A year ago, I was working at the Howard County Arts Center when Diana Marta, one of the resident artists, bought an antique dress form. While looking at the mannequin in her studio, she “wondered what an ordinary women’s wardrobe would look like through time.” I remember talking to her after she purchased the form and discussing this topic with her. Diana decided that she wanted to curate a show exploring the topic of “ordinary women” and the clothing they would wear. Each artist was asked to create a garment that could be worn by the dress form and to also create a self portrait to be displayed along with the dress. It was 2012 when she asked me and 13 other women to participate in the show and that’s when I started to think about what the phrase “Ordinary Woman” meant to me.
I knew I wanted to do something that challenged our expectations of womanhood and how we’ve constructed being a woman in our society. First, I needed to find a garment. I don’t sew, so I would have to find a dress. I wanted something that was the epitome of femininity, to give me a starting point to disrupt that expectation. I found the perfect dress in a thrift shop in Baltimore; it was pink, satin, long, and once upon a time had been a bridesmaids dress. It said everything I wanted it to say.
Next, I had to figure out what I was going to do with the dress. At first, I thought I would be gluing or sewing different objects or embellishments onto the dress. Like a giant collage of objects that defined womanhood to me. But the longer I thought about the project, I realized how difficult it would be to find these objects, so I started to think about covering the dress with words.
As children we are told that “Sticks and stones will break your bones, but words will never hurt you” but in reality, words DO hurt us. If they didn’t we wouldn’t have a rash of kids committing suicide because of bullying or the pain of microaggressions that so many people experience daily. For women, many of the words that define our lived lives are double edged — tell a girl she’s pretty and that’s a good thing, but only as long as she isn’t too pretty. Almost all of the descriptors written on the dress create a world of expectations that keep women in their “place,” or so distracted as we try to meet every expectation that we don’t have a chance to question the treatment we receive in society. The bottom of my dress is stained black, to symbolize how these expectations drag women down.
For my self portrait, I was inspired by the backlash and support of “selfies” that has been unfolding in the online feminist community these last few months. It seems like every time you turn around there is another article disparaging selfies as vain, objectification, a cry for help, or singing their praises as political, radical, empowering, as good for girls, or as a revolution. Veronica I. Arreola at Viva La Feminista called for a #365feministselfie project, stating “Women of Color rarely see themselves reflected in media, people over a size 4 are told to hide themselves, transgender persons want to be seen…hell, a lot of people responded to anti-selfie moments by saying, “I do not see myself represented in the media, so I’m making my own!” This project brings attention and visibility to feminists and helps to garner the political power of the selfie. I’m participating over on Instagram (follow me! @artsykelly) and I am loving the new community of feminists I’m meeting through it. I used the selfies I had taken throughout the last year and created a collage of images representing myself.
This is where that overlap of art and activism is created for me. I knew how I wanted my dress to look and I knew that the visual of a typical bridesmaids dress covered in words that can be positive or negative would be impactful. I wanted people to walk away from my dress disturbed. I wanted to jar them and make them think, while also creating something that was visually interesting. It isn’t art just for art’s sake, it’s art with a message, open to interpretation by the viewer.
This March, as a part of Critical Social Justice and UMBC’s Art Week 2014, the Women’s Center will be presenting a Feminist Art Show on the Mezzanine Gallery in the Commons. We will be featuring pieces of the Monument Quilt, an art project being curated by FORCE, an art activist effort to upset the dominant culture of rape and promote a counter-culture of consent. The Monument Quilt is a crowd-sourced collection of thousands of stories from survivors of rape and abuse. We are also asking for students, staff, and community members to submit feminist art of their own.
To submit art, please email your images to firstname.lastname@example.org