#5

ESSAY

October 2020

men are half women,

notes on eco feminism

tara londi 

Men are actually half women. Not only are men a make up of chromosomes X and Y, X being women's, but Y is a degeneration of chromosome X that only appeared much later in the prehistoric oceanic soup that was the inception of human life on Earth, 3 hundred million years ago. Y is the weaker chromosome, becoming weaker by the day. So much so, that scientists call it the 'Curse of Adam' and don't exclude a future where we, humans, will revert, once again, to being just females (XX). Amen. 

 

This simple scientific fact can disprove a lifetime’s worth of misunderstandings (about the 'weaker sex') and I, after years swimming against tides of prejudice to get to their source, have only become too weary of “history's misuse to lower expectations", as warned by the brilliantly sage Toni Morrison. 

 

So, when in 2018, I was asked to curate an exhibition in Tehran, under the proposed title, All About Eve, Women As Nature, I somehow had to laugh. You don't need to be fluent in feminist theory to see the paradox here: the bias identification of woman as nature, and man as culture, is one of the most sinister, powerful prejudices against women's emancipation. Barbara Kruger's We Won't Play Nature To Your Culture (1983) testifies against centuries of subjugation. And through Eve herself—the first woman, fictitiously born out of Adam's rib (with her old friend the snake), the embodiment of the wicked temptation that all women are, to this day and in different measures, still seeking redemption for. The original sin indeed, but the sin against women.

 

At the time, however, I had just curated a feminist group show, Mademoiselle (CRAC, Sète); 37 women artists exploring feminist art's heritage in contemporary art, and therein the paradoxes of being a woman today with an unforgiving sense of humour. Hence, I thought that appointing me for an exhibition in Iran, consciously hid a wicked, subversive agenda in the organizers and that I, of all curators, was being hired to outsmart Islamic censorship. I accepted. This show would provide me with the opportunity to confront the concurrent controversy surrounding the 'relevance today of women only' exhibitions like Mademoiselle—a debate I deemed precipitate and unfair. After all, Iran, and many western countries too, are proof that women's emancipation is directly linked to nationality, race and class, and that the feminist project is far from being accomplished. Would Iranian censorship detect any subversive agenda if I presented Romana Londi's colour changing snakeskin canvases addressing both colour and gender as evolving cultural constructions? And Conrad Shawcross’s dancing tribute to 19th century computer programmer Ada Lovelace, The ADA Project (2013–) a she-robot that dances to music: would Iranian officials arrest it/her for dancing? I wondered.

 

Artists, like all women in history, have had to avail themselves of all sorts of tricks and allegories to express themselves in totalitarian regimes. This is an artform in itself that is missing in museums and in books. Moreover, discussing nature and the environmental crisis has become, in Teheran and elsewhere, as dangerous as discussing feminism itself.

 

So, dwelling on feminism, the role of nature, and Iran's repressive regime, I started to wonder why am I so radically against the identification of women and nature? What is wrong with nature? And why and how did We, Women, become associated with it?  But also, turning the debate to the present tense: what are the consequences of women's and nature's association for mankind at large? What lessons can we learn from it today? This is how and why, from being a feminist curator, I 'evolved' into an Her-storian, an Her-cheologist, and a so-called eco-feminist art theorist. The story I discovered is not only long, but as old as time itself, and rather than providing an exhaustive answer, it raises multiple other questions, which are windows into different worlds. This brief article offers only a glimpse into some of these windows, yet, hopefully, it can provide an introduction into ecofeminism and ecofeminist art.
 


 

Beginning from the beginning, you only need to look up Gaia, (Gaea), the primordial Greek goddess of Earth, ‘the Mother of All’, and you will see that She has a thousand feminine names. In ancient Anatolia she was Cybele, in Babylon Anat, in Egypt Isis and Hathor, in Celtic Ireland Dana, in India Anapurma 'the provider'. Continents—Asia, Africa and Europe—were named after manifestations of the Goddess and every nation gave it’s territory the name of its own Mother Earth—Lybia, Lydia, Russia, Anatolia, Latium, Holland, China, Ionia, Akkad, Chaldea, Scotland (Scotia), Ireland (Eriu, Hera) were but a few. 

 

Planet Earth, Nature, appears throughout 30,000 years of ancient history as a female divinity, the Great Goddess, source of all human, animal and plant life. Art proves to be a great advantage in tracing this unintelligible evolution, and most importantly, in recognizing the lasting ethos of our ancestral Earth-based spirituality in the present day collective subconscious.

 

Much of my research is based on archaeologist Marija Gimbutas’ extensive and widely accepted theories on prehistoric people. Gimbutas reinterprets European prehistory in light of her knowledge of linguistics, ethnology and the history of religions. She challenges several received ideas regarding the premises of European civilization and human nature itself. Her research in Anatolia, (Turkey), and all across what is Europe today, reveals the existence of a sophisticated matrilocal pre-Indo-European civilization she called the "prehistoric culture of the goddess". Beginning in the Palaeolithic, and ending only with the patriarchal culture of the Bronze Age, it lasted up to 160,000 years. According to her interpretation, matrilocal societies were not only peaceful and equal, but venerated homosexuals and favoured the sharing of property. It is undeniable that the value of this debate reaches beyond historical interest, for Gimbutas' theories cut to the heart of basic questions about human nature and possibilities. Are humans innately aggressive and dominating, condemned to destroy each other and the Earth? Or, as her theories suggest, are we capable of creating cultures based on cooperation and peace?

