Burned: Women and Fire
Opening reception Friday, February 28, from 5-7 pm.
Artwork in the exhibition may be viewed here.
Fire is one of the most potent symbols in human history. It purifies, illuminates, destroys, and transforms. “Mother Earth” has fire in its core. That magma—hot, molten rock—is an igneous rock. The name igneous comes from the word ignis, which means “fire” in Latin. This fire sporadically pushes its way through cracks in the earth’s crust and erupts from volcanoes, burning everything in its path to create a way for new life to emerge from the magma. Wildfires act in the same way, coming by surprise, expanding exponentially, and consuming fuel in its path, while simultaneously opening some types of seed pods for future growth.
The first civilizations in the Near East revered forces of nature and their enormous and only modestly predictable impact on daily life. Later, they would be personified as deities. Many ancient cultures saw fire as a supernatural force: Greeks maintained perpetual fires in front of their temples, Zoroastrians worshiped and regarded fire as pure wisdom that destroys chaos and ignorance, and Buddhist cultures practiced ritual cremation to purify the body upon its release from the physical world.
When early religions began transferring attributes of forces of nature to specific deities, many cultures equated fire rising from “Mother Earth” with archetypes of women. The Sumerian goddess Lilith had a fiery ability to control men. In Egypt, the serpent goddess Wadjet used fire like a snake spitting venom to burn her enemies. In the Philippines, Darago was the warrior goddess associated with volcanoes. Roman goddess Feronia was associated with the energy of reproduction and the fire beneath the earth’s crust. These ancient goddesses were fierce and powerful, and they used fire as their tool.
As male rulers took political, religious, and economic power through organized conflict, the diminution of women’s power was the result. Instead of depicting women as independent forces of nature, biblical authors described them pejoratively as harlots and sinners. These authors used fire to symbolize the guiding presence of God, and Abrahamic religions embraced the destructive power of fire as the wrath of God. In the Torah/Old Testament story of Eve, her bold pursuit of knowledge was as terrifying as a fiery natural disaster. When Eve was in the Garden of Eden she “saw that the tree was good for food…and a tree to be desired to make one wise, she took the fruit thereof, and did eat, and gave also unto her husband with her.” “The woman whom thou gavest to be with me, she gave me of the tree, and I did eat” Adam said, as he successfully blamed the woman for his choices and actions. The male God then cursed all women for Eve’s independent decision-making and disobedience: “I will greatly multiply thy sorrow…and thy husband…he shall rule over thee.”
Those words of condemnation, and words like them in other male-dominated institutions, attempted to change societal perception of women from personification of fire, and its natural ability to create and destroy, into the scorned embodiment of sin. Just as early Roman Christians built churches on top of pagan temples and later placed the orb and cross atop obelisks they looted from ancient Egypt, governments usurped female power by forcing a narrative of male moral, intellectual, and physical superiority. These institutions took archetypically “female” fire as their own symbol, using it as their weapon to control and limit women’s minds, bodies, and potential. Examples of this include doctors in pharaonic Egypt using fire to cure “hysteria” by forcing the uterus (hystera) upwards. Caught between the English and French monarchs, Joan of Arc was burned alive in 1431 despite being credited previously for the French victory at the Siege of Orleans. In early modern England, women were burned at the stake as a legal punishment for a range of activities including coining and mariticide. In 1652 in Smithfield, Prudence Lee confessed to having “been a very lewd liver, and much given to cursing and swearing, for which the Lord being offended with her, had suffered her to be brought to that untimely end.” She admitted to being jealous of and arguing with her husband. For this, she was burned at the stake, as were thousands of other women. In the late 1850s, The Industrial Revolution produced gauzy new fabrics that when made into funnel-shaped dresses, ignited instantly upon being touched by a spark. Their flammability made them death traps for women, preventing them from safely doing ordinary things men could do, such as lighting a match, standing close to a fire, or smoking a cigarette, lest they be burned alive.
