Nicola Costantino: Art of Sensation

Nicola Costantino was born in Rosario, Argentina, on November 17, 1964, into a family of Italian descent. As a child, she was a little unusual, with remarkably popping eyes and many scientific and technical leanings.

While she attended the course of Fine Arts at the National University in Rosario, her interest in new artistic materials and techniques led her to research and work in craft workshops and factories. At ICI Duperial, she experimented with silicone molds and matrices on polyester resin apt for flexible polyurethane foam injection. Her skill in this technique proved decisive for the development of her art work, and enabled her to achieve the real-object perception that would become characteristic of Nicola’s art.

Costantino achieves in her art what visual arts should do: her sculptures, installations, videos, and photographs catch the eye and alter perception. Because they are predominately rooted in sensation, and not just in concepts, her artworks trigger an immediate, physical reaction. Casts of animal fetuses, molds of human skin, and soaps made with the artist’s own fat build up a tension between ornamentation and revulsion. Her innovation revolves around ethical values and the alienation from nature. Even sexuality is turned into compulsion, flesh, and transmuted bodies, turning everything into an oppressive eroticism.

In 1995, she started to experiment with an almost exact copy of human skin made in silicone that she used for the production of her clothing. And it is for theses silicon sculptures and clothes resembling erogenous parts of the human body, that she achieved notoriety. Also, she made her first coat with navels and human hair, which she herself wore during her frequent trips to New York and Los Angeles. Fashion -  a topic that had been present throughout her life along with consumption and the human body as a tool of seduction - has become a recurrent theme in her work.

Costantino frequently employs visually and conceptually shocking means to investigate corporeality, and the relationship between animals and humans. With a background in sculpture and having worked with her mother in a clothing factory as a child, Costantino constantly seeks to incorporate new materials and processes in her practice. She studied mechanical engineering to make her kinetic works, taxidermy for her casts of animal carcasses, and soap-making to create soap from her own body fat. In her later career, Costantino has turned to photography, exploring themes of doubling and manipulation.

In 2003, she started her project Savon de Corps, with soaps made with a part of her own fat obtained from a liposuction. She held a solo exhibit of her Boutique at Senda Gallery, in Barcelona’s Paseo de Gracia, a street where the world’s most glamorous clothing brands are based, and another exhibition with her whole work at Casal Solleric, Palma de Mallorca, both in Spain.
Cochon sur canapé (1992), her first solo show, was considered a forerunner of contemporary Latin American art.

In 1994, she was admitted into the Antorchas Foundation’s Barracas Workshop, coordinated by Suárez and Benedit and moved to Buenos Aires, where she settled down and started working. In 1998, she represented Argentina in the San Pablo biennial and then began to take part in several exhibits in museums around the world, such as those in Liverpool (1999), Tel Aviv (2002) and Zurich (2011). In 2000, she performed a solo show at Deitch Projects (New York); her Corset of Human Furriery became part of the MOMA collection. In 2004, she presented Animal Motion Planet, a series of orthopedic machines for stillborn animals, and Savon de Corps, a work that caused great impact in mass media.

Her reunion with Gabriel Valansi in 2006 lead her into photography, where she has more than 30 works in which she always takes the leading role embodying different characters of photography and other art forms. Her interest in video performance drives her creation of self-referential work Trailer (2010), her first cinematographic-like production, as well as her embodying of a historical and emblematic female character like Eva Perón in Rapsodia Inconclusa (55th Venice Biennial, 2013).

