ALEX & ALMA: Alex Colville Retrospective closing this weekend in Toronto & Alma Duncan next weekend in Ottawa

Alex Colville was never an artist I considered as an interest. The experience of viewing the Art Gallery of Ontario’s current retrospective of his work left me considering otherwise.

Alma Duncan was never an artist I even knew to consider but her painting Young Black Girl (1940) is one of my favourites in the AGO’s collection. I had no knowledge of Alma at the time but I was drawn to the demure painting that used to hang in the round room to the right of the Old Masters Collection along with a Picasso from his Blue Period, and a pulsating Kees van Dongen. The room held a rotation of portraits and this enigmatic and somber piece made me return again and again.

Now the painting hangs at the Ottawa Art Gallery for one more week. It is positioned on the wall that intersects Alma’s bold self-portraits that greet me with a commanding series of stares.

There are many ways to conceptually enter into both the Alma and Alex exhibits but my pathway into understanding their work more deeply is through the relationships that they each present.

ALMA DUNCAN: The relationship one has with oneself. 

Alma’s portraits of herself are entirely different than my introduction to her work through her subject of the black girl who sits slightly askew and closed off from the viewer. In each painting Alma positions herself squarely, looking beyond the frame to her audience. It’s as if she is daring those who might question her authority as an artist. She began painting at a time when the art world offered little opportunity for female intervention into male dominated spaces. Even as she paints her young self with braids bound at their ends with red bows (Self-Portrait with Braids, 1940) there is a clear message she sends as she stands affirming her right to participate. She paints herself wearing a pair of trousers instead of a skirt. When I encounter this row of paintings with such a strong female presence my thought is that I am disappointed that it took this long for me to find her.

In the main room, behind one dividing wall, are her renderings of mines and the machinery of industry from her time spent documenting a developing Canada focused on trade and resources; on the other side abstracted sketches of grass and landscapes softened with snow. We can see how far she travelled in her journey to explore her visual language but its when I enter the second room and experience the blood red wall upon which her Woman Series (1965) is hung that I have a longing accompanied by an intense regret that my younger self didn’t experience these at an earlier moment in my own odyssey.

I would have loved to have experienced her boldness in my youth when looking for creative and conceptual heros sheros. The clean cut demarcation between the black and the white is not set in opposition to each other but rather as a compliment from one to the other.

They are magnificent.

As I come closer I sense a movement in the shimmering of the strokes. It reminds me of the shadowy depictions of the Shroud of Turin also known as the Shroud of Christ. But this analogy is not quite right. Rather than a covering used for the dead I realize it reminds me more of a vibrating sonogram where you can detect a pulse, a heart beat, a life. This is why I find them so magnetic because as I walk towards a particulate one that draws me close I see the defining outline of a woman’s torso reflected upon itself emerging from the inky deep. Although she moves from realism in her early work to this period of experimentation with abstraction in the 60s the strength and intensity of that young woman with the braids and red bows is the anchoring attribute we find repeated here.

Alma’s work may visually change, flux and bend but the explorative relationship she has with herself as a female artist is what moves me. It’s why I find myself coming back to this newly discovered piece over and over again not wanting to say good-bye.

ALEX COLVILLE: The relationship one has with their lover and life partner.

When I am at the Alex Colville show its also a female relationship that grounds me into the exhibit. I make a few laps around the rooms, weaving in and out of the crowd, to finally sit down somewhere mid-point and watch a short film. The video is narrated by Alex’s daughter Ann Kitz and in a few short minutes she poignantly shares with us the timeline of her parents lifetime of love – a 70 year excursion that ends the way it began – together. Alex died just weeks after his wife’s passing.

Exploration by going deep instead of wide.  

After experiencing World War II in his role as a war artist and documenting the liberation at Bergen-Belsen concentration camp it seemed like his marriage, which took place right before he left for war, became the stabilizing factor upon which he was able to build a career alongside raising a healthy family. The partnership with his wife, Rhoda, also an artist, gave him a solid foundation after experiencing the uprooting tension of conflict.

It was through this relationship Alex was able to arrive at both his signature technique and his recognizable aesthetic. Of the painting Nude and Dummy (1950) seen below he reflects that this was when he accomplished what he called his “first good painting.” From this piece we are able to see what is about to come down the road.

