Her Blueprint is now archived

As of September 2015, we will no longer be adding posts to Her Blueprint. Since the blog began in 2009, we have included nearly 500 posts from women writers, thinkers, and artists around the globe on women's arts, culture, and current events, reaching more than 300,000 people. We thank you for your support!

For more information on the Global Fund for Women's current campaigns, programs, and activities, please visit www.globalfundforwomen.org.

CLIO TALKS BACK: What’s the Matter with Reckoning Descent Through the Mothers?

The well-educated Englishman known as James de Laurence (whose real name was James Henry Lawrence, 1773-1841) had the bright idea in the early 1830s of proposing that descent and succession be credited to the mother’s side – what he called “umbilical descent”. Long an advocate of women’s rights, Laurence published a small pamphlet in Paris (1831) called Les enfants de Dieu, which he then published in English as The Children of God (1833).

The pamphlet opened with this drawing, entitled “Descente ombilicale des Enfans de Dieu,” or “Navel string Descent of the Children of God.”

Laurence explained the drawing in the following words:
“The umbilical Table shews what would have been the descent of mankind but for the indiscretion of Eve. Eve is painted above with her children united to her body by their navel strings: the sons upright, because they never lie in; the daughters reclining, to produce other children. 
In every son, the navel string ceases, and consequently there is no continuation of his body; but from the daughters descend other sons who die out, and daughters who produce other children in their time. 
Several females, however, are represented childless, and two are departing with their issue to people other parts of the globe. 
The navel string being cut, every individual is as it were an island; could the navel strings have remained uncut, the whole race would form a continent, and every indivieual have his place like a horse harnessed in a team, or a soldier in battle array. 
By the umbilical string, every individual might trace his descent through a line of mothers to mother Eve.” 
Calling this new understanding of descent “Tokology,” Laurence insisted that Genealogy understood as lineage through the fathers (as presented in the Bible’s Book of Genesis, Chapter 3: “Genealogy of the Patriarchs”) and claimed to be the only possible understanding, was a mere “pretension.” Paternity was problematic, he asserted; only maternity could be documented. “A mother is the editor of the child – she alone can know who is the author. The navel string is the stalk that unites the fruit to the tree. How vain are the researches of the herald that are conducted by any other clue.” Clearly, Laurence was thinking against the grain by questioning customary “truth.”

With one dramatic claim, Lawrence challenged the preconceived, male-centered knowledge of his day by arguing for descent through the mothers. For most, this was a shockingly new way of thinking and it represented a big step forward in elevating the status of nineteenth-century European women.

Clio finds Laurence’s proposal most intriguing – “good to think with” – precisely because it puts women back into human history, at its very center. In fact, early feminists found his challenge to conventional wisdom very stimulating; they influenced the Saint-Simonian women of 1830s France among others throughout the following century.

 What do you think of Laurence’s Tokology? Why Not Umbilical Descent?

Source: James de Laurence, The Children of God, or the Religion of Jesus Reconciled with Philosophy, written originally in French (London, 1833).

The Right to Love and the Magna Carta

The White House on June 26, 2015, Washington, DC.  Photo credit: Ted Eytan.

The United States Supreme Court slip opinion
of Obergefell v. Hodges, 576 U.S. _ (2015).
For the United States, Friday, June 26, 2015 will go down in the history books. In a 5-4 decision, the United States Supreme Court held that the Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution requires states to license marriages between two people of the same sex and to recognize such marriages licensed in other states. I distinctly remember two months earlier, on April 28, when the Court heard oral arguments in the case.  On that day, all I felt was trepidation. I could not imagine being a citizen of a country that denied such a basic right.

The morning of June 26 was bright and sunny. I had not set my alarm so did not wake up to National Public Radio, like most weekday mornings. I was enjoying the quiet. After breakfast, however, I logged onto Facebook and KA-BOOM!

"[T]he right to marry is a fundamental right inherent in the liberty of the person, and under the Due Process and Equal Protection Clauses of the Fourteenth Amendment couples of the same sex may not be deprived of that right and that liberty."

That morning, President Obama gave one of the most moving speeches of his presidency, referring to the Court's decision as "justice that arrives like a thunderbolt." (You can watch his speech to the right.)

As so many around the world expressed, #LoveWins! With a strike of the pen (or these days, hitting of the [enter] key), the United States joined the club of 20 countries that recognize the right of same-sex couples to marry, most recently including Ireland.1 Those countries are Argentina, Belgium, Brazil, Canada, Denmark, Finland, France, Great Britain, Iceland, Ireland, Luxembourg, Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Portugal, South Africa, Spain, Sweden, Uruguay, and certain states of Mexico also protect same-sex marriage.