CLIO TALKS BACK: World War and Women

2014 marks the centenary of the outbreak of World War I (1914-1918).  On 28 June in Sarajevo,  the heir to the throne of the Dual Monarchy (Austria-Hungary) Franz-Ferdinand and his morganatic wife Sophie (the mother of their four children) was assassinated by a local terrorist.
            This tragic event led, within a month, because of the complex of secret diplomatic alliances between nations that fell into play, to the German Army’s swift invasion and occupation of Belgium and the northern part of France. 
            Thus began a European (then world) war that lasted for four long and brutal years, with many fighting fronts, much trench warfare, and – worst of all – horrific casualties. Airplanes became a weapon of war and poison gas was introduced. France alone lost 1.3 million men, and hundreds of thousands more were maimed for life or suffered severe psychological damage. Total war casualties are generally agreed to have topped 20 million. 
Most women in the combatant nations supported their country’s war effort, postponing their fight for the vote and other desirable reforms; victory seemed paramount. They took over men’s labor in the fields and factories, including the munitions plants.  By 1918, some 1.5 million women worked in building arms. There were a few women, however, who took a stand for peace. One of these was a French teacher and union administrator named Hélène Brion (1882-1962).
            In late 1917, Hélène Brion and several others were arrested and charged with treason; they were vilified by the mainstream press. They were tried in a military court in late March 1919. Brion was convicted, but her three-year prison sentence was suspended. 
            The unusual part of this trial was Hélène Brion’s statement of defense, in which she invoked her status as a non-citizen under French law and claimed the intrinsic links between her work for peace and her feminist commitment. She talked back to power in a military court! She speaks to the difficulty women faced in ostensible democracies where women had no say in the making of laws (French women did not obtain the vote until 1944).
            Here, in Clio’s English translation, is her statement. Her words are still worth reading and pondering in today’s troubled times.
            “I appear before this court charged with a political crime; yet I am denied all political rights.
            “Because I am a woman, I am classified de plano by my country’s laws, far inferior to all the men of France and the colonies.  In spite of the intelligence that has been officially recognized only recently, in spite of the certificates and diplomas that were granted me long ago, before the law I am not the equal of an illiterate black man from Guadeloupe or the Ivory Coast. For he can participate by means of the ballot, in directing the affairs of our common country, while I cannot. I am outside the law.

“The law should be logical and ignore my existence when it comes to punishments, just as it is ignored when it comes to rights. I protest against its lack of logic.
“I protest against the application of laws that I have neither wished for nor discussed.
“This law that I challenge reproaches me for having held opinions of a nature to undermine popular morale. I protest even more strongly and I deny it!  My discreet and nuanced propaganda has always been a constant appeal to reason, to the power of reflection, to the good sense that belongs to every human being, however small the portion.
“Moreover, I recall, for form’s sake, that my propaganda has never been directed against the national defense and has never called for peace at any price: on the contrary, I have always maintained that there was but one duty, one duty with two parts: for those at the front, to hold fast; for those at the rear, to be thoughtful.
            “I have exercised this educational action especially in a feminist manner, for I am first and foremost a feminist. All those who know me can attest to it. And it is because of my feminism that I am an enemy of war.
            “The accusation suggests that I preach pacifism under the pretext of feminism. This accusation distorts my propaganda for its own benefit. I affirm that the contrary is true, and it is easy for me to prove it.  I affirm that I have been a militant feminist for many years, well before the war; that since the war began I have simply continued; and that I have never reflected on the horrors of the present without noting that things might have been different if women had had a say in matters concerning social issues.
[. . . . .]
“I am an enemy of war because I am a feminist. War represents the triumph of brute strength, while feminism can only triumph through moral strength and intellectual values. Between the two there is total contradiction.
“I do not believe that in primitive society the strength or value of woman was inferior to that of men, but it is certain that in present-day society the possibility of war has established a totally artificial scale of values that works to women’s detriment.

Clemencia Labin and the Colorful Pulpa Chic

Pulpa Chic
Since 2001, artist Clemencia Labin (born Venezuela, 1947) has been producing a series of works called Pulpa Chic.

These objects share with pop art the flat color, artificiality, and re-contextualization of objects. The pop art Labin alludes to responds to the connection between these works and the popular culture of her native country Venezuela. In Spanish, the word "pulpa" describes the edible part of a fruit.

Pulpa Chic
From her own description, Labin’s Pulpa are soft, fleshly, and padded works often covered by expandable lycra or other fabrics. They are usually built on wooden frames, filled with polyester fiber, and partly painted with acrylic paint.

With few exceptions – such as Pintamuros the flattest of her 21st century pieces – most of Labin’s pieces occupy space and are sculptural. All of her works display a plush array of shapes, fabrics, and textures filled with something enigmatically shapely but soft. Their construction has the rigor of the Bauhaus while simultaneously displaying a casualness that celebrates improvisation. They incarnate an aesthetic which demands a narrative, one that the artist is not shy to talk about.

In 2011, Labin represented Venezuela at the Venice Biennale, and she explained how after having lived in Hamburg, Germany for over 20 years why rediscovering her home city of Maracaibo changed her art practice. On a casual visit to the neighborhood of Santa Lucia, she discovered a new palette in the bright colors of the houses' façade and interior décor.