His visual journey doesn’t traverse the same distance as Alma’s trajectories. His way of rendering his compositions remains uniform throughout his career. He doesn’t become driven to aesthetic extremes; his loyalty to his signature style allows a deeper exploration into the psychological subtleties of the human condition. Alex’s work was about looking and then re-looking at a location or a person you know so well to find both the consistencies and the anomalies that open up a contemplative space.  He was quoted as saying that “only by living in a little place for a long time can one build up a sort of extensive body of complex knowledge and understanding of what goes on.”

Alex is known for his compositions that convey foreboding messages of something disruptive beyond the horizon but in seeing many of the his works based on Rhoda there is also an undeniably playful spirit that comes through these images of this woman, his wife. We see her at leisure with the figure we can interpret as Alex in the background close enough to be at her call but far enough as to not disturb her relaxation; we see her with her pets and her children and playing the piano while her aging husband sits close by. Over their lifetime Alex portrays her nude and exposed but accessible in her humanness, flaws not banished for the sake of the artist reflecting a perfected muse. She is real and charming, a crisp outline of paint separates her from the background but because we never fully see her face this woman still manages to maintain complexity surrounded by mystery.

Her head is lost inside of a canoe that she portages to another place; she stands with acceptance, a body shaped by age, in front of the old grandfather clock in their home. The image I come to love the most is of Rhoda defiantly naked and flipping the perspective of the world upside down, the cat as a casual witness. I feel it illustrates the adoration Alex had for this woman, at once his muse and the mother of his children. I can sense a chuckle from him and hear laughter from her as she gingerly makes her way down to plant her feet back on the ground. Headstand (1982) becomes the image that I end up visiting again and gain and the one final time to say farewell as the show closes its doors.

Thanks to the AGO & the OAG for providing an opportunity to view the life and work of two important Canadian artists.

Alex Colville closes today Sunday, January 4 at the Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto.
Alma: The Life and Art of Alma Duncan (1917 – 2004) closes Sunday, January 11 at the Ottawa Art Gallery, Ottawa.

All above images by Leah Snyder for Mixed Bag Mag. 

 

CLOSING THIS WEEKEND: Kwe at Justina M. Barnicke Gallery U of T Toronto & Skin Deep at Carleton University Art Gallery, Ottawa

Photograph of woman standing with her back to viewer, wearing casual clothes, jean jacket, hands outstretchedRebecca Belmore “Sister” 2010. Image provided by Scotiabank Contact.

“KWE delves into the complicated and fertile relationship between Indigeneity, art, and colonization. Kwe is the Anishinaabe word for woman and is a term of respect. Rebecca Belmore’s artistic practice engages the question of what it is to be an Anishinaabe-kwe artist working today through photography, sculptures, videos, and performances.” Scotiabank Contact website

Crammed into a confined space at the Justina M. Barnicke Gallery are four videos that span the career of artist Rebecca Belmore. The combination of the tight squeeze, the darkness and the haunting sounds seeping from the headsets feels like an assault on the senses – as it should be. Because Rebecca’s work isn’t about being conceptual – it batters you, hits you hard, compels you to have some sort of reaction even if that reaction is to go deeper into denial because the uncomfortable truths she tells are too painful to wrap your head around.

woman standing behind glass dragging stones down the window trailing a mixture of blood and oilwoman holding pointed stone between her hands with water dripping from itWoman pressing her bloody hand against a window, see her face through the glassWoman pressing her bloody hand against a window, see her face through the glassAbove images of Rebecca’s October 2013 performance in Toronto. All images by Leah Snyder for Mixed Bag Mag.

At a performance last fall as part of the Symposium on Decolonial Aesthetics From The Americas Rebecca scraped stone, blood, oil, over a window from the outside as we looked on as witnesses from the inside. The blazing lights of a parked car in a dark lot (aimed at the window and framing Rebecca’s body in silhouette) summed up how murdered and missing Indigenous Women (the current count according to the RCMP is 1181*) may have spent their final moments. I’ve travelled alone many times. I think of the close calls I have had on dark roads alone in cars with a man / men. There go I but for the grace of some god.

Why her, that Kwe? And why not me?

On might say because “she was in the wrong place at the wrong time” – the English phrase, that in this case, is a misnomer that actually means she was in a place where one is caught in a web of systems (beyond her control) that ensure that oppression won’t quit. An Indigenous woman’s body is still genocidal ground zero, lying under the immovable mass of Colonial rubble. At present very little is being done to protect our Indigenous sisters.