Tragically, women are still burned to death by men today. In New Zealand in 2011, a groom doused his bride with flammable liquid, set her on fire, and left her by the side of the road to die so he could obtain a higher dowry from another. In 2015 in New Guinea, four women were tortured and burned for sorcery. Acid-burning is at an all-time high, occurring from the United Kingdom to Southeast Asia. In India and Pakistan, widows are sometimes burned with their deceased husbands in his funeral pyre, and the highly suspect “kitchen fire” is all too common. In contemporary honor killings, families burn their own daughters and sisters for making unapproved decisions about their own marriage. The United Nations estimates that as many as 5000 women are killed annually world-wide in honor killings. Today, this act is not illegal in such modern nations as Jordan.
It is no wonder the element of fire is ingrained in women’s collective memory. Fire represents women’s power and their torture. In women’s own hands, it is their independent creative spark; in the hands of those who want to suppress them it can destroy their very lives. Burned: Women and Fire features artists who—like the alchemical Phoenix who burns and rises from the ashes anew—integrate their collective experience with fire and burning to create their art.
Tonya Turner Carroll
Can’t Lock Me Up: Women Resist Silence
Opening reception Friday, March 29, from 5-7 pm.
Artwork in the exhibition may be viewed here.
“When the whole world is silent, even one voice becomes powerful. We realize the importance of our voices only when we are silenced.” Malala Yousafzai, Pakistan
A massive, global problem exists in our shared human history. Since the beginning of civilization, women’s biology has been used against them in attempts to silence them, shame them, and to limit their access to education and power by locking them up literally or metaphorically. Perhaps born from fear of the sheer power women inherently possess in their ability to create new life, society has weaponzied the female body through language, images, and the threat of sexual violence. It’s time to admit this problem exists, examine how society perpetuates it, and do everything in our power to solve it.
Part of the problem is the pejorative language we use to describe aspects of female biology–from menstruation to menopausal hormonal, appearance, and emotional shifts. Women who are bleeding are called “dirty,” “cursed,” and forced to endure “ritual sequestration”—a euphemism for ostracization of women from society during menstruation. In Nepal, women are forced into menstrual huts where they sometimes die. UNICEF, the U.N. child advocacy agency, reports that in Zambia, school attendance becomes less consistent after fifth grade because most girls lack access to feminine hygiene supplies. This keeps women from receiving the education that would help them enrich not only their personal lives, but their entire societies.
Universally, women are called “hags” and “witches” as their aging skin sags and their worth as objects of beauty is diminished. From the second millenium B.C. in Egypt, women were deemed “hysterical” when they displayed emotional behavior connected with monthly hormonal shifts. The Greek physician Hippocrates believed women became “hysterical” when their uterus (hysteron) was not sexually satisfied, and that the only cure for female hysteria was sex. If a woman rejected sex to “cure” her hysteria, the explanation was that she was “possessed” by a “demonic” type of mental illness, for which one cure was fire, as in the later practice of burning a witch at the stake. The Latin word for woman, foemina, is formed from fe and minus, that is she “who has less faith.” As Phyllis Chesler points out in her Women and Madness, it comes as no surprise that due to these associations of insanity and deviance with female hormones, many patients in early mental institutions were menopausal women. Artist Monica Lundy explores this trend of locking women up and silencing them by labeling them “crazy” for behavior such as “flirtation” and “disobedience.” She paints images of female inmates of a Roman mental institution, using coffee, charcoal, and burned paper.
Another part of the problem is the way images have been used throughout history to reinforce these pejorative stereotypes of women. Female nudes in museums rarely look the viewer in the eye, but are depicted with a diverted, subjugated gaze instead. When female public figures express their legitimate outrage, they are quickly discredited with photographic images featuring them with mouth open, finger wagging, wild-eyed demonic rage. It’s as if when a woman uses her power and her voice, she is seen as the embodiment of Lilith herself. Conversely, when men express anger, aggression, pain, or sadness in images, they might be thought of as powerful, passionate, assertive, professional, or sensitive. Thus, the way we have historically used images discredits women even before they speak, shunning them into silence and perpetuating belief in their inferiority.
Perhaps our biggest societal problem is how women have been historically subjugated through sexual violence. Sexual violence is a gender-based hate crime; the UN describes it as “a problem of pandemic proportions. Statistically, at least one out of every three women around the world has been beaten, coerced into sex, or otherwise physically or emotionally abused in her lifetime.” Forms of such sexual abuse include female infanticide, forced prostitution, genital mutilation, forced abortion, honor killings, dowry violence, rape, domestic violence, sexual harassment, marital rape, stoning, flogging, sexual trafficking, forced marriage, denial of medical care, and sexual slavery. These crimes hurt women psychologically, sexually, and physically and leave them feeling broken, fearful for their safety, and in pain.