Although that neighborhood was recognized as dangerous, she bought a house there and since 2011 has been hosting an annual art festival called Velada Santa Lucia. It is evident that the colors and patterns of her current neighborhood are reflected in her present work, albeit her worldly perspective.

Pulpa Chic

Until 1968, Labin lived and attended school in Maracaibo. After, she moved to New York where she obtained her Bachelor's degree in Arts in 1972 and later a Master's degree in Business Administration from Columbia University before moving to Germany. Throughout her career, she studied under the tutelage of Kai Sudeck, Franz E. Walther, and Sigmar Polke.

Labin’s works invite interaction and she herself interacts with the viewer as a performer. Indeed, Pulpa Nueva Mega Lucrecia (2009) puts the viewer at odds as to whether one should find shapes, or simply squeeze it or lie down on it.

Tasnim Baghdadi: Embracing the Multiple and Myriad

Tasnim Baghdadi (copyright: Lisa Emilia Photography)
German artist of Moroccan heritage, Tasnim Baghdadi is no stranger to IMOW, having previously been featured here in the Muslima exhibition, Tasnim's work reverberates with pulsating visual and symbolic energy. Whether she's accessing and re-interpreting her Moroccan roots, reiterating her agency to articulate as a Muslim woman and artist, or donning multiple style avatars in her blog, Bedouin Colors, she continually seeks to plant question marks in people's minds as they view and engage with her work.

Her Blueprint spoke to Tasnim to find out about her iridescently textured work and journey.

You dabble in multiple media: graphic design, digital illustration, and photography. What kind of an artist would you essentially describe yourself as? What drives you to produce art? 

My main motivation for producing art is the fact that art has the power of universality. It reaches out to everybody and creates a state of universal identification. When dealing with artworks, even before locating the artist´s personality and motivation [in producing them], we first and foremost find ourselves in them. Art functions like a symbolical mirror to our own subconciousness. I'm very interested in these aspects and how art is able to change perceptions of the self and the others, bringing individuals from different parts of the world with varied world views together and reminding them of their collective oneness. What I also love about producing art is that it can sometimes work like an act of violence in that the art forces the viewer to deal with a certain topic through the tool of provocation. 

Your work is particularly preoccupied with the formation and possibility of multiple identities. How would you define your cultural identity (given your Moroccan roots and currently residing in Germany)? How does it influence and permeate your work? 

I firstly perceive myself as a German artist with Moroccan roots. I was born and raised in Cologne, Germany, simultaneously imbibing the German society along with a strong Moroccan Muslim influence impacting and shaping my personality. I therefore see myself as a person who not only just comfortably resides in-between two cultures but also someone deeply connected to my parents' and grandparents' Moroccan culture, religion and ancestry. In my artworks, I always encounter aspects of both cultures embedded in them, whether consciously or not. It fascinates me to work with contrasts and my own cultural contrasts figure as a main part of nearly all my works. I think that being inbetween two different cultures nowadays is not always easy, especially when you are young and on a journey for your personal identity; however, it also equips you to appreciate multiple nuances and layers and from myriad perspectives – and that aspect I really appreciate. 

What role does gender play in your life and how do you address it through your work?

Gender is one of those aspects of life which has greatly always mattered to me. As a Muslim woman living in a Western country, I was sick of hearing - from mainly white feminists - that Islam has to free their women from oppression and patriarchy given that these aspects were part of a basic human problem that we collectively needed to resolve. There was a time when I experienced deep frustration and anger towards these elite group of feminists speaking for other women of color and I in media, books, and articles, taking away our voices and therefore, denying us agency to articulate what our individual life choices and opinions actually happened to be. Such ignorance points towards a singular truth about gender and feminism whereas the situation is actually much more complex. I saw feminism as also rooted in my Muslim identity and tradition and so I subsequently decided to communicate this fact through my art, using self-portraits and slipping into different roles, creating strong images, experimenting with gender and fashion, covering up and acting free and strong. I feel that is a realistic representation of women such as myself. I feel like the world needs to learn more about and from Muslim women who struggle with patriarchy everyday, who love their religion and spirituality, and who stand firm no matter what...thus becoming role models for all of us.

Tribal Mysticism: Judging You

In Tribal Mysticism, you present self-portraits of yourself adorned with tribal markings. Could you describe what you were striving to convey through these photographs? 

The Tribal Mysticism series was one of my very first works. The idea for it emerged after the Arab Spring revolts, particularly those which began in North Africa. I saw all these young people in the streets with their hopes and anger about their countries' respective regimes  – and that really moved me. I was drawn towards their passionate desire to lead self-determined lives, which I happened to have the privilege of leading. I was pursuing my Masters in Asian and Islamic Art History at the time and was exploring the relationship between contemporary popular art and propaganda art in communist countries such as Russia and China as well as poster art in Iran during the 1979 revolution. As I absorbed all these bold, colorful posters and the strong messages that I was analysing, I felt the need to create something similar imbued with the Arab Spring's spirit. I wanted to mix it up with other various influences which had shaped my life and use my face as an archetypical projection in a sense. I also tried to use colors in a very symbolic way, as in those of the Arab flags. My other main inspiration for the series comes from a photography series that strongly impacted me: Marc Garanger's portraits of unveiled Algerian women. When I first saw these strong Berber women with all their tattoos and innate dignity, protecting themselves from the evil eye that they perceived as seemingly emerging from the camera through the implacable looks on their faces, I felt as if they radiated an intense sense of pride during the time of French imperial oppression. I immediately felt the need to access this source of inspiration and present my interpretation of it within this series.
Tribal Meal 2
 Tribal Meal is an intriguing photo-essay which presents the interplay between patterns and food. What comment were you making through this project? 

The series came to my mind during a time in which social media and the Internet assumed the main role in providing news coverage about political conflict in the Middle East, the war in Syria dominating the headlines. Hundreds of reports and images of injured children and demonstrations, destroyed streets and military interventions were moving through my newsfeed in Facebook, Twitter and more. In the meantime, I was going to work and reading all about it while commuting or eating in the cafe. My friends and I felt desperate and powerless. It felt so strange to 'consume' all of these messages as if they were nothing more than a plate of spaghetti bolognese. It was the equivalent of fast food media, so to speak. There is a saying in German which I often thought of during that time: I don't know if I should start laughing or crying right now. In this situation marked by powerlessness, the idea for the Tribal Meal series was born, being a sequel to my first series. I decided not to work with figurative symbols and archetypes this time round; I instead used a deep rooted cultural symbol, the traditional kuffiyah and adding ketchup and a huge portion of sardonic humour to create that optical illusion.
First World Problems: Greed

Digital illustration commonly features in your work, such as First World Problems. What is it that you particularly enjoy working with this medium? You are also working on a short graphic novel, La Bedouine Obscure. Could you tell us more about that? 

Well, the First World Problem series is one of my more playful works in which I mock my own generation in a sense; I describe it as the ' music-hearing-turban-wearing-blogging-primark-shopping-depressed and overchallenged-which hashtag to use next-generation' which I see myself as part of. This series is very much inspired by my love for comics, pop art and illustration. Since I was a child, comics were the most beautiful way to escape from reality into a world, where all of us could be superheros or mystical beings. I have started to chalk out the storyline for my new graphic novel, La Bedouine Obscure; it will have autobiographical elements, since the rebellious protagonist can somehow be seen as my own alter-ego you also find in the Tribal Mysticism series. However, I plan to place the whole story and scenery in a fictional world in which La Bedouine Obscure will be having her adventures and struggles until she finds what brings her to her inner self. 

Tasnim's avatar as Mademoiselle Pouvine from her blog, Bedouin Colors
What led you to create your style blog, Bedouin Colors and how has your journey been so far, as in your experiences blogging and the feedback that you have received? 

Fashion is one of my passions apart from the visual art, comics, and graphic design. I always love to experiment with different fashion styles and find inspiration in a lot of genres and eras. To me, fashion has to do with exploration, slipping into different roles of your personality. It´s an adventure in which I tell the world my story about how I feel and think. Many people think fashion is superficial without any deeper meaning which is comlpetely wrong in my understanding of it. I think that the way we dress has a lot to say about how we want the world to view us; we form and have the power to build up a whole concept of personality through the art of fashion. I decided to share all of my experiences and experiments with the fashion world through blogging, mixing visual arts with writing and hoping in the process that I could learn a lot about myself through it. I mainly work with second hand and vintage fashion as I feel that fashion should be linked what I describe as a more responsible, sustainable way of being stylish. I can save money, be mindful of the environment, and look good while remaining true to my values.

What do you hope people carry away after looking at and engaging with your art? 

 My wish is to leave people with question marks – and the reason is because I feel questions jumpstart mental revolutions. I hope to move their perceptions into being more open minded about themselves and the people around them, starting with a moment or question in their head counter to what they usually think after seeing my work. As I often get the feedback that my art seems to bring together contrasts, I feel that my main motivation is to demonstrate that contrasts and contradictions are an inherent part of our human nature. We should embrace and transform these contradictions into positivity and also, display empathy and understanding for people who are struggling with their own personal contradictions.

Find out more about Tasnim's work here.

Credit: All images courtesy of Tasnim Baghdadi unless otherwise stated.

CLIO TALKS BACK: Congratulations to the 16th Berkshire Conference on the History of Women!

Berks Conference Website

Later this week in Toronto, Canada, Clio will join many other historians of women at the Sixteenth Berkshire Conference on the History of Women. The first Berkshire Conference took place at Douglas College, Rutgers University in 1973. The Toronto conference, the 16th of its kind, celebrates the fortieth anniversary of the “Big Berks,” which was held at Harvard University in 1974 (Yes, Clio was there, with a small baby girl in tow). Women’s history is going strong!

Thousands of historians of women and gender from all over the world will congregate at the University of Toronto on Thursday, May 22, and meet through Sunday, May 25. They will deliver papers on their current research and talk about their upcoming projects. There seems to be no end to what we can discover and have discovered about women’s past, collectively or in the singular. Women’s historians have so many stories to tell, have unearthed so much evidence that was considered non-existent or lost, have published so many books and articles and documents about women over these forty-plus years. How many of you have read even a small portion of their work? How many of you have some idea of the history of women of your own countries, not to mention that of others?

Get acquainted with the current work and the scholar-historians who are responsible for getting these stories of women past into our hands. Visit the Berkshire Conference website and check out the online program to see who’s doing what, and learn about the wonderful findings, books, films, and other women’s history activities.

Better yet, come to Toronto if you can. The Big Berks takes place only every three years. It is a grand occasion and a “feel good” experience for all. Clio hopes to see some of you there.

CLIO TALKS BACK: “Mothers, dare to be...” Words of Courage for Mothers from Cécile Brunschvicg

Credit: Archives du Féminisme (Angers, France)
Mother’s Day celebrations have become a worldwide phenomenon. Even when political and economic situations are at their worst, we rejoice in celebrating mothers (and fathers too). And we reflect on the importance of a mother’s role and responsibilities.

In honor of Mother’s Day 2014, Clio shares with readers the words of a celebrated French women’s suffrage advocate, Cécile Kahn Brunschvicg (1877-1946). The longtime president of the Union Française pour le Suffrage des Femmes and a great philanthropist, Cécile Brunschvicg courageously sustained the campaign for the vote despite myriad setbacks. In 1919, after World War I and following the first positive vote on women’s suffrage in the Chamber of Deputies (which the Senate refused to consider), Cécile Brunschvicg posed the issue in terms of national honor: "It is humiliating to think that we are Frenchwomen, daughters of the land of the Revolution, and that in the year of grace 1919 we are still reduced to demanding the 'rights of woman'."

In 1936 Cécile Brunschvicg would gain fame as one of three women appointed by Léon Blum to his Popular Front ministerial cabinet (1936-1937). The remarks below date from 1933, the very year that Hitler came to power in neighboring Germany and unleashed a series of threats that would culminate not only in war in 1939 but also in the Nazi occupation of France in 1940. Brunschvicg’s observations about differing views of "the family" remain pertinent in many parts of the world today, as does her counsel on the importance of women’s development and participation in their communities as well as in their homes.

Brunschvicg’s tribute, "Mères, osez être" appeared in La Française, 27 May 1933. Translated by Karen Offen.

 "Mothers, Dare to Be"

"Throughout the world Mother’s Day is celebrated, a touching idea that came to us from America, the great sentimental and practical country which is not merely content with recognizing the moral and social value of woman, but which, since many long years, has given her a place and an influence in its public life that increases every day.