For me, as a lawyer advocating for rights of the poorest, the Court's decision also is a win for the concept of "liberty," coming 800 years after another event in the history books: the June 19, 1215 sealing of the Magna Carta.

The Magna Carta, once a simple agreement between an English King and his 40 barons to avoid civil war, is a charter of liberties that the King guaranteed, subjecting the King and England's future sovereigns to the rule of law. It is now the seminal document of liberty. Among other rights, it guarantees:

"[T]o no one will We 
deny or delay, right or justice."

The Magna Carta. 

The Magna Carta inspired the American Declaration of Independence (1776) and influenced the drafting of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948).  Its principles are arguably the West's most significant global export.

In its time, the Magna Carta guaranteed rights for the male elite. While I too celebrate the constitutional recognition of the right to marry whom we love -- to the point of years, the 800-year anniversary of the Magna Carta is a stark reminder to me of how far we still have to go as a global community.

1 On May 22, 2015, the people of the oh-so Catholic country of Ireland voted to amend their Constitution to extend the civil right to marry to same-sex couples -- the first country to do so by popular vote.  (In contrast, the people of 17 of the 50 American states had denied such a right by ballot.)

CLIO TALKS BACK: May Wright Sewall organizes the International Conference of Women Workers to Promote Permanent Peace, 1915, in San Francisco, California

The International Conference of Women Workers to Promote Permanent Peace
A second women’s peace conference opened in San Francisco during the Pan-Pacific International Exposition in San Francisco. This exposition had been planned with the intention of announcing to the world San Francisco’s recovery from the devastating earthquake of 1906, and in May 1914 the President of the upcoming exposition, the Hon. Charles C. Moore, had personally recruited May Wright Sewall (1844-1920) to organize a conference of “women workers” (a term that included paid workers, educators, and other unpaid workers such as philanthropists and reformers).

May Wright Sewall, from Indiana, was internationally-known as a founder and past president of both the National Council of Women of the United States and of the International Council of Women (ICW, 1899-1904), and had long engaged in work for peace. For a decade she had chaired the Peace Section of the ICW. With the outbreak of war in Europe in August 1914, Sewall turned the focus of the conference toward consideration of peace. In the conclusion to her call to conference, Sewall wrote: “War is out of harmony with all the agencies of modern Civilization. War destroys Civilization – War denies the Fatherhood of God and the Brotherhood of Man, those two basic principles out of which all that we most value in modern life has been developed.”

Collective Trauma and Creativity: Pregnant with Possibility

In Bujumbura, Burundi, a young man protests Burundian
President Nkurunziza's run for a third presidential term.
Copyright Reuters/Jean Pierre Aime Harerimana
Once again, a small African country has erupted in violence. This time in Burundi, mainly young men are in the streets, protesting the president's run for a third, five-year term, despite the two-term constitutional limit. The government has banned the protests, calling the protesters "terrorists." So far, 12 people have been killed, according to protesters, although the government claims only six people have died. Last week's constitutional court decision, ruling the president's third term as constitutional, was met with cynicism, as it is widely believed that the Constitutional Court is under the thumb of the president. Four of the seven court judges, including the Vice President of that court, have fled the country. 

In Minneapolis, about 1,500 people marched in support of
the people of Baltimore. Copyright Fibonacci Blue. 
At the same time in Baltimore, Maryland, another American community erupted in response to the death of yet another young black man at the hands of the police. Peaceful protests as well as property destruction, arson, and looting ensued. These incidents prompted a public debate about the role of violence in civil disobedience, overlaid with racial overtones.

Thousands of miles away from both, I watched, listened, and grieved, wishing that there was something I could do. And then I remembered a recent conversation I had with Dr. Eberhard Riedel, a psychoanalyst and photographer. Combining his unique sets of skills, Dr. Eberhard founded Cameras without Borders: Photography for Healing and Peace to address issues of "collective trauma" in communities in the Democratic Republic of Congo, among other countries. He is particularly concerned with the "intergenerational transmission of collective trauma," which if unchecked, "fuels ever-more destructive cycles of violence."

According to Dr. Riedel, "A traumatized psyche is unable to reflect or imagine and thus experiences itself as isolated from the rest of humanity." Dr. Riedel's work is intimately connected with his own history. He was born in Germany in 1939: "I grew up with an awareness of the terror of Nazi death camps and the chaos of war."    

Through photography, Dr. Riedel's works with communities to reawaken their curiosity (which he distinguishes from hope). Photography for Healing and Peace uses participatory photography methods as part of a holistic approach to healing. As Dr. Riedel explains, in one of his workshops, "a woman who survived sexual violence exclaimed, 'The picture in the camera is like a pregnancy,' and thereby transcended the limitations of her shattered mind. Then imaginatively thinking about what might be gestating in the camera, she rekindled the struggle of giving birth to her future."

A workshop participant of Photography for Healing and Peace shares, "The picture in the camera is like a pregnancy." 
Copyright Eberhard Riedel.

Meanwhile, another public dialogue is underway among some of the largest foundations committed to addressing the world’s most intractable problems: Ford Foundation, Rockefeller Foundation, and Skoll Foundation.  The topic?  The power of the arts and storytelling.  

Ford Foundation President Darren Walker recently expounded on the role of the arts to him personally -- and to the Ford Foundation -- in an essay called, On the Art of Change (adapted from his April 17, 2015 speech at the Skoll World Forum). He begins: "For as long as I can remember, the arts have imbued energy and meaning into my life. . .  In many ways, because of the arts, my economic situation never limited my expectations of myself. The arts broadened my horizons -- my very sense of the possible."

He continues, "I am a fervent believer in the transformational, uplifting power of artistic expression. In fact, I am a product of it."  But, "Our culture has bought into the idea that if something cannot be measured, then it somehow does not matter." Rejecting that paradigm, Walker announced that, for the next year, the Ford Foundation "is exploring how the arts and creativity intersect with, interact with and and inspire all of our work for social change."

Walker concludes:   
Ford Foundation President Darren Walker speaking
at the Global Civil Society Leaders breakfast in September
2014. Copyright Open Government Partnership.
"Twenty some months into my presidency at the Ford Foundation, I hear friends and colleagues asking, "Where does the foundation stand on arts and culture today?    
My answer is that, for us, they remain right where they belong -- at the heart of everything we think about, invest in and and stand for.  
Simply put, less art leads to more inequality. More inequality leads to less justice. And this is not something with which any of us should be comfortable."
For the Rockefeller Foundation, "storytelling is a compelling tool for inspiring action and change, for influencing thought leaders and decisionmakers." Rockefeller recognizes the importance of digital technology and storytelling for impact, supporting the beta version of Hatch, a suite of storytelling tools and a community to help "leverage storytelling to drive social impact and improve the lives of the poor and vulnerable around the world." 

And for the Skoll Foundation, storytelling is called out as one of its key approaches, "We believe in the power of storytelling both to make vivid the world's most pressing world's problems and to articulate specific solutions with potential for large-scale impact." Its most recent Skoll World Forum on Social Entrepreneurship hosted at least two sessions on the arts: Storytelling: The Engine of History and How to Use Storytelling to Change Culture, as well as supporting and screening films.

"Art" as a shadow on a concrete floor.
Copyright Deborah Espinosa.
As an artist and advocate for social justice, I am ecstatic, thrilled, over the moon about these foundations' attention to and support for the arts -- and artists -- as a means to spark and illuminate social change.  

Lest we forget, however, we are all artists: the young men in the streets of Baltimore and Bujumbura. And so are the women who participate in workshops by Photography for Healing and PeacePhotovoice and Lensational, and InsightShare, among others, international NGOs that put cameras in the hands of the poorest, the most marginalized, and the most traumatized to enable them tell their own stories.

So while storytelling is no doubt an incredible tool for donors and NGOs to relate stories of impact, it also offers a path to regaining curiosity and to healing.

Mr. Walker, I hope that as part of the Ford Foundation's exploration of the arts to realize its mission, you will consider participatory arts programs so that communities in Burundi and Baltimore, for example, can begin to heal from collective trauma and, like you, have their own sense of the possible.  

CLIO TALKS BACK: The Women’s Peace Congress at The Hague

Women convene at the Hague in 1915
One hundred years ago this month (April 1915), in the midst of a major war on the European continent, a contingent of women associated with the International Woman Suffrage Alliance (IWSA) convened a congress in the Netherlands to discuss the prospects for peace. The previous fall, the IWSA had been forced to cancel its next congress, scheduled for Berlin, because of the outbreak of war. The initiative to meet in the spring came from women such as the pioneer Dutch physician Dr. Aletta Jacobs, who were concerned that the world’s women had no voice in matters of war – or peace.

The International Congress of Women, which met from the 28th of April through May 1st, 1915 in the The Hague, the capitol city of the Netherlands, made front-page news in the world’s newspapers. The American peace activist Jane Addams presided at the congress, which was attended by some 1500 women. Many others who had planned to come (especially from England) were blocked when the Allies “closed” the North Sea.

