Thursday, January 21, 2010

to part no more: marriage and mourning

I recently posted about the invitational exhibition Wimpel! Wrapped Wishes at the Philadelphia Museum of Jewish Art. One of my mixed media assemblages, to part no more, is included in the show. Before writing about my work, I think it would be helpful to share with you some background information about the exhibition, and in doing so, I will quote generously from the PMJA website. First things first - what is a wimpel, you may well wonder? (try saying that seven times fast)

"A wimpel is a long, narrow sash—typically seven inches high and at least seven feet long—most often made in linen and used to bind the scrolls of the Torah. Traditionally, wimpels were made from the cloth used to swaddle a baby boy during the Jewish covenantal ceremony of circumcision... After the ceremony, the cloth was cleaned and cut into strips that were sewn together to make the sash, which then was decorated with elaborate needlework or paint... Traditional decorative motifs for wimpels included birds and other animals, images of bride and groom, and the Torah scroll.

...In the eighteenth and early-nineteenth centuries (the period to which most surviving wimpels date), completed wimpels were stored at the local synagogue, thereby serving as a census of the congregation. An individual boy’s wimpel was used to bind the Torah scroll during his bar mitzvah ceremony (which marks the coming of age in Jewish religious life) at age 13. The wimpel was also incorporated into the chuppah used during Jewish marriage ceremonies. In this way, the wimpel followed the individual for whom it was made through three life-cycle events: birth, coming of age, and marriage (with the implication that this marriage will produce children, and the cycle will begin anew). Wimpels were material representations of a family’s hopes and dreams for their child, the new life they have brought into the world, a life bound to the study of Torah, ethical behavior, and the continuation of the Jewish community."
Okay. Now what is the concept of the show?

"The artists contributing to Wimpel! Wrapped Wishes were asked to “explore the wimpel, interpret it, create metaphors, comment, celebrate, critique, cross cultures, imagine, translate—to make it yours". Among the subjects suggested by the wimple are identity; core sensibilities, values, and world views, and how they are expressed and lived; parenting; gender; marriage and more. We hope this will be an exhibition about the future: what do we wish for today’s children? How do we express our hopes and dreams for the next generation?"
(source for quotes: Matthew Singer, PMJA Curator and Organizer of Wimpel!Wrapped Wishes Exhibit.)

My first thought about the show was: "Why in the world would they want to include my work?" Darned if I know. I was excited to participate in the exhibit, but, initially, I leaned more toward opting out. The main obstacle was "making the wimpel mine" and relating my work, a cocktail of contemporary mourning art with a generous measure of feminism and Dark Romanticism - shaken - not stirred, to the overall optimistic, forward-looking tone of the exhibition. Also, I've shown my work in a religious environment before and, bad pun intended, it wasn't a match made in heaven. Oh yeah - one more thing - it's minor really: I did NOT want to hand bead a piece of material that measured 7 feet by 7 inches. In the end, I found a way to connect to the theme and concept of the show by focusing on the use of the wimpel as part of the wedding canopy used during the marriage ceremony.

Kym Hepworth, to part no more, mixed media, 73 x 27 x 13 1/3 in., 2009

Here's my object statement for the show:

I chose to focus on the use of the wimpel as part of the marriage ceremony and its embedded concepts of union, fertility, and endlessly repeating life cycles. to part no more explores both positive and negative aspects of marriage, family, gender roles, and domesticity. Here, the house/birdcage motif represents continuity, security, and hope for the future. However, there are cracks in this foundation and the overall stability of the structure is threatened by the tension of entrapment and anxiety of abandonment.
Before going any further, I'd like to point out that this is an artwork and my art is not autobiographical. When viewed outside the context of art, I see marriage, family and children in a positive light. The couple in the wedding photograph are not related to me. And I loves my sweetie. So then, what's the connection between marriage, family and mourning? After all, a wedding ceremony is a celebratory event. Why associate it with lament and grieving? Take a look at the bride and groom in the wedding portrait (ignore the white shape on the groom's lips - it's light reflected off of the glass) :

detail of wedding photograph

When was this photograph taken? During the Victorian era (1837-1901)? Or slightly later during the Edwardian era (1901-1910)? Unfortunately, the photograph isn't dated and I'm not an expert in the history of fashion so I can't tell you the exact date by studying their clothing. However, this photograph was definitely taken before 1920 when the 19th Amendment was ratified and women were allowed the right to vote in the United States. Barbara Goldsmith, a Social Historian, has described the status of women's rights in America during the mid 19th century as follows:

"This was an age in which men were free to treat women with the same detached cruelty as they did their slaves. For women, regardless of class, marriage meant the surrender of every right to property and person. A woman's wages were given directly to her husband. If she sought a divorce her husband was legally entitled to sole custody of the children. Women had no legal rights to the disposition of their personal possessions upon death. Women could not testify in court or serve on a jury and were barred from universities, law schools, and medical schools. Women could not vote.

No laws protected a woman from physical abuse at the hands of her husband or father unless such abuse resulted in death, though a few states stipulated the size of the instruments that might be used to inflict punishment. One judge upheld the right of a husband to beat his wife, writing that to do otherwise would "disrupt domestic harmony." A wife's body was to be used at her husband's will; she could not deny him sexual access. If she ran away, the law of the nation supported her recapture and return. The United States followed Sir William Blackstone, the authority on English common law, who held that "the husband and wife are one, and that one is the husband."
And here's a quote from Elizabeth Cady Stanton (1815-1902), calling for a revision of the divorce laws on behalf of the National Woman's Suffrage Association:

"Marriage today is in no way viewed as an equal partnership, intended for the equal advantage and happiness of both parties. Nearly every man feels that his wife is his property, whose first duty, under all circumstances, is to gratify his passions, without the least reference to her own health and happiness, or the welfare of their offspring; and so enfeebled is woman's judgment and moral sense from long abuse that she believes so too and quotes from the Bible to prove her own degradation."
(source for quotes: Other Powers: The Age of Suffrage, Spiritualism, and the Scandalous Victoria Woodhull by Barbara Goldsmith, published by HarperPerennial, New York, NY, © 1998, 1999.)

detail, to part no more (bride)

The wimpel has been incorporated into ceremonies marking three life-cycle events - birth, coming of age, and marriage. That excludes death... and my work explores mourning and loss... what to do? When I first conceived the idea for the work, I knew that I would include mourning art imagery, but I didn't want that imagery to be the primary or dominant focus. The image of the bride suggested to me an apparition, specifically the White Lady or The Lady in White. According to Wikipedia ...

"the White Lady is a type of female ghost purported to appear in many rural areas, and who is supposed to have died or suffered trauma in life. White Lady legends are found around the world. Common to many of them is the theme of losing or being betrayed by a husband or fiancé. They are often associated with an individual family line, as a harbinger of death. When one of these ghosts is seen it indicates that someone in the family is going to die, similar to a banshee.

Generally, the aspects of this phenomena are that the ghost is female, dressed in late era Victorian garb, seen driving along a rural road, and associated with some local legend of tragedy."

So my association of ideas went something like this: bride - virgin - white - ghost - White Lady -death - haunted - frequented - haunted by what? - the past - know your history or be doomed to repeat it - repetition - life-cycles - marriage - birth - marriage - birth - marriage?

Last night she came to me,
My dead love came in
So softly she came
That her feet made no din
As she laid her hand on me
And this she did say
It will not be long, love,
'Til our wedding day

- lyrics to She Moved Through the Fair

To be continued...

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