bible. A group of Apostles and mourners has gathered around the Virgin’s bed, the scene lit by the heavenly light emanating from the dying woman and the five flames from the candles and the hearth that correspond to the five wounds suffered by her son on the cross. Domestic items litter the room – a slice of orange, slippers, a dozing cat – and there is a sleeping attendant, unaware of the miracle of Assumption that will shortly unfold. Here is a moving nocturne in which the mysteries of religion emerge from and disappear back into the shadows.

While Bruegel’s peasant works display a delight in physical pleasure, these three bravura works, painted for humanist connoisseurs and for himself, portray the sober, spiritual concerns that come to the fore once the last drop has been drunk. 

The exhibition runs until 8 May. For more details, go to: courtauld.ac.uk

Michael Prodger is an Assistant Editor at the New Statesman. He is an art historian, Senior Research Fellow at the University of Buckingham, and a former literary editor.

This article first appeared in the 11 January 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle