Dirty Words

Friday, October 10, 2014


Written by Pegleess Barrios

The following words are often considered “dirty words”: feminism, gender, identity, sex, femininity, masculinity, androgyny, patriarchy. Words used, abused, and misused on a daily basis. What is unique about these words is the personal connotations associated with each – there is no clear definition to any of those words, and personal definitions are shaped by so many things; experiences, societal influence, art, media, family, religion, etc. University of Guelph Studio Art students Maya Bendavid, Angela Ferguson, Allison Henry, Tessa Mcdougall, Sonali Menezes, Chantal Pfaff and Jess Eisner decided to create a discussion and celebration of the uniqueness of the experience of a woman, using a highly personal, contemporary gendered lens to communicate their worldviews. The seven powerful young artists explored the plurality of feminism through their own expressions of gender, sexuality, and sex, appropriating elements of the feminine, masculine, and exploring as they hoped Simone de Beauvoir would approve: “The Woman defined woman”.

The show, which opened on October 6 at Zavitz Hall, featured individual works by each artist involved, musically accompanied by Jasmine of the local band “BattleWülf”. The show was full of friends and family of the artists, coming to see what those “dirty words” meant to people they held dear.

Tessa McDougall, a fourth year student, had two creations on display, exploring intimacy and gender roles. One was a video clip on infinite loop of two people in ski masks. “They’re two best friends, face to face, connected through ski masks that are sewn at the mouth,” McDougall explains, noting that it is an exploration of intimacy between friends, and the relationship spectrum – exploring what the boundary is that defines two people as “just friends” or more than that. When asked about the meaning behind her second creation, a shovel and broom mangled together into a knot, McDougall recounted how her grandmother used to give very stereotypically gendered gifts to her parents, such as the objects used in her work - a shovel for her father and a broom for her mother. McDougall grounds her work on antiquated and “black and white” views women’s’ role being in the kitchen, and men’s roles as the ones doing manual labour in the fields. Through her work, McDougall challenged gender tropes and stereotypical roles, and further ridiculed the objects and their connotations of oppression and cisnormativity by artfully mangling them together, rendering them as useless as the tropes that accompany them.

Next to McDougall’s second piece lay the most subtle and artfully hidden piece at the exhibition, created by Jess Eisner; an outlet with a plug in it whose cable was cut short, dangling limply out of the outlet. “I love outlets,” Eisner elaborated, “The holes in the outlet are actually called female parts, and the parts that stick out of the plug are called male. Because one sticks into…well…yes.” When closely examined, the holes in the upper outlet look almost like a surprised and shocked face. But what was most interesting was Eisner’s personal interpretation of the terms “female” and “male”, and as one visitor commented, it left people reflecting on how gender roles permeate every facet of our lives, spreading even to entirely non-biological objects.

Allison Henry looked at feminism through a positive light, collecting images of strong female role models within her family when they were her age, and “stepping into their skin for a few seconds” by stepping into a projection of each image in a looped video.

A piece by Maya Bendavid further explored the societal influences on the perception of women, based on a poem by Margaret Atwood, including the church and the legal system. Bendavid’s work and the accompanying recording of Atwood’s poem evoked reflection on the Madonna/whore dichotomy women deal with in both fiction and real life.

Sonali Menezes displayed several works at the show. Most noted by visitors were an enlarged golden cardboard sculpture of a tampon, 20 times the actual size of a real one, as well as a series of simply printed but powerful phrases, describing Menezes’ experiences and angst as a woman, a person of colour in a predominantly white society, and a sexual minority. The simplicity of Menezes’ word piece was what really made it strike a chord with visitors, as it felt almost like leafing through the pages of a diary – direct, expressive, painful, and clear. As a visitor commented, “It was particularly striking to me because I realized, as a white woman, as much as I can empathize, I will never live these experiences and know this exact pain.” Menezes’ brother commented on her work as well, relating her bravery and freedom of expression in her words and her playful monument to a female hygiene product back to their very open childhood. “Our parents never said anything was too girly or too manly,” he explained, “We were always free to explore.” Speaking further about the art show as a whole and the clear messages of oppression and objectification in several pieces present, he continued, “It makes me sad to see how women are judged by other men by just their bodies. Men like that make me embarrassed for our gender. And I hope women know they have so much more of value than just their appearance.”

Pieces by Chantal Pfaff and Angela Ferguson provided further commentary on the objectification of women. Pfaff, who was shocked with the objectification and over-sexualization of women in American Apparel advertising, decided to re-work the ads in a way that would render them empowering to the women pictured. “American Apparel is known for creating ads that objectify women specifically for a male gaze,” Pfaff explained, “So I wanted to empower these women and make their ads their own.” To emancipate the ads from female objectification and challenge the campaign’s heteronormativity, Pfaff replaced the original wording for each ad with strong and powerful lyrics by the American punk rock band “Bikini Kill”, such as “We don’t need your dick to fuck.” Pfaff also displayed a set of tools with beautiful little flowers painted on them, further challenging gender roles in manual labour.

Ferguson’s piece, hanging in the middle of the exhibition, was a cast of a woman’s body hanging upside down by the feet, like a literal piece of meat strung up at a butcher shop. “It’s built out of clear packing tape, to show the invisibility of a woman’s identity in many places in the world,” explained Ferguson. “We built it on my own body, so it is an expression of how I feel about my body and the objectification I face.” The piece tied the show together and brought an impressively crafted reminder of both the depersonification and inequality that women all over the world face every day.

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