The organizing committee had decided, in the interests of fruitful discussion, to place “off limits” three burning issues concerning the war itself. These issues were (1) the causes of the war; (2) the manner in which it was being conducted; and (3) the responsibilities incumbent on the belligerent parties. It was clear enough that the German army had first invaded Belgium, a neutral country, and then France, and had occupied considerable territories in both; its soldiers had destroyed buildings and cultural property (including the famous library in Louvain), they had raped, pillaged, and plundered wherever they went – such misbehavior fostered immense public outrage once it was known (although the German women claimed to know nothing of this, probably due to heavy censorship of war news in Germany). So questions about the causes and consequences of the war were very controversial and evoked extremely emotional responses.

The Power of Voice, Redux, on International Women's Day

US congresswoman Jeanette Rankin speaks
from the headquarters of the National American
Women Suffrage Association, 1917. Three years
later, American women had the right to vote.
Photo: Library of Congress.
Today celebrates International Women’s Day, a 104-year old tradition, honoring women’s social, economic, and political achievements and calling for greater equality and recognition of women’s rights. Its history dates back to the suffragette movement in the United States, when women took to the podiums and the streets, demanding the right to vote.    

You may remember that my first post for Her Blueprint, The Power of Voice, shared my experience introducing a public speaking training, grounded in the right to self-expression, to a group of Maasai and Kalenjin women in Kenya — and the transformative effect such training had on them and their community.  I'm aware of few development organizations that train rural women in public speaking. So in my own small way, I advocate for public speaking training for rural women in developing countries every chance I get.

Imagine my excitement, while recently conducting a gender analysis in Malawi,  when I happened upon a tool, the Women's Empowerment in Agriculture Index, which, among other factors, measures women’s comfort in public speaking as a key contributor to women's empowerment.

Roda from Narok County, Kenya practices her public speaking skills.
Photo: Landesa/Deborah Espinosa
Launched by the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI), the Oxford Poverty and Human Development Initiative, and USAID's Feed the Future Initiative, the Women’s Empowerment in Agriculture Index is the first standardized tool to comprehensively measure women’s empowerment and inclusion in agriculture.  

Among other constraints, women’s comfort in public speaking is measured along with group membership under the “Community Leadership” domain. “Group membership is an important source of social capital, and this indicator measures whether a woman is a member of at least one group out of a wide range of social and economic organizations.”1 High rates of disempowerment in the Community Leadership domain may indicate social and cultural norms that discourage participation in activities outside the home.2

Among the countries included in the Index Baseline Report, discomfort in public speaking was among the top three greatest contributors to women’s disempowerment in 3 out of 13 countries: Bangladesh, Malawi, and Zambia. For all 13 countries, constraints in the Community Leadership domain, generally, comprise from 14% (Liberia) to 37% (Nepal) of all constraints contributing to women's disempowerment.    

Given the significant other domains that the WEAI measures, i.e., production decision-making, access to productive resources, control over use of income, and time allocation, I am excited that I now have support for asserting the importance of women's leadership in communities, including group membership and feeling comfortable speaking in public to women's empowerment.

So for all of you international development practitioners out there, how do we honor this year's International Women's Day theme of "Make it Happen?" How does your program or project support women in gaining confidence to speak in public? To share their stories? To advocate for their rights?  
There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.
                                                         ~ Maya Angelou

1  Measuring Progress Toward Empowerment: Women’s Empowerment in Agriculture Index: Baseline Report (2012).
2  Id.

Chiharu Shiota: Drawing Memories in the Air

Trace of Memory, The Mattress Factory, 2013 (Photo: Priyanka Sacheti)

I remember being thoroughly enchanted the first time I encountered Japanese installation and performance artist, Chiharu Shiota's work, Trace of Memory at The Mattress Factory, a contemporary art museum in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania in the United States. Utilising both the spatial landscape of an abandoned 19th century row house as well as specific objects such as a wedding dress, hospital bed, and a pile of suitcases, Shiota enmeshed it all in intricate black wool-thread creations. Everything was visible and yet, not; it was not unlike cobwebs studding the dusty corners of an abandoned house, simultaneously representing decay and life. In a sense, Shiota's work resurrects an otherwise dead house, creating a physically tangible web of narratives through the confluence of thread, space, and air. Perhaps, enchanted was also an appropriate word to describe my engagement with her work, for there was a fairy-tale, other-worldly quality to her work that I had never previously witnessed or experienced elsewhere. Researching further and talking with the artist herself, I discovered that the wool-thread is a signature motif of her work and through which she quite literally binds memories, past, people, and objects.

Born in Osaka, Japan, Chiharu moved to Berlin, Germany in 1997, where she studied with Marina Abramovic and Rebecca Horn, forerunners of the performance art movement; she has exhibited all over the world, presenting her installation art in both solo and group exhibitions.