"Some people in France are not afraid to affirm that the development of women’s role can only harm the family and they oppose what they call "the development of individualism" to the idea of the family.

"In reality we and they do not share the same understanding of the family.

"For them, the family is a small group entirely dominated by the authority of the father. In exchange for the bread he wins, he has the right to command as a master to the servant-wife and to the children, in whom he seeks more to develop blind submission than to develop their personalities.

"For us, on the contrary, the family is the union of two beings who share the same spiritual and intellectual ideal, who have decided to give life to healthy and happy children. The common household is the source of energy, the possibility to increase the radiance [rayonnement] of each by the free development of his or her own faculties.

"How is it possible not to understand that it is from the perfectioning of the individual that will give birth to the most perfect family and by what aberration can one oppose a healthy individualism to a healthy family.

"On this day, consecrated to the Mother, let us hope that all the women in France will meditate on their role in the family organization. It is easier, in truth, to submit without reflection than to be responsible, and the individualism that we seek comes with rights and responsabilities. What we cannot sanction is that arbitrary hierarchy, the pater familias who embodies the recognition of an a priori sexual superiority, a recognition that has served as the basis for an unjust Code, which denatures the relations between spouses and creates a privileged situation for the father at the mother’s expense.

"Certain men and even certain women will perhaps regret the life of the wife of earlier days, a life extinguished, which satisfied itself with a thousand little nothings of daily life. But let us dare to say that if men find there their convenience, they are not forever happy with it and, all too often, they look outside the household for a companion capable of understanding their preoccupations and their desires. 

"For the children themselves, the concept of the wife confined to the household is certainly not to be recommended. If the mother is to remain the good "minister of the interior," she should also, even in the interest of her familial mission, look outside and meditate on her responsibilities and duties. 

"Any good-hearted man [homme de Coeur] retains a tender memory of his mother for the care and tenderness with which she surrounded him; but the recognition of the best men goes to the éducatrice, to her who inspired in him that which is most profound and most noble. To raise up the soul of her children, the mother must, first of all, elevate her own; in order to help [children] understand life and guide them, she must instruct herself.

"Women, do not sacrifice your personal growth to your children and your husbands; it would be in vain. They will be the first victims. For your happiness, and for the happiness of those you love, we remind you of the counsel of Julie Siegfried, who was an admirable spouse and the best of mothers: 'Women, do not remain passive; mothers, dare to be!'"

Today, women around the world are honored on Mother's Day. This year France celebrates la Fête des Mères on 25 May. For more Mother’s Day goodness, explore our online exhibition MAMA: Motherhood Around the Globe, send your mother an e-card from us, or share your favorite Mother’s Day quotes.

Manal al Dowayan: Speaking the Individual and Collective Voice

I Am A Saudi Citizen, silver gelatin print (2007)
Saudi Arabian conceptual artist, Manal al Dowayan works with photography and installation to present both personal and larger narratives; whether exploring the Saudi women's experience or abstracting personal stories, her photography and installations powerfully impact the viewers, inviting them to directly access the heart of her works and contemplate their essence. Having been included in numerous international exhibitions and participated in several residences, she communicates a multi-nuanced collective voice through her singular artistic one, which is embedded in her layered photographic series or enquiring, engaging interactive works. 

 Her Blueprint spoke to Manal to find out more about her journey.

What drew you to art in the first place? What is it that continues to compel you to create?

Well, I am not a writer. I am not a poet. I cannot compose music. I also do not paint. I found myself in the medium of photography and later on, in installation art that interacted with people and spaces. 
Landscape of the Mind, mixed media on paper (2009)
How do you go about conceptualizing a project? What do you mine inspiration from: an anecdote, a dream, a conversation? Or is it a byproduct of an issue/concern that you've been feeling strongly about and meditating upon over the years and which finds its release in the form of the project? 

The art I produce is usually a direct reflection of my life and the ups and downs that exist within it. So while you may find that my main focus is the Saudi women’s experience, some collections such as Landscapes of the Mind and And We Had No Shared Dreams see me exploring more personal subjects. The basis of my works is black and white photography but I recently have begun to introduce more layers to the photograph and the ideas behind it. These layers come in different forms such as silkscreen prints, collage, spray paint, and neon and LED lights. 

Esmi: My Name, Mixed Media Large Scale Installation (2012)
You have invited women to actively participate and engage with your projects such as Esmi-My Name. How would you define their contribution to them? What do they make of it? 

