“For Mary Wollstonecraft,” the sculpture unveiled earlier this week in honour of the 18th century British feminist, is essentially “For white women”: a public work of art that is the latest installment in a parochial feud amongst white women over who owns white feminism, in which a white artist has given shape to a slim, white woman that she claims represents “everywoman” as an homage to a white feminist who is claimed as the Mother of Feminism.
If Mary Wollstonecraft is the Mother of Feminism, it is white feminism that she birthed.
And if art is an invitation to a conversation between the eyes and the heart, then public art is an altogether more bellicose affair; a brawl rather than a chat.
So this is Mona’s public brawl with Maggi (Hambling), the artist whose sculpture has sparked much bellicosity.
Photograph: Jill Mead/The Guardian
Firstly, let’s establish that I am aware that it’s not a statue of Wollstonecraft. “The whole sculpture is called ‘for Mary Wollstonecraft’ and that’s crucially important. It’s not an idea ‘of’ Mary Wollstonecraft naked… the sculpture is for now,” Hambling said.
Hambling talks about “now” a lot. Of her decision to have a naked female form stand atop her sculpture, Hambling says “she has to be naked because clothes define people. We all know that clothes are limiting and she is everywoman.”
And Hambling says “everywoman” a lot.
“She’s everywoman and clothes would have restricted her. Statues in historic costume look like they belong to history because of their clothes...It’s crucial that she is ‘now.’”
It is disingenuous to say she is naked because clothes would have trapped her in the here and now when the body you have given “everywoman” is very much of the here and now: notions of “ideal” body types are determined by the time in which they live.
And who is that “everywoman?” Take a closer look at that tiny figure. It is a “fit” young white female body.
AFP/via Getty Images via Evening Standard
“As far as I know, she’s more or less the shape we’d all like to be,” Hambling said.
And that was a “we” too far for me.
Who the fuck is “we” and who the fuck is the “every” in that “everywoman” and why the fuck is she young and white?
Much of the ire directed at the artist has come from people who think it’s diminishing or disrespectful to portray Wollstonecraft naked. Fuck that. Let’s be clear already: there is nothing shameful or disrespectful about nudity or the naked female form--in art or otherwise. The backdrop for all my Zoom and webinar meetings is this glorious portrait by artist Nadine Faraj of the Egyptian feminist activist Aliaa Mahdy.
Photo Robert E. Rutledge
Western art is not completely devoid of the naked female form, as any visit to the Classical and Renaissance galleries of museums can avow. There, you can take your pick: women being raped or women being desexualized.
I will never forget the way the audio guide in an Italian museum urged us to admire the deftness with marble of sculptor Gian Lorenzo Bernini in The Rape of Proserpina, especially the lifelike way Pluto’s hands grab the thigh of Proserpina as he rapes her. The gaslighting - not the artistry - is breathtaking.
The Rape of Prosperina Stock Photos from irisphoto1/Shutterstock via MyModernMet
When the women of ancient western art are not being raped, they have the genitals of a five-year-old girl. If the Revolution is my Cunt, as I like to say, then the absence of cunts, pussies, vaginas, or hoohahs as Syreeta McFadden so memorably calls them in an essay assailing the absence of genitals in female statues from the Greek and Roman era of art - the origin of Western civilization - is the silencing of not just the brawl of public art but the entire conversation around female sexuality.
The Three Graces photo: Corbis via The Guardian
And so at least we have the bush on the female figure that stands atop of Hambling’s sculpture. I will take pubic hair on public art.
But what I will not take is the magical thinking of white feminism, or in other words: behind “everywoman” is a white woman.
If the Guerilla Girls asked in 1984 “Do women have to be naked to get into the Met. Museum?” then how much longer did we have to wait for women who are not white to not just get into that museum - as artists and subjects - but to stand atop the pedestal of public art?
Only a white woman can so blithely say “everywoman” in the year 2020 and offer a slim white nude as its prototype in a country with a history of imposing Victorian Christian prudishness to shame colonized people whose public nudity was used against them; colonized people whose art long reveled in proudly naked female forms complete with bellies and breasts.