What does installation art specifically mean to her? “I love empty spaces; the minute I come across one such as an abandoned building or an empty exhibition space, I feel as if my body and spirit transcend a certain dimension - and I can then start from scratch,” Chiharu says, presenting the abandoned or blank exhibition space as one void of references or associations and which she is subsequently free to re-interpret and realise her imagined worlds in. What particularly excites her about installation art is the immediacy of communication and engagement with the viewer. “[The viewers] can immediately feel as to what I am trying to show...unlike a painting or sculpture where you may have to engage with it for quite a while before distilling its meaning,” she opines.

While her work is largely rooted in the soil of her personal memories and concerned with theme of remembering and oblivion, it also sprouts and entwines itself with larger collective memories as well; one glimpses it in installations such as Dialogue from DNA in Krakow, Poland and which was subsequently recreated in Germany and Japan. Currently living and working in Germany, Chiharu reminisces about how it is linked to the time she returned to Japan three years after moving to Germany. "I wore my old shoes and experienced a curious situation; they didn't fit me any more even though they were the same size. This sense of dislocation persisted even when I was interacting with my parents and old friends. Nothing specifically had changed - and yet, I felt differently about them," she says.

The scenario made her start thinking about the gulf between the idealised memories when one is away from the home and yearning to return to it -- and actually being in home itself. "I began to interrogate the idea of missing and memories and I fused it with the idea of old shoes and the memories associated with them," she says, elaborating that the installation consisted of 400 disused shoes that people had donated along with notes containing specific memories associated with the shoe. Looking at the installation (below), it is almost as if the threads anchor the memories in form of the shoes in place, lest they vanish into nothingness and being unremembered.

Chiharu Shiota, Dialogue from DNA, (2004) Manggha, Centre of Japanese Art and Technology, Krakow, Poland, Shoes, Thread Photograph: Sunhi Mang

Chiharu has often remarked that working with thread is a bit like drawing in air. “When I began working as a painter, I felt that two-dimensional drawings were limiting me. I needed more space so I started working on installations and using thread in order to achieve a three dimensional drawing, so to speak. The threads since then have been a fundamental aspect of my work,” she says. These threads represent multiple meanings in her diverse output of work, whether of connections or ensnarement or opacity.

Apart from the threads embroidering the surface of Chiharu's installation spaces, they are also home to objects which Chiharu frequently and quite literally weaves into her works; these objects are plucked from the quotidian, facilitating both the unspooling of a narrative while crucially being a narrative in themselves. They also signify absences, absences which become the works' fundamental bedrock. "Specific objects inspire me when I experience a personal association or link with them as I did when putting on my old shoes. Abandoned objects are laden with even more memories and associations," she mentions, suggesting that this surplus of memories adds further narrative texture to her work. "The object itself has a meaning, being a signifier and then my role would be to weave its memories and meaning together using the threads."

Chiharu Shiota, During Sleep, (2004), Saint-Marie-Madeleine, Lille, France, Thread, Beds, Performers
Photographer: Sunhi Mang

While objects frequently figure as the central components of her installation works, her works are also distinctively body-oriented, as evidenced in works such as During Sleep, which features real-life women asleep on hospital beds and the space enshrouded in her customary fog of thread, bringing to forth gendered associations with the fairy-tale Sleeping Beauty.

CLIO TALKS BACK: Maria Vérone on the “Modernization” of Islam

Maria Vérone
Several days ago, Clio came across an intriguing text about the “modernization” of Islam, written by a French woman lawyer and published by the International Council of Women. The author, Maria Vérone, a dedicated feminist, was one of the first French women to be admitted to the French bar; she had worked as a teacher and a dancer before studying law.  She presided over the Ligue Française pour le Droit des Femmes [French League for Women’s Rights] for many years. By the early 1930s she had been tapped to head the pathbreaking Women’s Consultative Committee on Nationality, appointed by the League of Nations, and she continued to be active in international legal circles, engaged with studying, comparing – and attempting to advance – the status of women in the law both in France and worldwide.

Here is what she wrote about the status of women in Islam.

“After long centuries of lethargy, Islam is awakening from its slumber. By a sort of return to primitive religion, Musulmen, as pious as they are broadminded, may now be found who declare, text in hand, that the Prophet never intended to place women in a state of servitude. The Veil, they say, is not obligatory; instruction should be given to girls as well as to boys; polygamy is permitted but not enforced; on the contrary, men are forbidden to abuse their rights. The Egyptian (Islamic) Civil Code has been framed in this spirit, recognising that woman, married or single, has full civil capacity; in this spirit, too, Musulman Tribunals have recently given certain judgments, suing a man for damages towards his ex-wife, whom he repudiated soon after the marriage, she having been compelled to leave the occupation which she followed as a single woman.

