As I was walking to Lincoln Center for the opening of the Women in the World Summit, passing by Isa Genzken’s Two Orchids (2015) installation in front of Central Park which I first saw at the 55th Venice Biennale last year, I couldn’t help but think to myself how many times I have to ask people I show it to whether they know of Genzken’s work. Then in passing, and to see their reaction, I ask if they know Gerhard Richter, which they usually do; And I say, ”well they used to be married”. The reaction is that of renewed interest in knowing the name of the artist, Isa Genzken, and the work too! Something similar happens also with Lee Krasner: I say who she was married to –not to make her more important with this info at all but in fact to point out the misogyny, of how society places less importance on women artists’ work than men’s—and Krasner becomes more interesting when associated with a male artist. It is as if she is validated.
Two Orchids (2015), by Isa Genzken.
(Central Park, New York, 2016 - 55th Biennale, Venice, 2015)
Well, before I even arrived to New York for the Women in the World Summit, two things that happened had already affected my mood and mindset:
First, was that I watched Mapplethorpe: Look at the Pictures a documentary on HBO about the two retrospective exhibitions of Robert Mapplethorpe opening in LA’s J. Paul Getty Museum and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) concurrently, two exhibitions I was hoping to see later in May. And since I have this tendency leaning on obsession to always draw comparisons, seeing again Mapplethorpe's infamous Self-Portrait with Bullwhip I was reminded of Carolee Schneeman’s Interior Scroll; which made me wonder how come I don’t see Schneeman’s work as much as I see Mapplethorpe’s, be it in museum exhibitions or private collections. Or why there is a prominence of works by male artists in general.
And second, Dani brought a guest to our home. A man in his early 70s, who had lost his wife of 55 years –with whom he did everything together—in a little over a month ago. I did not show much sympathy towards the man, which at first took Dani by complete surprise because I am in fact a quite emotional person, precisely because this man, despite having been known to really love his wife, etc. was talking about how lonely he was feeling and kept asking us to introduce him to other women. Now, I am not to judge how people grieve, everybody’s reactions are different, and obviously these were his feelings. But what bothered me in fact was that he had no filter, or rather he was not at all compelled to hide his feelings and desires and this bugged me immensely. Because I thought, I have not heard of one woman who wouldn’t be judged negatively to say the least, who within a month of losing her husband of 55 years would say openly, without even thinking twice, that “she needs a man”, and asks ordinary acquaintances to “introduce her to new men”.
So I said to him, yeah sure, we would be doing the same; that if he were the one dead quite suddenly, unexpectedly, then we would have been introducing his newly widowed wife to new men, just like he wanted to meet women right now. Ugh, misogyny, it’s everywhere. In art, music, education, business, politics, you name it! Well, Dani tried to conceal his smile, the man in the end cried and I realized perhaps this was not the best way to try to change things.
And in New York, at the Women in the World Summit one great talk after another we heard of instances of misogyny the world over. Yet the talk of Mary Beard was one of sections that was of most interest to me. Beard, a classicist, told the story of how it started with the Greeks, when Penelope, who faithfully, and patiently waited for her husband Odysseus’ return from the Trojan War, going out of her way to ward off suitors for 20 years, but wanting to talk to someone was told by her son Telemachus, in Beard's words, to “shut up” because "talking must be the concern of men".
Odysseus Returning to Penelope
Source: Metropolitan Museum of Art
Well, Odysseus in Greece is Ulysses in Rome, and this all got me thinking of James Joyce’s Ulysses and how Molly Bloom, equivalent of the classical Penelope—in contrast to Penelope—is in fact unfaithful after 10 years of her waiting for her husband Leopold’s return. Molly in her famous soliloquy questions the role and place of women in patriarchal society and draws important conclusions vis-à-vis women and their standing. But she lacks something that is evolving and becoming more and more important among women these days which was what I felt strongly throughout my whole time in the Women in the World Summit: Molly has no girl friends. There is no sisterhood that she can talk about. No woman whom she can lean on.
In the Women in the World Summit however, I was astounded by the unity, the Oneness that was evident from the whole lot of guests, almost all women, when women talked about the widest range of problems they faced, solved, and stood for their change; incredible braveries they conducted despite adversity, misogyny, and suffering. Everybody was liked: Fox News Anchor Megyn Kelly who was interviewed by Katie Couric, Mindy Kaling, former First Lady Laura Bush and her daughters Jenna and Barbara, Cecile Richards president of Planned Parenthood, Padma Lakshmi, Diane von Fürstenberg. And I learned about the plight of women refugees, mothers against gun violence, murdered Canadian indigenous women, Central American women on the run among other important issues. Needless to say, the talks, observations and interviews of the organizer of the Summit, Tina Brown were most important and just fantastic. And it all ended with Meryl Streep’s call for action.
One photo stood out for me, that of Christine Lagarde, Managing Director of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) among many men.
Source: Christine Lagarde Women in the World Summit
And I thought of Janet L. Yellen, Chair of the Federal Reserve, who is in fact to the lower right of the picture, and talking about these two women in powerful positions during a break with my 79-year old father on the phone, I was delighted to hear him say that he believed the world would be a better place with women leaders all over. I think a great example as to how to solve problems is the way how Mary Beard dealt with an online troll of hers who kept insulting her on twitter: One day Beard received a comment from a woman who said, “I know this young man’s mother, do you want her info?” She said yes, contacted the young man’s mother, who talked to her son, and in the end Beard communicated with him. She even helped him find a job! Finally, he understood. And apologized publicly. Problem not only resolved, but the root of the problem solved for good. How women as leaders can change the world fundamentally.
On the way back from the Lincoln Center walking, I thought of this to myself. We do not have the same life circumstances, but we all have a common bond, and through empathy we can understand, feel and be compelled to help others even though they might be different than us. That was what I felt strongly with the audience at the Women in the World Summit, and that this was what was lacking in Molly’s thinking, that yes, this misogyny is wrong but that can change with all women getting together united, with a sense of sisterhood. And that a contemporary Penelope/Molly would say:
Yes we will come together yes and we will show empathy yes be understanding of all injustices and horrors each of us encounter yes eventually lifting each other up yes changing mindsets yes making the world a better place yes I said yes I will Yes.