Dragons, Dalmatians and Dancing Gorillas

Hilma af Klint, from A Work on Flowers, Mosses and Lichen (© Stiftelsen Hilma af Klints Verk/Photo: Moderna Museet, Albin Dahlström)

And while great achievement is rare and difficult at best, it is still rarer and more difficult if, while you work, you must at the same time wrestle with inner demons of self-doubt and guilt and outer monsters of ridicule or patronizing encouragement, neither of which have any specific connection with the quality of the art work as such.

—Linda Nochlin, 1971

Linda Nochlin’s 1971 essay, Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists? became a pivot point for observing, evaluating and acknowledging the work of women in the visual arts. Rather than fetishizing the concept of the individual genius as was typical of art history at that time, Nochlin focused on the total environment in which an artist lives. Art making occurs in a social setting, she wrote, and the circumstances women face are very different than those of men. Those differences have been perpetually misread and overlooked.

Nochlin’s essay was a turning point even if the progress over the last 50 years has been slow. At the time the essay was published, the most popular art history text, Janson’s History of Art, did not include a single woman artist. (This was the case until 1987.) The Guerilla Girls were founded in 1985 to address the underrepresentation of women in museums and galleries. Slowly the roster of female artists being shown has grown, and a number of previously overlooked women have finally been given well deserved museum retrospectives. (“Better at 85 than never!” was the irony-laden response.) Canonical art history continues to be revised to provide a more balanced account of the role women have played. (Mary Gabriel’s fascinating and thorough Ninth Street Women for example is not just about five abstract expressionist women artists. It is actually an in-depth reevaluation of the social and artistic history of New York from the 1930s through the 1950s.)

In the last few years the very advent of contemporary abstraction is being questioned. This non-representational breakthrough, famously credited to Malevich and Kandinsky, is now being bestowed on a previously unknown Swedish female artist, Hilma af Klint. Regardless of where you place the inception of this major step, one thing is clear: af Klint’s innovations were overlooked and dismissed during her life. (It was for this reason she stipulated that her work not be shown for 20 years after her death.) Like the rule-breaking work of Georgiana Houghton in the 19th century and Emma Kunz in the early 20th, experimental and genre-breaking art by women is rarely understood or given its proper due.

It is not just habits and history (the “that is the way we were taught” argument) that make female innovation unseen and unwelcomed. In The Male Glance, a brilliant essay about what we see and what we dismiss, author Lili Loofbourow digs deep into the perceptual biases that are imbedded in us by our cultural milieu. Consciously or unconsciously, we give more weight and attention to the work of men than we do to the work by women. “The male glance is the opposite of the male gaze,” she writes. “Rather than linger lovingly on the parts it wants most to penetrate, it looks, assumes, and moves on…We all have it, and it’s ruining our ability to see good art. The effects are poisonous and cumulative, and have resulted in an absolutely massive talent drain. We’ve been hemorrhaging great work for decades, partly because we were so bad at seeing it.”

In the visual arts, the role of gender—in the making and the viewing, both— is still highly debated. Unlike orchestra auditions where the instrumentalist performs behind a curtain to ensure that the only evaluation is musical, art is highly subjective. What a person sees and perceives is not predictable or reliable. As Loofbourow points out, “One of the less intuitive revelations of recent work in cognitive science is that a failure of imagination can actually produce a failure of vision. Our visual system isn’t objective.”

This perceptive bias that skews unfairly against women is on full display in the current political sphere as well as in the arts. Female-centric and female-sourced projects are more common than ever, but they still need an expanded collective imagination. Citing examples from recent television series, Loofbourow points to how bad we are at getting beyond our old cultural orientations:

Generations of forgetting to zoom into female experience aren’t easily shrugged off, however noble our intentions, and the upshot is that we still don’t expect female texts to have universal things to say. We imagine them as small and careful, or petty and domestic, or vain, or sassy, or confessional. We might expect them to be sentimental or melodramatic, or even—in the days of ‘Transparent’ and ‘I Love Dick’ and ‘Girls’—provocative, unflattering, and exhibitionist. But we don’t expect them to be experimental, and we don’t expect them to be great…we still have not quite learned to see female storytellers as either masterful or intentional.
The fact is, we are unbelievably stupid at reading—or watching—women, and women-authored stories in particular. And we are suffering for it…We don’t see complexity in female stories because we have so little experience imagining it might be there.