Despite the tragedy, Rebecca’s work has a beauty, and I am sure I am not the first to say this, a spirit of resilience. The KWE (pronounced K-way) exhibit demonstrates her ability to embed elegance into any composition or object. One exits from the room housing the videos into the main room inhabited by photography with a striking and succinct presence – a woman’s back, a worn jean jacket, outstretched arms, gracefully positioned fingers reach out as if to soften, with her touch, the room’s sharp corners.

Gallery space with art installs, sculpture and photographySeries of 3 photographs of woman wrapped in white linen like a mummy but with head hanging out. One image she is upside down and hanging

In the series Untitled a woman is wrapped in the swaddled style of a mummified corpse. The spirit of the woman breathes into the negative spaces; her shadows extend beyond her physical presence. Rebecca’s compositions are laconic phrases that speak of life enduring.

KWE closes this weekend at the Justina M. Barnicke with a performance by Rebecca. The performance Ayum-ee-aawach Oomama-mowan: Speaking to their Mother Gathering will include taking the megaphone Rebecca constructed in 1991, as a reaction to the Oka Crisis (Kanien’kehaka Resistance), out of the gallery space into the periphery of the city – Gibraltar Point, Toronto Island.

We are living through the pollution of our waterways from unregulated industry, and both Indigenous people and Canadians need to stand together to protect what Anishinaabe people and scientists believe is the lifeblood of Mother Earth. Many Indigenous women have brought attention to the issue through water walks, which actively heal the spirit of the water. Come lend your voice to their action or just hang out in support.Read more…

This event is tomorrow, Saturday, August 9, at 1 pm on Toronto Island. Join the Facebook Event Page to find out information on shuttle buses from the Gallery and pricing for ferries to the island.

In light of what has happened this week around water this has become a more imperative event.

*NOTE ON THE NUMBER 1181: When I asked Métis  artist Christi Belcourt of the Walking With Our Sisters Project to confirm the latest stats on the missing and murdered sisters she pointed out that the number doesn’t include deaths of Indigenous women who are ruled as suicide but whose death might actually be a murder. This number, she says, also doesn’t include trans women. Or women who were lost in the system of  residential schools, adoption, and foster care. Or women who are non-status. So the number, in truth, is much higher. It is also important to note that Indigenous men are going missing and being murdered at an alarming rate.

Crowd of people with artist in middle, curator at the microphone smiling LEFT: Rebecca Belmore at KWE opening. RIGHT: KWE’s curator Wanda Nanibush. Image by Leah Snyder for Mixed Bag Mag. 

 

View of gallery with Inuit art on wallsImage courtesy curator Lisa Truong. 

Ink etching of abstract faces of Inuit people with tattooed faces

“Skin Deep explores the enormous importance of skins and skin clothing in Inuit culture, past and present. In Inuit narratives, skin is something that can be worn, shed, and manipulated. People tattoo their own skin to affirm personal and cultural identities, and wear clothing made from animal skins for aesthetic adornment and protection from the elements. Skin Deep features the tools used to hunt animals and prepare their skins; prints, drawings, and sculptures depicting stories and objects in which skin plays a central role; and objects made from skin, such as mitts and boots. The exhibition includes the work of artists like Ningeokuluk Teevee, Jessie Oonark, Arnaqu Ashevak, and Helen Kalvak.”

Man and woman in front of Inuit print of people in traditional dressPhoto of curator Lisa Truong by Justin Wonnacott courtesy of Carleton University Art Gallery. 

Inuit Art: Skin Deep is a small but impactful show selected with care by curator Lisa Truong.  The exhibit currently on at Ottawa’s Carleton University Art Gallery, opened with uncanny timing this past spring after a winter of (justifiable) discontent from the Inuit community in response to Ellen DeGeneres support in the banning of the seal hunt.

The twittersphere was alive with #Sealfies as acts of self-determination. Some guests to the CUAG show expressed to Lisa that they had no idea until viewing the Skin Deep how vital seal was to the economy and culture of the North and now understood  the reaction of the Inuit community.

Two women viewing seal skin boots behind glass casePhoto by Justin Wonnacott courtesy of Carleton University Art Gallery. 