To say “everywoman” is to ignore conventional notions of beauty that are born - much like that tiny naked “everywoman” is born from that amorphous mass at the pedestal of Hambling’s sculpture - from white European colonial legacies, that hold up white femininity as the pinnacle of beauty, that promote whiteness as default.
If you spend any time wading through the minefield known as social media you would quickly find out that that is who is allowed to be naked. The body that is not too large, not too overwhelming, not too much, and which is white.
Ask model Nyome Nicholas-Williams, who fought Instagram and won after the social media platform kept deleting her pictures.
“This is art, I am art!” Photo Alex Cameron via @curvynyome via instagram
“Millions of pictures of very naked, skinny white women can be found on Instagram every day...But a fat Black woman celebrating her body is banned? It was shocking to me. I feel like I’m being silenced,” she told The Guardian. “It does make a difference to be out there as a fat, Black woman and be proud.”
Shaming and moralizing are in the eye of the beholder which is why the “gaze” in art or any visual medium is a central consideration. Who shames fat Black and Brown bodies? Whose body is displayed and for whose gaze? Whose dictates determined that the female form in Hambling’s sculpture is “more or less the shape we’d all like to be?” Although a woman is the sculptor, she has forged a body shaped for a white patriarchal gaze.
If you want to challenge the white patriarchal gaze with nudity, then defy that gaze with more than just perky tits and a big bush. Seize the gaze with massive tits and protruding vulva! And insist that you reverse that white gaze back upon itself by insisting that it see those it has refused to acknowledge.
And so “For Mary Wollstonecraft” is essentially “For white women”: public art as an homage to a white feminist, claimed as the Mother of Feminism and who birthed white feminism.
You can trace Hambling’s “everywoman” directly to Wollstonecraft’s 1792 pamphlet, A Vindication on the Rights of Woman, in which she compared the plight of the white, middle class women she advocated for to slavery. Wollstonecraft was an abolitionist who was unable to see that a white middle class British woman’s life, no matter how limited by sexism, was not comparable to the life of an enslaved Black woman. She was as guilty back then of what white feminists continue to be guilty of today: refusing to see the intersections of race, class and gender that render an “everywoman” a white woman’s fantasy.
To appreciate how anemic and parochial “For Mary Wollstonecraft” is, to see how public art can wrestle with all that the Mother of Feminism and her adherents did not, look no further than Kara Walker. If you want to challenge the white patriarchal gaze with nudity, then defy that gaze with more than just perky tits and a big bush. Seize the gaze with massive tits and protruding vulva! And insist that you reverse that white gaze back upon itself by insisting that it see those it has refused to acknowledge. Fill the gap between what Mary Wollstonecraft began to do with what feminism should do today: recognize that the oppressions of patriarchy are more than just misogyny and concern more than just middle class, white women.
Look at the heft of Kara Walker ’s 35 feet by 75 feet 2014 public work of art that she so gloriously named:
or the Marvelous Sugar Baby
an Homage to the unpaid and overworked Artisans who have refined our Sweet tastes from the cane fields to the Kitchens of the New World on the Occasion of the demolition of the Domino Sugar Refining Plant
The women Kara Walker pays homage to are the women that Wollstonecraft does not see. Of course a Black woman knows that patriarchy is more than sexism: it is colonization, capitalism, and enslavement too. And of course an artist like Kara Walker overwhelms your gaze so that you wonder who is looking at who.
When will women who are not white be considered part of “everywoman” by women who are? And when will women who are not white and skinny be the colour and shape “we all want to be?”
Mona Eltahawy is a feminist author, commentator and disruptor of patriarchy. Her first book Headscarves and Hymens: Why the Middle East Needs a Sexual Revolution (2105) targeted patriarchy in the Middle East and North Africa and her second The Seven Necessary Sins For Women and Girls (2019) took her disruption worldwide. Her commentary has appeared in media around the world and she makes video essays and writes a newsletter as FEMINIST GIANT.
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