The Breast Plate has been tempered by fire. Scarred—yet
adorned with beads, feathers, lace, flowers and fabric—it bears the mark
of the warrior woman/ mother/ goddess/ angel who tends the spirit, wisdom and
traditions of generations.
Fashioned by mixed-media artist Martina Johnson-Allen, “Breast Plate” is just one of dozens of pieces that explore the complexity of identity in “A Sense of Self: Contemporary Ethnic Women Artists.”
A contemplative exhibition opening today at the Balch Institute for Ethnic Studies, 18 S. 7th St.. “A Sense of Self” is an ambitious undertaking, featuring the work of 18 female artists from the Greater Philadelphia region. It includes 32 pieces and two installations African-American, Chinese, Jewish, Korean, Latina, Native-American and South-Asian artists, using mixed media, oils, watercolors, pastels, collage, quilted fabric and photography.
Situated at the crossroads of gender, race ethnicity, generation and class, the artists explore the nature of their relationship to their communities, ethnic traditions and the importance of female ancestry. The ongoing struggle of women of color to become visible and comfortable within a larger community that still tends to view them as objects is also a focus.
At a recent round-table discussion, Johnson-Allen, an African American, talked more about her work, and traded insights with three other artists in the exhibition: Marta Sanchez, a Chicana; Yasmin Hernandez, who is Puerto Rican; and Gina Michaels who is Jewish. The discussion ranged from the role ethnicity and gender play in their aesthetic, to personal experiences as an ethnic woman artist.
“Both of the pieces I have in the show are feminist pieces because they make a statement about the condition of women throughout the world,” said Johnson-Allen, 51, a Philadelphia native whose day job is teaching third-graders at Henry Elementary School in West Mount Airy.
“Breast Plate” symbolizes the protection that women need in order to get through life. “It’s sort of like an armature. However, it is embellished with flowers and feathers to show the feminine and soft side of women, and the clay-like structure symbolizes the masculine energy that women have to have to get through life.
The strength of the feminine—as well as the weighing of ethnic identity against gender identity—strikes at the heart of Hernandez’ art as well. The Brooklyn native dedicated her “U.S. Colonial Penitentiary” to Puerto Rican women Hernandez considers political prisoners –six heroines among 14 men and women currently incarcerated in the U.S. “as a result of their involvement in the struggle for the independence of Puerto Rico.”Most were arrested in 1980. All were convicted of “seditious conspiracy” and are serving sentences which vary between 50 and 100 years –“four times,” said Hernandez, “what the average rapist or robber gets.”
The painting depicts a Latina whose hands and legs are chained. Nude—with the exception of an American flag wrapped around her hips—she is superimposed on a Puerto Rican flag. That flag is imprinted with text of actual accounts of sexual abuse the women have been subjected to while incarcerated. The piece speaks to injustice, presumed sexual stereotype and the objectification of these women—and others who have been incarcerated—by prison guards and the larger society.
“I think that women artists are the ones who insert feminism into our work,” said Hernandez, 23, Director of the Youth Artist Program at Taller Puertorriqueño. “But at the same time, there is this dynamic that you have to put aside your femininity and take on your ethnicity. There is always a juggling of that.
“I realized, when I was in school, that in all the work that I did there I was using my art as a venue to explore my cultural background, and the political background behind my culture.” Hernandez said that through her art and research she is finding answers she is compelled to share. “I think that women are the main educators in this world. Women are the ones who raise the children, who teach the family and keep the fabric of the family and culture intact,” she explained. “I don’t see men as having that role as much, so maybe there is more of an urgency in this instinct to incorporate some kind of storytelling or some sort of recording of our history through our artwork as women.”
Regarding culture, Sanchez a 39 year-old Texas native, said she uses her narrative prayer paintings, or retablos, to help link her to her past and her community. Describing herself as “an artist who is concerned with the community at large, and about my cultural upbringing,” she touched on how ethnicity is sometimes viewed as a limitation in the art world.
“I had an interesting question asked when I spoke to an art critic recently,” related Sanchez. “She asked me if the fact that my work is considered ‘ethnic’ made me feel restricted. “My answer to her was, actually, I thought it gave me a lot of room to work with. I feel I have a lot to say about my community and who I am.”
