Art, women, and history // Eman Khalid
Art can be divided into the various branches of creativity. It could be painting, poetry, storytelling, music, dancing, singing and so on. Throughout the history, women from every race, religion, and culture have contributed to the development, expansion, and popularity of art. They used art as a means for expressing their true colors and how they felt back in those days living in a male-dominated society-The women in history used art as a means for communication to spread awareness about human rights-They used art as a means to teach women from both rural and urban areas about the rights they possessed as individuals. Back in the early 30s and 40s, women were treated as objects who did not have any feelings, dreams, goals, and ambitions of their own. It was until they started having access to books. Books which were written by women of color, women who were not afraid to break free from the shackles of society and live a life they deserved. I, myself, am truly inspired by all of the women’s works that I have read. The words that are inscribed on the piece of paper are centuries old, but the feelings they felt and the obstacles they faced, are so like ours. Unfortunately, even now, women are treated inferior to men. In career and marital life. All of the famous and the underrated female artists in history are proofs that it does not matter who you are, where you come from or what the color of your skin is. All that matters is ‘you are willing to dig deep inside of yourself and to find out the real purpose of your life.’ We never truly find out our purposes until we become old. But we must believe that one day we will.
Here are some of my favorites: Five of the most inspiring women in history who earned their name in the field of art and literature and paved a way for the women who came after them.
1. Mary Shelly (1797-1851)
Mary Shelly is the author of the renowned novel Frankenstein which is known to be the first sci-fi novel in the history. She came from a family of intellectuals. Her parents were Mary Wollstonecraft, one of the first feminist writers of history and William Godwin, a philosopher. Shelley’s romances led her father to disown her. When she was just sixteen, Shelley met the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley. Even though he was married and significantly older, the two fell in love and eventually absconded together in 1814. As the legend goes, Byron, Mary, Percy, and Byron’s personal physician, Dr. John William Polidori, stayed up late one night, discussing the occult and reading ghost stories. Byron challenged the group to write a horror story, which led Mary to write the story that would become Frankenstein. That story was like an instant wonder which still lives today. Shelley, however, says that Frankenstein came to her as she slept. In the third edition of Frankenstein, Mary explains that a dream inspired the story. “I saw with closed eyes, but acute mental vision – I saw the pale student of unhallowed arts kneeling beside the thing he had put together,” the author writes – “I saw the hideous phantasm of a man stretched out, and then, on the working of some powerful engine, showed signs of life…”. When Mary started writing Frankenstein, she was just 19. By the time the book got published, she was only 21. After Mary Shelly’s husband Percy Shelley’s death in 1822, she returned to London. Though she is remembered solely for the Frankenstein, Shelley published a large amount of work across a wide area of subjects. Some of them include seven novels, three children’s books, over a dozen short stories, several volumes of biographies, and a number of articles and poems.
Mary Shelley died of brain cancer on February 1, 1851, at the age of 53, in London, England. She was buried at St. Peter’s Church in Bournemouth, laid to rest with the cremated remains of her late husband’s heart.
On September 9, 2017, there was a movie released based on the life of Mary Shelly and her love interest Percy Shelley.
“I do not wish women to have power over men; but over themselves” – Mary Shelley
2. Frida Kahlo (1907-1954)
Frida Kahlo was considered one of Mexico’s greatest artists who began painting mostly self-portrays after she was severely injured in a bus accident. One of the most beautiful things about her was that she combined her traditional Mexican folk art with surrealism making her paintings a symbolic form of self-expression. Frida Kahlo has had poor health in her childhood. She contracted polio at the age of six and had to be bedridden for nine months. This disease caused her right leg to grow much thinner than her left one. She limped after she recovered from polio.
After marrying Diago Rivera in 1929, Kahlo changed her personal and painting style. She began to wear the traditional Tehuana dress that became her trademark. It consisted of a flowered headdress, a loose blouse, gold jewelry, and a long ruffled skirt
One of her most renowned paintings Frieda and Diego Rivera (1931) shows not only her new attire but also her new interest in Mexican folk art. The towering Rivera stands to the left, holding a palette and brushes, the objects of his profession. He appears as an important artist, while Kahlo who is petite and demure beside him, with her hand in his and with darker skin, conveys the role she presumed he wanted: a traditional Mexican wife. Kahlo painted that work while traveling in the United States (1930–33) with her husband Rivera. During this time, she endured a couple of difficult pregnancies that ended prematurely. She also suffered a miscarriage in Detroit and later the death of her mother. After facing these tragedies, Kahlo painted some of her most-harrowing works. In “Henry Ford Hospital (1932)”Kahlo depicted herself hemorrhaging on a hospital bed amid a barren landscape, and in “My Birth (1932)” she painted a rather taboo scene of a woman giving birth. Her first-ever exhibition was held at the Julien Levy Gallery in New York in 1938, and it was a great success. The following year Kahlo traveled to Paris to show her work. There she met more Surrealists. The Louvre also acquired one of her works, The Frame (c. 1938), making Kahlo the first 20th-century Mexican artist to be included in the collection of museum.