Creating platforms for expression is an exercise that I have explored in several of my projects. It is intensely rewarding to see a large gathering of women of different ages and backgrounds coming together for the purpose of artistic expression and making a collective social statement using culture as their medium of exchange. My participatory art projects have evolved organically from early days when I used to photograph my friends; this process later became the foundation for collective projects in which I invited hundreds of women to collaborate with me. In the participatory art works, Suspended Together and Esmi (My Name) I was searching for the group voice within my community while creating a platform for women to voice their opinion alongside my own. I have always found strength in the collective voice. The participants were also using social media to proudly share their participation, eventually encouraging women from around the world to virtually participate. I was energized by having a group of individuals interact with the artwork and contribute to the concept behind the work through their participation. 

During the Esmi (My Name) project, many participants stayed on in the workshop room until we had turned off the lights and were closing the doors as they wanted the experience to last for as long as possible. The energy in these gatherings was profound and is very difficult to put into words. 

Tree of Guardians (2013)
Moving to specific projects, could you please elaborate about the story behind Tree of Guardians?

My constant questioning of the state of disappearance led me to its counterbalance: the necessary act of preservation. In my previous works, I have explored the issues of preservation of a woman’s name (Esmi), incursions and limitation on the autonomy she traditionally enjoyed (Suspended Together), and the juxtaposition of her conventional representation in Arab society and the reality of her current professional identity and personal potential (I Am). In its fullest sense, however, the act of preservation must transcend the identity of the single, identifiable individual and encompass previous generations of unnamed and sometimes forgotten women that serve as the cultural and social roots for the hopes, dreams and aspirations of today’s women. Therefore, this sculptural installation is both a marker of the individual women that are named on the leaves and captured in the oral histories and a celebration of the many generations of unnamed women who served as the protectors and messengers of authenticity. Suspended Together is a powerful installation that gives the impression of movement and freedom. However, a closer look at the 200 doves allows the viewer to realize that the doves are actually frozen and suspended with no hope of flight. If you examine it even more minutely, it shows that each dove carries on its body a permission document that allows a Saudi woman to travel. Notwithstanding their circumstances, all Saudi women are required to have this document, issued by their appointed male guardian. 

How did you migrate into installation from photography? What was the experience of working on this installation and its overall impact?

Suspended Together is a large installation that was a culmination of multiple years working on the same subject. The dove made its first appearance in my artwork in 2009’s Landscapes of the Mind. Later, I captured them in flight around pieces made for And We Had No Shared Dreams collection in 2010. In Edge of Arabia: TERMINAL I, launched a three-dimensional dove. In all of these artworks, the doves symbolize the issue of movement and imposed guardianship on women in Saudi Arabia. All women in my country need a permission document to be issued by an appointed guardian when she needs to travel so I located this document upon the body of the doves. I asked many leading women from Saudi Arabia (scientists, educators, engineers, and artists) to donate their permission document to this project and the result was a flock of doves that appear to be in-flight but in reality they were suspended and not moving. This installation was a new experience for me and allowed me to explore a new, alternative way of expressing myself. Although the photograph remains the basis of my work, I enjoy experimenting with interesting mediums and techniques and enlarging the scope of my creative expression through installation. The State of Disappearance juxtaposes the ideas of preservation/disappearance and representation of Saudi women. 
Unheard Sounds, archival photo paper on dibond with plexiglass lettering (2013)
When you make statements about gender through your projects, do you feel that you are radically pushing the envelope? What has been the response to your art in Saudi Arabia, as in terms of general feedback and more specifically,  gendered responses? 

Generally speaking, I don't observe or wait for the viewer's response. I start a conversation with my artwork and then walk out of the room, so to speak. 

The notion of documenting the past and also, being mindful of appreciating how the past was constructed is obviously very important to you, as we can see in projects such as If I Forget You, Don't Forget Me. What significance does the project hold both in terms of a personal and larger national narrative? 

The project was dedicated to the documentation of my late father's memory through the collective memory of his peers, both men and women. The project therefore holds huge emotional and sentimental significance to me. It was a very personal journey and the only link to the national narrative was that my father's generation was finally documented. 

Find out more about Manal al Dowayan's work here.

Images courtesy Manal al Dowayan and Cuadro Fine Art Gallery.