Inuk filmmaker Alethea Arnaquq-Baril was one of the spearheaders of the social media campaign. Alethea’s documentary Tunniit: Retracing the Lines of Inuit Tattoos recounts her own, often raw story, of how she uncovers the lost of traditions of tattooing.

With the coming of Christianity to the North tattooing became a shamed practice. Unlike other traditions that went underground but were still practiced in secret, tattooing disappeared. Alethea’s decision to tattoo her own face, initially, was not met with support from her Inuk mother. The shame around marking one’s body to embrace one’s identity as an Inuk person has been etched deep into the psyche of the Inuit. Breaking with traditions became a strategy of survival once the European arrived and took control.

Knowing this, when you see Arnaquq Ashevak’s “Tattooed Women” in Skin Deep you understand that it contains loaded histories and contemporary victories in its quiet presence. Much like Rebecca’s Untitled series, the way the women are wrapped by the bands of ink can be read as simultaneously binding and protective.

Art work with two woman standing with back to viewer, hands on their heads, both in tattoos lining their bodies“Tattooed Women” by Arnaqu Ashevak. Image courtesy of Dorset Fine Arts. 

Lisa recounts:

“when I saw Alethea’s documentary I knew I wanted to do something on the body and “Tattooed Women” was the first piece that popped into my mind. Alethea’s documentary shows reclamation of knowledge and a decision to go find that knowledge even if it is obscure – to go hunt it out – and place it on the body.”

Alethea’s choice to score her face with ink was a radical act of decolonizing her body. Her reversal back into time to bring forth a lost tradition will have dramatic impact on the future of her community. Already we see other Inuit women following her example.

Of Arnaqu’s work Lisa says:

“This piece is a reflective piece looking forward and looking back so on the right you have the woman who is representing the traditional body and facial tattoos as well as traditional forms of beauty. You can see ever so slightly the tattoos on her cheeks and two braids on the side of her head.

On the left a woman is clothed in tattoos that are contemporary, not to be literal, but as a symbolic decision on what parts to reveal and what parts to cover.

The way the women are posed, their arms up, they are asking people to look at their bodies. There is this gaze that travels across the body.

It’s a very warm piece and thought provoking piece because of the body language of the women – they are modest but have their arms up as to expose.”

For me, the power in this piece is the agency is expresses regarding women’s bodies and spiritual selves. As Lisa says, this work, like Alethea’s decision to tattoo her face “demonstrates the body as a place of political and cultural sovereignty.”

Art work of Inuit woman in traditional dress unzipping her head to reveal a fox coming out from her head“Shaman Revealed” by Ningeokuluk Teevee. Image courtesy of Dorset Fine Arts. 

The other piece in the show that as a woman moved me was “Shaman Revealed.” In a time when we desperately require (s)heros the unzipping of a woman’s skin to reveal the animal spirit inside speaks to the importance of personal transformation in finding the source of one’s influence.

The artist, Lisa says, “combines a traditional legend [the legend of Kiviuq] with contemporary flair. The story is about staying true to oneself and not criticizing others for being who they are.”

There is alchemic power when we reveal what we hide inside.

Both KWE and Skin Deep present the female/kwe body as the conduit of great strength and locate her beyond victimhood.

Inuit Art: Skin Deep closes this weekend at CUAG.

For weekend visiting hours visit the Carleton University Art Gallery’s website.

View of gallery with Inuit art on wallsImage courtesy curator Lisa Truong. 

OTTAWA SUMMER SOLSTICE: Great Day Spent with Friends

Ottawa Summer Solstice & Competition Powwow 2014.

It was a beautiful weekend to welcome in the summer season. Great to see everyone at the Summer Solstice Festival & Powwow!

Read more about the Ottawa Summer Solstice Festival on there website as well as follow on twitter @OttawaSolistice and Facebook.



Images by Leah Snyder for Mixed Bag Mag.

WALK A MILE IN HER SHOES: The Good Men of Toronto Take to the Streets

“Because gender based violence is not just a woman’s issue.”

Around the world we are seeing men step it up with initiatives that bring awareness to violence against women. Recently, in Bangalore, India, men took to wearing skirts to open up dialogue around sexual assault.