“In Iran, in Syria, in Irak, in Palestine, all the Musulmen inhabiting these parts of Asia have seen the rise of Feminist Associations; Congresses have been held in the more important cities, where the Delegates appeared unveiled before high authorities, where programmes of new demands have been drawn up, and certain reforms are already on the way to accomplishment. In Europe, the young King of Albania, believing that the emancipation of women is not a sign of revolution or of irreligion, has begun by forbidding the use of the Veil, as a start, greater changes may follow. In Northern Africa, pecuniary difficulties, stronger than the most ancient custom, are doing away with polygamy. Men, if not because of sentiment, at least in their own interest, marry only one woman, and this completely changes the moral position of the family; should an era of prosperity follow, it may be that a generation brought up in utterly different surroundings than those of its ancestors, may not desire to return to ancient customs.  So, by good will or perforce, the world is changing."

Do you know, Clio asks, when these words were written and published?  Can anybody guess?

Would any of you imagine that it dates from 1937 – well over 75 years ago?

Source: Maria Verone, “The Evolution of the Family throughout the World,” International Council of Women: Bulletin, 16:3 (November 1937),18-19.

The Year of Living Out Loud

As 2014 shuffles off its mortal coil, I want to amplify the many voices of 2014 that inspire me to live out loud in 2015. What these voices all have in common is that they are no longer living quietly, accepting the status quo. Instead, they expose their truth, expressing rage, conviction, joy, authenticity, and hope. 

"I Can't Believe I Still Have to Protest This . . . "   

Protester in Washington, DC. #blacklivesmatter
Photo: Ben James.
Yes, 2014 was the year Americans came out to protest police killings of black men. And to protest grand juries not indicting the white police officers. Even when it is filmed. And in Dublin, Ireland, people protested the fact that Irish women still have no access to abortion services.  

Photo: Sharon Davis.

In New York City, protesters demanded the release of
200 Nigerian girls kidnapped from their school.
Photo: Michael Fleshman.

And people around the world took to the streets to demand the return of 200 Nigerian girls, who Boko Haram kidnapped from school.

Photo: Malik ML Williams

A Photograph. 

In August of 2014, Lynsey Adarrio photographed 16-year old Yasmin Ritaj with her daughter in her arms in a refugee camp in Jordan. She had just left her abusive husband, while pregnant, to return to her family. The photograph was included in 2014 The Year in Pictures, a compilation of the best single images of the year. 

Project 562.

A young patron of the Tacoma Art Museum
pauses to contemplate Project 562. Photo: Deborah Espinosa.
Project 562 is the brainchild of photographer Matika Wilbur.  Thru Project 562, Wilbur is documenting all 562 federally recognized tribes in the United States (which are now numbered at 566). Wilbur, a Native American woman of the Swinomish and Tulalip Tribes in Washington State, explains, "My goal is to represent native people from every tribe. By exposing the astonishing variety of the Indian presence and reality at this juncture, we will build cultural bridges, abandon stereotypes, and renew and inspire our national legacy." She further explains her work in this video.

In 2014, I had the privilege of viewing Wilbur's work at the Tacoma Art Museum. The Project combines compelling portraits with oral narratives -- some in native languages -- about all aspects of their lives. Project 562 is a true contribution to our understanding of Native Americans.

Italian Boys and Violence against Girls.

When asked why he refuses to slap a girl, a young
Italian boy explains. Photo: Fanpage.it.
"Slap Her," a Fanpage.it video is making the rounds on Facebook and it blew me away. Italian boys between the ages of 7 and 11 are asked a series of questions, including "What do you want to be when you grow up? (In case you are interested: firefighter, soccer player, baker, pizza maker, and a police man.) And they are introduced to Martina, a girl. What follows is touching and makes you wonder what happens as Italian boys grow up. 

A compilation of data on the prevalence of violence against women, as of March 2011 by UN Women, found that 31.9% of Italian women experience physical or sexual violence in their lifetime. That figure is just a few percentage points lower than the 35.4% of Indian women who experience the same.    

In January 2014, an Italian court ruled that acts of brutal violence against one's wife and children are not considered family abuse if such acts do not happen on a regular basis.

The Comic Book Priya's Shakti.

Cover of comic book, Priya's Shakti.
The December 16, 2012 fatal gang rape of a 23-year old woman on a moving bus in New Delhi shocked the world.  Two years later, a news article recounts the limited progress made in India to prevent more atrocities, including passage of an anti-rape law and a prohibition on the retail sale of acid to deter attacks on women. The article further notes a recent study published in the Hindustan Times that found that 91% of women between the ages of 13 and 55 said that New Delhi is no safer two years later, and 97% had continued to experience some form of sexual harassment.