Kahlo spent her entire life in chronic pain, infertility and disability leading an unhappy married life. Kahlo had several extramarital affairs and was also one of the most sexually liberated women of her time. Unfortunately, she died at the age of 47 in Mexico due to pulmonary embolism, although no autopsy was performed, it got argued by Herrera that Kahlo had in fact committed suicide.
“You deserve a lover who makes you feel safe, who can consume the worlds whole if he walks hand in hand with you; someone who believes that his embraces are a perfect match with your skin.” – Frieda Kahlo
3. Alice Walker (1944- )
Alice Walker is an African American novelist, short story writer, poet, essayist, and activist. She was born in Putnam County, Georgia on February 1944. Her parents were sharecroppers. She was the youngest of eight siblings. A shooting accident when walker was eight left her blind in one eye. She wrote her first book in 1982 called “The Color Purple”. This novel is based on true incidents. In one interview, Alice said that she was inspired to write this book from the stories about her ancestors-which she heard continuously in her growing up-who had died long before she existed. She wrote the book “The Color Purple” to feel more connected with her forefathers, who sacrificed their lives for the freedom of the country in slavery. Her book “The Color Purple” won the 1983 Pulitzer Prize for fiction. The book was later adapted into a film by the same name by the direction Steven Speilberg and went on to become a musical as well. Alice Walker is the first African American woman to receive the prestigious Pulitzer award.
Alice Walker’s writings have a touch of rhyme and poetry. She first began her career as a poet.
“The animals of the world exist for their own reasons. They were not made for humans any more than black people were made for white, or women created for men.”
– Alice Walker
4. Gabriela Mistral (1889 – 1957)
Gabriela Mistral grew up in a village of northern Chile and became a schoolteacher at the age of fifteen, advancing later to the rank of a college professor. Mistral first began her career as a poet.
She began to write poetry as a village schoolteacher
after a passionate romance with a railway employee who later committed suicide.
“Death Sonnets” was the name of her first-ever collection that helped
to establish her as a poet.
One of Gabriela Mistral’s favorite subjects for poems was nature. She was involved in the early cultural committees of the League of Nations and played an important role in shaping the educational systems of Mexico and Chile. Gabriela Mistral became an internationally renowned figure in literature and education back in those days.
She was a Chilean poet, educator, diplomat, and feminist. Mistral won a Nobel Prize for Literature in 1945, becoming the first Latin American to receive that honor. Unfortunately, she died on January 10th, 1957 due to pancreatic cancer.
“Writing tends to cheer me; it always soothes my spirit and blesses me with the gift of an innocent, tender, childlike day. It is the sensation of having spent a few hours in my homeland, with my customs, free whims, my total freedom.”
5. Arundhati Roy (1961- )
Arundhati Roy is an Indian novelist and a political activist.
Roy was trained as an architect in her early 20s. But she had little interest in designing. Instead, she dreamed of a successful writing career. After a series of odd jobs, including being an artist and an aerobics instructor, she got an opportunity to write and co-star in the film “Annie Gives It To Those Ones” (1989). After her debut, she wrote scripts for the film Electric Moon (1992). Other than that, she also wrote scripts for several television dramas and series.
In 1997, Roy published her debut novel, “The God of Small Things”, composed in a lyrical language about South Asian themes and characters. Roy’s novel became the biggest-selling book by a non-expatriate Indian author and won the 1998 Man Booker Prize for Fiction. She was also awarded the Sydney Peace Prize in 2004.
“There’s really no such thing as the ‘voiceless’. There are only the deliberately silenced, or the preferably unheard.” – Arundhati Roy
Do you know what was common in all of these women? None of them had easy life. As the saying goes “I have never seen a strong person with an easy past.” These women turned their pain into power, beauty and art. They did not let the words of others decide what they were supposed to do in their life. They were the heroes of their own stories. They were their own saviors. These women found their own voice and used it to inspire thousands of women that were to come after them.
They earned their own names in the history apart from their bonds with men. These women set example that a girl is more than a mother, a daughter, a sister and a wife. She is a living breathing human being capable of achieving so many things. These women are proofs that it is okay even if they have clipped your wings. In time, you will realize that you did not need their support to fly in the first place.
The women that I have mentioned above were not extraordinary. They were common women like you and me. They too had marital responsibilities. They too had financial struggles. They too suffered from depression, anxiety and heartache. But they bore all the hardships. They found their solace in art. They passed away, leaving behind books, paintings, sculptures, and poems.
I believe these women are not forgotten but they are alive in the hearts of those they have healed and inspired through their work and will be remembered as inspirations for all the women.
Afterall, legends never truly die, do they?