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/01/15/bangalore-men-skirts-protest-rape-india_n_2481990.html#slide=1989118“Why does wearing a skirt make a difference? It’s a satirical take on the issue to draw attention to the absurd idea that what a woman wears invites sexual assault. Wear that skirt as a symbol of your support to a woman’s right to wear what she wants, be who she is, exercise her rights, and be safe in her city. Nothing shows more solidarity with women than breaking barriers and boundaries of “his” and hers”. More info…

Close up image of men's feet while wearing high heels with business suits

In Toronto we have the White Ribbon Campaign and Walk a Mile in Her Shoes where Toronto men get out to walk a block in heels.

This year’s Walk a Mile in Her Shoes takes place on Thursday, September 26 from 12 – 2 pm starting at Dundas Square on Yonge Street. Thanks to all the fabulous men of Toronto who participated last year. WE LOVE YOU!!!! And thanks to all the fabulous men of Toronto participating this year as your efforts help create change and safe spaces for all people no matter their sexual orientation and gender identification.

Men in suits walking in the middle of street with heels on

There is an old saying…

“You can’t really understand another person’s experience until you’ve walked a mile in their shoes.” That’s why we’re asking you to put on a pair of high heels and join the White Ribbon Campaign to Walk A Mile in Her Shoes®. On Thursday September 26th, 2013 we’re all going to help end violence against women and girls, one man-sized step at a time.”

Register here

Donate Here

See you there!
Street map of Toronto around Dundas Square, Yonge Street.
Men in high heel shoes holding banner saying Walk a Mile in Her Shoes

WRITTEN ON THE BODY/ POLITICS OF POETRY: Iranian Artists & the Power of Script Pt 1

Cover of magazine with woman in chador, the barrel of a gun pointing out beside her right ear and Farsi script written over her face.

Establishing the Vocabulary of the Visuals

When Iranian artist Shirin Neshat’s photography first started appearing the language, whether you understood Farsi or not, was explosive.

The images mixed violence, tenderness, and sensuality in a way I had never encountered before. I was used to seeing women valued in art as an aesthetic but not as a stage upon which a woman could perform an act of defiance by literally writing the script of her own point of view upon the body.

This was 1990s and the voices of women artists, especially of non-Western origin, were still muffled under the (wet) blanket of Modernity’s traditions in the way we were to experience art, talk about art as well as conduct the business of art.

Above image from Islamic Arts Magazine article on Shirin Neshat.

“I feel a strong parallel between the writings of contemporary Iranian poets and my images, which visualize the metaphors that are so important in the text.” ~ Shirin Neshat in World Art Magazine, 1996

no one is thinking about the flowers
no one is thinking about the fish
no one wants to believe
the garden is dying
that the garden’s heart is swollen under the sun
that the garden
is slowly forgetting its green moments
~ Forugh Farrokhzād

Above image from Islamic Arts Magazine article on Shirin Neshat.

For me, the contemporary art I was studying in university and experiencing in galleries felt foreign and unrecognizable – not so much to my eyes but to my soul. In the experience of Shirin’s work I found a homeland. It was the gestures – the female hands and lips. It was the look in the eyes staring from one female to another. This time a woman’s gaze was directing the compositional outcome.

Photograph on page of magazine with woman holding a gun between her feet and Farsi script written on the bottom of them.

Since that time there has been an outburst of women in art. Internationally the work of women is some of the most exciting work to be encountered. The art is layered with explorative technique and quick cleverness as well as being emotionally charged.

But the commentary provided in the work is not exclusive to the female mind. Much of the work being produced is about the experience of being human.

Sona Safaei-Sooreh’s installation Alphabet and Border, currently showing at York Quay Gallery (Harbourfront Centre) as part of curator Sanaz Mazinani‘s The  Third Space Exhibit uses a video of English text converging with Farsi script to get the audience to consider the contemporary condition of ever collapsing boundaries.

Sona Safaei-Sooreh installation “Alphabet and Border”. Image by Leah Snyder for Mixed Bag Mag.

Border is a video installation in which Farsi and English texts move towards a corner of a room and disappear on the borderline of two walls. It is about arbitrariness of rules and regulations, the sense of in-between-ness, duality and ambivalence that one experiences in a transcultural situation.

The borderline is a narrow vertical line between two walls: the joint. The place two walls meet.  This very “thin line” changes the direction of one’s eye, all of a sudden similar to geopolitical borders in between countries. One step back or forth one is occupied with different laws and orders.”

This beautiful short by Elnaz Maassoumian treats text in a different way less about its abstraction and more about the poetics of its meaning as interpreted by the viewer.