Though 189 countries ratified the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women in the 1980s, horrific crimes against women persist. Soraya Manutchehri was buried to her waist then brutally stoned to death in Iran for “being an inconvenient wife.” Pakistani teenager Malala Yousafzai was shot in the head for speaking out for girls’ right to attend school. More than 400 Nigerian schoolgirls were abducted from their school and forced to marry their captor-assaulters. 7000 Yazidi women and girls have been repeatedly sold as sex slaves in ISIS-controlled Syrian markets, and over half of them are still enslaved. Myanmar’s troops systematically raped Muslim Rohingya women to spread terror and force them to flee the country. Rwandan military raped virtually every surviving Tutsi female over the age of 12 in the Rwandan genocide. Femicide is still prevalent in China; according to a current UN report, femicide is often conducted in “the most cruel means” such as stabbing, beating and strangling, which, it said, reflects misogyny. “This means there has not been success in changing the cultural patterns that devalue women and consider them disposable, allowing for a social permissiveness in the face of violence and its ultimate expression, femicide,” the report said. Artist Hung Liu has devoted her entire artistic career to preserving the memory of these otherwise forgotten, nameless women forced into sexual submission.
In the U.S., rape culture is rampant as the media normalizes sexual violence. Popular culture dismisses the profane, insulting words U.S. President and sexual assault perpetrator Donald Trump uses to describe the way he habitually assaults women as merely “locker room talk.” U.S. citizens tolerate their President using language such as “low IQ individual,” “unhinged,” “nasty,” and “blood coming out of her…everywhere” to vilify women. Through the normalization of this type of misogynistic and violent language, the objectification of women’s bodies, and the glamorization of sexual violence, we perpetuate a society that disregards women’s rights and safety.
Why do women remain silent about these human rights tragedies they endure? How could it be that women could have helped elect someone so dangerous to their safety and dignity? Equally confounding: why would an undeniably accomplished, confident, qualified first woman presidential candidate–stay silent while a man far less formidable than herself invaded her debate space? Why was she pushed to publish her chocolate chip cookie recipe to gain public trust? Because we accept social norms demanding women act with such courteous and deferential self-control. From a young age, boys’ rowdiness is tolerated, while girls are rewarded with praise and good grades for their silence and social composure.
What can we do to solve this problem of subverting and silencing women? We can take every opportunity to speak out about the ways women have been enslaved mentally, metaphorically, physically—throughout the world. Rather than just describing the atrocities, we can demand action on their behalf, and we can take action ourselves, no matter how small. We can call out societal degradation, discrediting, and sexual domination of women when we perceive it. Turner Carroll is proud to exhibit women artists from throughout the world who speak the truth for themselves and their sisters who might have a harder time finding their voice. Artists like Fatemeh Baigmoradi, whose photographs with controversial members burned out of them help us remember a tragic history. Artists like Hung Liu, who has dedicated her life to painting disenfranchised women as quasi-imperial, transforming their pain into beauty, telling their stories with a grace they did not experience in their lifetimes. Artists like Lien Truong, who uses traditionally feminine media such as painted silk, 24-karat gold thread, and embroidery to tackle international issues of domination and resistance in her paintings. Artists like Judy Chicago and Jenny Holzer, who had to be loud and brash with their words and images when they started expressing these sentiments even before feminist art was defined. Artists like Sheri Crider, whose art expresses transformation of incarcerated women, and Monica Lundy, whose paintings tell the stories of women placed in mental institutions simply for not being silent.
It is our responsibility as human beings to speak up and act out on behalf of the women who make up half the world’s population. In the words of 2018 Nobel Peace Prize winner and Yazidi former ISIS sex slave Nadia Murad: “If we do not want to repeat cases of rape and crimes against women, we must hold to account those who have used sexual violence as a weapon to commit crimes. I do not seek sympathy, I seek action.”
Tonya Turner Carroll
Turner Carroll Gallery