And along comes the comic book, Priya's Shakti, created by Ram Devineni. Priya is a super hero/ gang rape survivor, who conquers her attackers on the back of a tiger with the help of Parvati, the goddess of love and devotion.  

Need I say more? It's a must read (and available for free)! And there's an app for that!

May your 2015 be filled with peace and joy, love and light. Loudly.

The House with the Mint-Green Walls

[Editor's Note: After a few nomadic months, Priyanka has settled in New Delhi. Here she shares her feelings on the way art has inspired her own sense of being home. She will resume her regular column with Her Blueprint in mid-January.]

The first thing that I saw when we walked into the apartment was its mint green walls. 

We had just arrived in New Delhi two days ago. Since June, we had moved from Pittsburgh, traveled across the United States, and divided time between Bombay, Bangalore, and Rajasthan before finally making up our mind to come to India’s capital city. I was both utterly exhausted of being a nomad for the past many months and apprehensive about calling Delhi home. Actually, more precisely, calling India home. 

Apart from annual holidays to the homeland while growing up in Oman, I had never previously lived in India before. I was becoming increasingly disconnected to the idea of calling it home over the years. In fact, the label itself was becoming a complex abstraction for me. Was the home in homeland actually home? What was home anyway? I could worry about the semantics of home later though. Right now, I wanted a house: a nice, comfortable house, where I could anchor myself and start fleshing it into my space again.

 I fell sick hours after landing in Delhi. On our first night, we went to a mall where there was an indie rock concert going on in a huge open-air court. I remember sitting on the edge of a white marble planter, simultaneously listening to the crowd sing along to the music and feeling a dreaded itchiness invade my throat. Every time I had previously visited Delhi, its notorious dust and pollution had not been my friend. The following morning, I woke up to find that the itch had snowballed into a cold: my eyes watered continuously, my nose was on fire, and I had little desire to do anything but remain under the covers for the next day. 

 I couldn’t, of course. I had a house to find.

 Our apartment was the second one that the real-estate agent showed us in what would be a long succession of potential homes. Seeing the green walls after a day of battling a burgeoning cold, consuming cold, dessicated sandwiches, and dodging dusty, traffic-clogged roads was like stumbling head-first into an oasis. I wanted to camp out on the sofa itself, refusing to budge further. Afterwards, once we were done with visiting the other apartments (good, terrible, and ugly), the only one that remained with me was the green wall apartment. In the morning light, it would be mint-green, I thought, by dusk, it would assume the shade of pistachio ice-cream. I like the green wall apartment, I told my husband at dinner that night, as we listened to three college-age musicians sing Bob Dylan, let’s take that one. 


We arrived in the apartment. My cold became a fever — and I spent the first week in our new house, ensconced in the bedroom, either staring at the ceiling or the windows bracketing me. On one side, the shadow of a massive peepal tree and its spreading, embrace-like branches and numerous leaves dutifully dappled the balcony while the other tree — whose name I still do not know — was framed within the window, like a minimal black and white photograph. During the day, their leaf shadows stenciled and overlapped one another upon the green walls, the walls fluid canvases. The leaf-shadow dance lulled me into sleep; the green soothed and calmed me. 

The house swiftly became a welcome sanctuary after all those migratory, mobile months. 


We are still in the process of turning our house into a home. In fact, we are still befriending the city, understanding its costume, its dialect, when it sleeps, when it wakes up, the art of razoring through its traffic jams. We potter about in the house, migrating from one room to another, wondering where the guest room should be, what color flowers will look good against the mint. 

A river of traffic flows behind our house. We hear people’s conversations, dogs fighting, and ambulance and police sirens. I was accustomed to a soundtrack of silence in all the places that I had previously lived. This is the first time my ears are constantly negotiating the overwhelming barrage of sound, the sheer plurality of it; my mind is learning how to filter, distinguish one sound from another. However, I don’t miss the silence quite as much as I miss peering above into the nocturnal sky, glimpsing the dense population of stars studding its surface. Here, in the city, like any other city, they are just as invisible as they are during the day. 


 Our landlord’s art work meanwhile still dots the apartment walls. In the living room, you can see camouflage-hued tapestries of Paris, a bright bird water-color, an Ancient Egyptian god and goddess in dialogue, and a mountainscape sparely executed in oils. I have decided that these works will continue to hang there on the walls until we discover and introduce our own to them. In any case, they are strangers no more; our daily engagement with the works has made them familiar to us. There are three paintings though that that we have decided to never remove as long as we stay in the apartment. 