Untitled from Elnaz Maassoumian on Vimeo.

From literal translation of text back over to abstraction Elnaz’ piece featured in The Third Space exhibit is about the “Poetics of Space”.

Image from curator Sanaz Mazinani‘s Facebook page.

“I am interested in Gaston Bachelard’s idea from The Poetics of Space. Bachelard talks about different kinds of spaces: nests, shells, corners…These spaces are approached both from their physical and metaphorical aspects: they offer refuge and constitute ‘doors for the imagination’.  I am interested in the potentials of space. By this I mean the exploration of the possible uses that a space offers. I am approaching this through the reconfiguration of a given space to accommodate specific needs which can change over time. For these purposes, flexible, malleable materials constitute ideal means. They can be easily retooled or reshape to conform given purposes. They also open rich possibilities for redefinition of the relation between private-public; in-out; isolation-connection; visible-invisible.”   More images on Elnaz’s website

To gain more insight into Shirin’s powerful imagery, both in the still and moving image, MIXED BAG MAG recommends Tirgan Festival at Harbourfront Centre this coming weekend. Shirin will be giving talks on her body of work and there will be screenings of both her feature film Women Without Men as well as her shorts. All events are FREE!

FRIDAY, JULY 19
7 pm – Correlations of Visual Arts & Cinema Q & A with Shoja Azari, Shirin Neshat, Babak Payami @ Lakeside Terrace, Harbourfront Centre

9 pm – Collection of Short Films by Shirin Neshat @ Studio Theatre Harbourfront Centre


SATURDAY, JULY 20

1 pm – Women Without Men Screening with Q & A @ Studio Theatre Harbourfront Centre

9:30 pm – Women Without Men Screening with Q & A

ONGOING

The Third Space Exhibit is ongoing until September 15 at Harbourfront Centre.

Work by Gita Hashemi. Image by Leah Snyder for Mixed Bag Mag.

U ROCK & I ROCK: And the Continued Tale of Why the Dove Campaign Pissed Me Off Part 2

Female toddler in yellow outfit playing on floor with plastic container.
Me in 1971. This photo captures what I hope still comes through as an adult – a happy, playful, open soul. 

DISCLAIMER: My critique is not with the women featured in the newest Dove Campaign. I appreciate that they demonstrated vulnerability in opening themselves up as they did. If this was a documentary presented by an independent female filmmaker with opportunities for productive dialogue I would have a different opinion – but consider the source.

“Only 4% of women worldwide consider themselves beautiful.”

Let me begin by saying I don’t buy that stat!

When Dove first came out with their “Campaign for Real Beauty” in 2004, although in big agreement that there needed to be more diversity in beauty advertising, I wasn’t buying into their feel good message because their products contain chemicals that are known to be toxic, carcinogenic and damaging to a woman’s body and health.

Years ago I owned a green cleaning business. I researched deep into Sick Building Syndrome and how what were using to decorate and clean our homes with was making the inside of our buildings more polluted than the LA freeway at rush hour. The more I researched the sicker I felt at the incredible hole we were digging ourselves into. My research also included personal hygiene products. There and then I simplified – baking soda, vinegar and tea tree to keep my house clean; organic coconut or olive oil and glycerin soap for my beauty routine with the occasional indulgence of vegan body cream when the funds allowed.

Because of a serious car accident my business ended shortly before it got off the ground but I never let go of what I learned and the knowledge I gained allowed me to become more informed as well as critical to brand brainwashing.

So yes, I thought Dove, owned by Unilever, was hypocritical in its proselytizing about its love for women and its desire to promote healthier self-esteem while they sold products that encouraged us to slather our skin with some pretty unhealthy stuff.

I tuned Dove out – that is until the “You are more beautiful than you think” Campaign went viral and I could no longer ignore their damn brand.

I am tired to the bone of mixed messages and beauty campaigns that plug into female self-loathing.

When speaking to a friend just after watching the video my first critique was that despite their promotion of diversity the women featured are predominantly white – the opening scene begins with the thin legs of a young woman walking into a room. She is white, blonde, model proportions looking like the Nordic nemesis from my youth. Next scene – young, dark haired, thin, white woman. Next woman – white, blonde, middle-aged. Back to the dark haired woman shown walking with slender legs in skinny jeans, cute in a Charlotte Gainsbourgy kind of way. Another white woman appears…

More images of white women, many of them slender, young, attractive and fashionable with only brief seconds of non-white women and one black man slipped in, each with little to no dialogue.