For 44-year-old Michaels, also a native New Yorker, the artistic answer to “Who Am I?” is dictated more by gender than ethnicity. A sculptor who works in wax and casts in bronze, her contribution to the exhibit is “I Never Heard of Such a Thing,” a memorial to her grandmother. Michaels’ installation included a 2-foot-high bronze of her grandmother, five photographs of Michaels dressed in her grandmother’s “more outrageous clothing,” text printed onto pink-striped wallpaper about some of the conversation they had before her grandmother’s death, and other objects.
“This is the only installation that I’ve ever done, and it’s the only identifiable Jewish piece that I’ve done, Michaels said. “I think that for me, my gender definitely comes first, and the ethnicity comes second…not that I ever thought of it before. “I’m in an interesting position because there is very little Jewish visual history, and there is virtually no Jewish figurative history that is more than 50 years old—it’s Mark Segal and a couple of other people—and so my Jewish visual history has to do with clothes which, of course, is tied in with being a woman and being a girl and being brought up a certain way.”
“I think that my approach to art is dictated in a way that is ingrained, in a way that is subconscious,” Hernandez responded to the question of gender versus ethnicity. “The way that I view my culture and its politics is distinct because I am a woman. But at the same time, since I am a woman, my face is the last one people expect my work to be attached to. “I think that I’ve done some paintings that have offended people because they see some obscenity in the anger that I express through them.”
She pauses, then smiles, “My father one told me, ‘You’re such a pretty young girl…Why don’t you consider becoming a stewardess?’ Those are the kinds of things that I’ve had to challenge.”
Johnson-Allen feels an artist’s aesthetic is formed by culture and is, therefore, largely “intuitive.” “When we all have formal training in an academic setting, we start off the same, but eventually it always comes out who you really are,” she said. “Sometimes you try to force the issue. You may want to work the way the school is working, but if you’re sincere, you work is going to take its own path. It may happen to appear in a certain ethnic mode, then again it may not.
“I think all of us like to be viewed just as artists—not African-American artists, or whatever--but there are some things that just come out that make it particular to gender or ethnicity,” Johnson-Allen added.
“But that shouldn’t take away form the worth of the art.”
The disparity between the sexes in the art world was another topic of concern. Is the playing field level when it comes to gender? Johnson-Allen thinks not.
“I think women do not have the financial support they need to do their art,” she said.
“A lot of women I know who are artists are also mothers. They’re self-supporting, so therefore they have a lot to grapple with in order to just spend time with their art…I feel that male artists get more financial support from the community, and from the funding institutions.”
For Michaels, access is more of an issue.
“From my experience, access for women goes down as the stakes go up,” she said. “It’s relatively easy for a woman to show if she wants to show in a co-op gallery.” “…I think women can do OK in the low levels, but if you go to New York and you look, for example at Pace Gallery—perhaps the priciest gallery in the city—it’s all white men except for Kiki Smith, whose father was in the gallery before her.
“There’s definitely a glass ceiling,” Michaels said.
Then there’s the question of market value.
“A lot of women choose to work in alternative materials that aren’t as highly valued.” Michaels said. “People expect to pay less for a 12-by-12 piece that’s quilted and beaded than they will for a 12-by-12 piece that’s canvas with oil on it.”
Despite the apparent hurdles yet to be overcome, Johnson-Allen, Hernandez, Michaels and Sanchez are encouraged by the strides of the past, the women on whose shoulders they now stand.
“When I was a child, I didn’t have any women role models as far as a career in art,” said Sanchez. “As I got older, and made painting my career, I realized how many women artists there were, that there were women artists of color.
“It’s something that’s more attainable now than it ever was before,” she said. “And it can only get better.”
As a major exhibition, “A Sense of Self,” which continues through Dec. 31, is a major departure for the Balch.
“Normally, we do things much more sociological or historical in nature in relation to ethnic identity,” said public programming coordinator Kathryn Wilson, who co-curated the show with the institute’s head curator, Barbara Ward-Grubb. “This is the first time we’ve done an art show specifically like this one.”
“We really wanted to begin to work issues like gender, class and sexuality into the ways we represent ethnic identity at the Balch,” Wilson said. “We wanted to draw attention to women’s experiences because we haven’t done that in the past.
“We also wanted to explore that by looking at art, so we could work in a more interpretive and creative fashion, while educating about the more complex nature of ethnicity, and how it is formed in relation to a woman’s ethnic history, tradition and community.”
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