As Loofbourow makes clear, none of us are exempt from the skewing that comes from these perceptual blindspots. She references a few well known experiments that make this clear: Participants tasked to count basketball passes between team members completely miss seeing a gorilla-costumed person strolling through; In another, dots on a page are just dots until a Dalmation is identified. Once seen, never unseen.

There are lurking Dalmatians and dancing gorillas lurking all over the landscape of female art.
We don’t have a robust tradition of pointing them out—or recognizing their outlines, or even knowing they’re there. So we miss them, and they drop out of the canon. Meanwhile we persist in misreading the female-driven text as either an artless, unstructured collection of dots, or as an overdetermined and plastered-on false and foolish face.

Loofbourow does offer some recommendations for how we can shift our skewed viewing:

Look for the gorilla. Do what we already automatically do for male art: Assume there’s a Dalmatian hiding there. If you find it, admire it. And outline it, so that others will see it too. The beauty of this is that once you point it out, we’ll never miss it again. And we’ll be better for seeing as obvious and inevitable something that previously—absent the instructions—we simply couldn’t perceive.

Last week I wrote about Sara Porkalob’s Dragon Lady, a personal and highly spirited tribute to the life and family of a powerful Filipino grandmother. Porkalob blends spoken theater with music, singlehandedly playing 36 different characters while augmenting the storyline with her stunningly beautiful singing voice. I experienced Dragon Lady as well directed, tightly produced and professionally executed.

After seeing the opening night performance of Dragon Mama—the next installment in what will eventually be a trilogy—my sense of Porkalob’s overall project has shifted. Yes, she is an electrifying performer and singer who happens to be part of a family with lots of high drama content. And while Dragon Mama does not yet have the polished performance patina of Dragon Lady, it is crucial in moving us beyond a “one play wonder” context so that we can be part of a bigger project: a multi-generational, matrilinear, female-centric saga.

Men are few in this story of three generations of women coming into their power. None of these women are asking men—or the culture at large—for permission or validation. They find their strength on their own terms.

It is rare to encounter female storytelling with such autonomy. Porkalob goes about her work with passion, directness and authenticity. There is no self-conscious bravado, no angry fist raised as these three Porkalob women battle against gender discrimination, sexual misuse, immigrant bigotry, abject poverty, parental abuse, denial of an individual identity. There is something so fresh and unfettered about the way she brings us into her world.

It may be that the way we learn to really see and hear women’s stories is to allow them to naturally morph, to migrate out of male-defined formats and into ones that are better suited for a woman’s experience of life. The excitement unleashed last year around Hannah Gadsby and her breakout performance of Nanette on Netflix speaks to the power unleashed by genre-busting. Part stand up comedy, part TED talk, part tirade, part Sunday come to Jesus oratory, part theatrical performance, Nanette is female storytelling that doesn’t fit into any previous categories. And what power Gadsby unleashed. I have watched it 11 times.

With this second production now in motion, Porkalob is figuring out her own version of a self-styled, authentic form of female storytelling. Assume there’s a Dalmation hiding there. If you find it, admire it. And outline it, so that others will see it too.

Porkalob, your Dalmation is constellating.

The Dragon Cycle (Dragon Lady and Dragon Mama) is currently being performed at American Repertory Theater’s Oberon Stage in Cambridge through April 7.

6 Replies to “Dragons, Dalmatians and Dancing Gorillas”

  1. An impassioned articulate piece of writing

    1. deborahbarlow says:

      Your compliments means everything Andrew. Thank you!

  2. Diana Johnson says:

    Thank you forcing instruction to outline the dalmatian as well as pointed out, to look for the gorilla, to have the willingness to challenge my own culture bias and to change it!

    1. deborahbarlow says:

      With you Di!

  3. What you say here: “It may be that the way we learn to really see and hear women’s stories is to allow them to naturally morph, to migrate out of male-defined formats and into ones that are better suited for a woman’s experience of life.” Yes! The migration has begun, but it will take awhile…

    1. deborahbarlow says:

      Thank you Ann!

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