My friend’s rant on her Facebook wall:

“The sad music with the message ‘you’re prettier than you think’. Because that’s all we are, right? That’s our only currency – being pretty. Tears of joy “I’m prettier than I thought!” This is feeding some gender bs that makes my blood boil.”

Yet again our self-worth is being bound to our appearance. When do we get released from that yoke?

One comment on her wall wrapped it up well:

“The main message is you should recognize your natural beauty and that you’re less fat than you think? I guess it’s a step up from other beauty ads, but it also ain’t really liberating.”

Self-deprecation is defined as the act of belittling or undervaluing oneself.

Thin, blue-eyed, short-nose used as positive descriptors and fat, dark circles, wrinkles as negative.

After our rant this blog post, by Jazz Brice, popped up on my feed:

Why Dove’s “Real Beauty Sketches” Video Makes Me Uncomfortable… and Kind of Makes Me Angry

She did the math on the diversity (or lack thereof).

“Out of 6:36 minutes of footage, people of color are onscreen for less than 10 seconds.”

Jazz’s post echoed much of what my friend and I discussed.

“Why are so many females I know having such a strong reaction to the sketches video, being moved to the point of tears? 

Because the message that we constantly receive is that girls are not valuable without beauty. 

Brave, strong, smart? Not enough. You have to be beautiful. And “beautiful” means something very specific, and very physical.”

Let’s say that again – BEAUTIFUL MEANS SOMETHING VERY SPECIFIC AND VERY PHYSICAL.

She goes on to say:

“My primary problem with this Dove ad is that it’s not really challenging the message like it makes us feel like it is. It doesn’t really tell us that the definition of beauty is broader than we have been trained to think it is, and it doesn’t really tell us that fitting inside that definition isn’t the most important thing. It doesn’t really push back against the constant objectification of women. All it’s really saying is that you’re actually not quite as far off from the narrow definition as you might think that you are (if you look like the featured women).”

WELL SAID!

And like her I also felt unsettled by this woman’s words that wrapped up the commercial:

“I should be more grateful of my natural beauty. It impacts the choices and the friends we make, the jobs we go out for, the way we treat our children, it impacts everything. It couldn’t be more critical to your happiness.”

Who was the focus group for this marketing campaign? A panel of J Crew models?

As I watched the clip for a second time while writing this post it finally hit me what I was unable to put my finger on before. Dove, for all its “movement marketing“, has aligned itself not with the hopeful “beauty-is-all-encompassing” message. What it has aligned itself with is the white aesthetic notions of the dominant culture and at the same time plugged into the culture of shame regarding the body, culturally sanctioned self-deprecation and privileged guilt regarding fat that can only surface in a capitalist system where constant consumption is the goal. You will not find people starving themselves to be thin where there is scarcity of food. You will not find people complaining about their crows’ feet in places where all-inclusive vacations to the sunny South aren’t the norm. Pinge. Burge. Guilt. Shame. But don’t forget you are more beautiful than you think which makes you worthier than you know (to the marketplace).

That folks…is a white thing!

I will bet that the real reason they didn’t use more non-white women was because the dialogue would not be to the level of self-deprecation for the sound bites they required. Who better to perpetuate the message of shame (cue tears of guilt for saying bad things about yourself) and take the scolding that you are not appreciating the natural beauty you really have (but we aren’t going to free you from that nagging notion that you are somehow not enough).

Growing up in this culture I know it well. Putting down one’s body and lamenting over appearance became ritualized behaviour upon leaving the innocence of adolescence and a rite of passage for moving onward into womanhood. Not only was it accepted it was expected. Walk into any women’s change room at a mall on this continent and listen in on the conversations. Something has gone terribly wrong.

Thanks Dove for nothing…but slick marketing; soft shots of white loft spaces with white girls, camera pans of skinny legs, predictable (read sterile) décor and manipulating music. This is the Forrest Gump of marketing campaigns.

To criticize the miracle my body is and the vehicle it gives me to be present in this world is not something I am willing to partake in.