These paintings are portraits of three distinguished women hanging upon one wall in the living room. I call them distinguished simply because that’s exactly the sort of air they exude. I have no idea who these women are. I don’t even know the names of the artists who painted them. What I do know is that these portraits define the house as much as the walls themselves. And like the tree window-photograph in my bedroom window, I am content to see their framed selves on the walls. 

What is remarkable is that each of them wear an identical expression of contemplation in their portraits. They look as if they were mulling over a problem or a puzzle or a query — and were about to unpack their thoughts to the artist. The thoughts would quickly spill out, raw, unadulterated, like paint gushing upon a palette from a newly pierced open tube. Yet, the women would just as swiftly incorporate them into the bigger picture, the larger idea, connoisseurs of both the macro and micro. These women are constantly editing themselves, their thoughts, striving to be better, fuller, richer persons. But they wouldn’t bite back their words, that’s for sure. If they have something to say, they will say it. 

 When we say goodbye to the house with the mint colored walls, I already know that we will miss these three ladies. In the next few months, we will be constantly overlaying the house with our presence— paintings, photographs, furniture, objects, books, our conversations — and by the time we leave, the house will have become an alternate version of itself, a new draft, so to speak. Perhaps, by that time, I will have even figured out how to solve the mathematical-like conundrum of learning to call my homeland home. But what these walls and admirable ladies will remind us of will be those initial paint-strokes, those first words on the computer-screen, a freshly new time, when blankness was exciting, when anything could become everything.

This post originally appeared at the story-sharing platform, Medium over here.

Belonging Together: The Making of Justice and Art

“What does poiesis have to do with slavery?”

Shadow of Monique Villa, CEO of
Thomas Reuters Foundation. Photo: Deborah Espinosa
That is how internationally renowned artist Anish Kapoor began his 14-minute keynote address during the 2014 Trust Women’s conference recently held in London. The conference, which puts "the rule of law behind women’s rights," gathered advocates and activists focused on solutions to women’s economic empowerment, including women’s access to land and financial services, as well as on the global fight against modern slavery. A short video captured the breadth of issues covered. Notable speakers included two Nobel laureates, Muhammad Yunus and Kailash Satyarthi, CEOs of many major corporations and NGOS, and survivors of the slave trade.  

The Trust Women two-day gathering was highly cerebral, sometimes academic, and always stimulating. It also was visually compelling.  Each theme was introduced with a 2- to 3-minute multimedia piece, including Women and FinanceAccess to Land, and Slavery and the Supply Chain. (All of Trust Women conference videos are available here.)  

We learned that 35.8 million people are working in slave-like conditions around the world in violation of their human rights on a daily basis.  We were challenged to consider whether the supply chains of goods we use everyday include forced labor or debt bondage, including considering the human rights abuses necessary to sustain "fast fashion."

We were also encouraged to consider how responsive cities are to women's needs, including safety, particularly given their typically greater reliance on public transport for going to work and taking care of child and household responsibilities.

And for me, a women's land rights practitioner, of utmost interest was the panel on the issue of women's access to land, which Trust Women aptly described as the "biggest challenge to women's empowerment."   

So imagine my surprise when, amidst this dialogue, sculptor Anish Kapoor took the podium. “What does poiesis have to do with slavery?", he asks. I wasn't familiar with the term “poiesis,” but I imagined it referred to poetry. Later, I was pleasantly surprised to learn that poiesis is actually a much broader concept dating back to Ancient Greece — more like "a making” or the "making of art.”
No doubt Mr. Kapoor's words meant many things to many people.  For me, his words caused my soul to soften. I had steeled myself for a day on the global slave trade, and there he was opening a part of me that I’d purposefully locked down.

The artist and advocate in me heard him liken the making of art to acts in pursuit of justice — and that the time is now.   
“Does my making have truth?  Or is it that belief and therefore beauty is something that lies in the future?  Is it something that is always out of reach? . . .  Freedom and beauty are the future — only possible because of what we do next."
Kapoor continued:
Mr. Anish Kapoor speaking at the Trust Women
Conference on November 19, 2014.  Photo: Deborah Espinosa
The oppressed, as we all know, are asked again and again to wait for the right time to press for change.  Right time?  What is this right time? 
Always in the future.  The right time for respect and dignity is always in the future. . . . 
Time and courage and beauty are now. I’m linking them together because I think they belong together. . . .  Rights are dreamed of as if they belong in the future. But rights, as we all know, depend on what we do next."
Mr. Kapoor's full speech is available here.

Thank you Mr. Kapoor and Thomas Reuters Foundation for uniting our efforts to make the world replete with justice with the our making of art. They belong together for me, too.