It took time for my Mediterranean-featured self to come to terms with my looks but when I stepped out of this culture for the first time I encountered non-North American aesthetics of beauty that were less binding then the ones I was experiencing back at home. Upon returning, I started the process of deconstructing the anxiety the advertising had created in me. By the time I accepted my own appearance and decided I actually loved my features I also realized that that journey brought me to a place where I found my outward appearance mattered less than I thought. It took a car accident and wondering if I would ever be able to walk again without pain to love my body for its ability to heal, be grateful for that and to understand I do stand in a place of privilege.

I will keep my lop-sided laugh lines as to me they are proof that I smile often and wink with my left eye as I do. 😉

So I declare it here – I am not one of the 4%.

I am beautiful for the same reasons I see beauty in the other women who are in my life and who I value for what they offer:

Vibrancy. An engaging smile that says – “I am accessible, let’s have a chat.”

Intelligence. A way of looking at the world with a discerning mind so when something isn’t working and they have the skill set to make a change they go after it with gusto and suggesting – “Maybe our skill set can be combined? Let’s collaborate”

Playfulness. Even though they question the world around them they don’t lose that child inside that still believes in magic, serendipity, surprises, and unexpected places just around the corner – “Let’s go explore together sometime.”

Compassion. They are not going to just walk by someone who is visibly hurting. They will take the time to stop and listen. Saying – “If you ever need help let me know.”

Empathy. Fundamentally believing that we are connected and if we don’t acknowledge the stories of others we lose the chance to enrich our own experience as a human being. They are the type of women to say – “Maybe there is something in my story that will strengthen and inspire a part of you. I am not afraid to open up and share.”

I really hope the reactions to this campaign will move women to collectively to say enough is enough. To not echo these words:

It (outward appearance) couldn’t be more critical to your happiness.”

But rather:

“It’s nice but not a necessity to defining my value.”

Dark haired woman smiling in mirror as she takes a photograph of herself. Me at 42 years old. Sweaty with no makeup covering the ‘dark circles’ under my eyes, unthreaded brows and hair askew but happy after a spring afternoon spent outside and quite digging how healthy I look!

 

 

 

Some more antidotes to the Dove Campaign!

Brené Brown’s Ted Talk on “The Power of Vulnerability”

Vulnerability – where real beauty lies.

They (people who have a deep sense that they are worthy of love and belonging) believed that what made them vulnerable made them beautiful. They didn’t talk about vulnerability being comfortable nor did they talk about it being excruciating… they just talked about it being necessary. They talked about the willingness to say I love you first, the willingness to do something where there are no guarantees…the willing[ness] to invest in a relationship that may or may not work out. They thought this was fundamental”

Thandie Newton’s Ted Talk on “Embracing Otherness, Embracing Myself”

Thinking beyond the value of self-worth to the value of oneness.

“I still believed my self was all I was. I still valued self-worth above all other worth and what was there to suggest otherwise. We’ve created entire value systems and a physical reality to support the worth of self. Look at the industry for self image and the jobs it creates the revenue it turns over. We’d be right in assuming that the self is an actual living thing. But it is not. It‘s a projection that our clever brains create in order to cheat ourselves from the reality of death. But there is something that can give the self ultimate and infinite connection and that thing is oneness, our essence. The self’s struggle for authenticity and definition will never end unless it is connected to its creator, to you, and to me and that can happen with awareness – awareness of the reality of oneness and the projection of self-hood.”

Some more opinions on the Dove Sketches Campaign:

Globe & Mail
Dove has it wrong. It’s probably better not to think about your looks by Adriana Barton

The Toronto Star
Dove Sketches video manipulates our emotions by Tracy Nesdoly

The National Post
A Cultured Life: Dove’s latest ‘Real Beauty’ ads are about selling soap, but they raise debate over body image, too by Maryam Siddiqi

The Huffington Post
Why Dove’s “Real Beauty Sketches” Video Makes Me Uncomfortable… and Kind of Makes Me Angry by Jazz Brice

The Problem With Dove’s Real Beauty Sketches Campaign by Kate Fridkis

Who Could Benefit from the Dove Real Beauty Sketch Campaign? Men.  By Sheila Moeschen

Dove’s ‘Real Beauty Sketches’ Ad Campaign Tells Women ‘You’re More Beautiful Than You Think’ (VIDEO) by Emma Gray

Ladies: Dove’s “Real Beauty Sketches” Are More Condescending Than You Think by Rondi Adamson

Forbes
Dove, Your ‘Sketches’ Idea Is More Beautiful Than Your Critics Think by Will Burns