None of Gimbutas’ work on the civilization of the goddess appears in schools curricula, but is hidden away instead in the niche corners of so called Women’s Studies departments of the more progressive libraries (often with self-help books, as if, indeed, women's depressions may be closely linked to their exclusion from mainstream history). 

 

Yet, the value of Gimbutas’ revelation concerns all—not only women—exposing as it does our ‘primordial war-raging human instinct’ rhetoric as niche male fiction itself. 

 

Feminist artist Judy Chicago's 2019 work If Women Ruled the World (conceived, but not executed, as Inflatable Mother Goddess in 1977) contributes to the series of questions about the consequences of women's exclusion from decision-making roles in history. In this work, Chicago seated an audience inside a gigantic goddess figure on the Rodin Museum grounds, presenting inside it an installation The Female Divine, a multitude of flagging tapestries raising questions such as: “Would Buildings Resemble Wombs?” “Would God Be Female?” “Would There Be Violence?” “Would Both Women and Men Be Gentle?” but also "Would The Earth be protected"?  

 

In On the Concept of History (1942), Walter Benjamin warned us: writing History is switching on and off the light in the room, and since ‘it is written by the victors', it is undeniably one sided; this is why feminists speak of 'His-tory'. However (and thanks to Marija's interpretation), if, as Walter Benjamin also argues, 'the miserable fifty millennia of Homo sapiens represents something like the last two seconds of a twenty-four hour day' and 'The entire history of civilized humanity, on this scale, takes up only one fifth of the last second of the last hour', ecofeminist art testifies that the millennia’s worth of silent knowledge survived in the sagacity passed on (and written off as myth) by (wise) women (also known as witches).

   

     ∞

 

Immanence, animism, holism, the power of magic through ritual, sacred geometry, the respect of mystery and the faith in the endless cycle of life: Eco-feminist art reaffirms, or is resting upon the primordial pagan worldview that there is no distinction between the spiritual and the material, the sacred and the secular. 

 

Feminist artist Ana Mendieta's Silueta Series (1973–1980), inspired by Cuban voodoo rituals and beliefs, are not so different from ancestral ceremonies of communion with the Earth. Judy Chicago's depictions of vulvas honour the matriarch’s body, just like the very first engraving on rock did 37,000 years ago at France's Abri Castanet. Mary Beth Edelson’s collages of women with animal heads resonate with the ancient Venus figurines, like the Bird Headed Snake Goddess from predynastic Egypt (4,000 BCE), which beautifully combines two powerful totems, the Bird and the Serpent, ancient symbols of birth, death and rebirth. 

 

These are not isolated artists, and theirs not merely a homage to prehistoric art. The aesthetic, symbolic, and multisensory undercurrent of much of feminist art carries in itself a powerful shift of consciousness with respect to human bodies, the natural world, and human’s position in the web of life: that is what we call Eco-feminist art.

 

Luchita Hurtado's self-portraits as mountainous landscapes; Pipilotti Rist's overlapping videos inside the human body and then deep into the jungle (cleverly juxtaposed so that you don't know which is which); Donna Huanca's movements, embodying the animist belief that all forms of existence have an affective life force within them and that all the elements—body and objects—are impregnated with cosmic pigments, unifying and stabilizing the animate with the inanimate, the human with the mineral, the organic with the synthetic. 

 

The list of artists goes on and multiplies in the younger generation, who, more and more, avail themselves of advanced scientific knowledge as an integral part of their work to resurrect our most ancient knowledge of the world.

 

 

Archaeology is itself a modern science. Only in 2013 were we able to identify 75% of hand stencils in the Lascaux caves as women's (and adolescents) hands and many theories suggest that, it was prehistoric women who (through their menstrual cycle and childbearing experience) attempted to understand the concept of 'time' and 'repetition', inventing artful ceremonies to exorcise their fear and communicate with the living energy of the world; a mother Earth they believed to be a part of, and whose children— born miraculously out of the natural elements, rather than intercourse—they magically delivered. In fact, research has suggested that neither women nor men realised the male role in procreation until the Upper Neolithic period

 

The first women artists, as Marija Gimbutas understood, were high priestesses that shared across Europe a common system of symbols, systematized enough that one may assume that the symbol-system is a kind of early, sacred writing:

 

“The multiple categories, functions and symbols used by prehistoric peoples to express the Great Mystery are all aspects of the unbroken unity of a deity, a goddess who is ultimately nature itself.” [1]

 

Thus, the most accomplished book by Georges Bataille, Lascaux: Or, the Birth Of Art (1955) should read from beginning to read end as ‘She’ instead of ‘He’ (prehistoric artist), just like Barnett Newman’s quote from 1947: "the first man was an artist" should exact "the first artist was a woman". Linda Nochlin, author of Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists? (1971) would have exulted, since women were probably the first artists, and hereby we could easily revert to the bias identification of women as nature and men as culture. If we are correct: women are the inventors of culture, and a culture that is not the opposite of nature, as the western school of thought teaches, but one with it. In the 1960s, when the Second Wave feminist movement challenged the iron grip of biological determinism that had been used historically to justify men's control over women, they soon began to understand how culture's devaluation of natural processes was a product of masculine consciousness per se. A consciousness that denigrated and manipulated everything that was other: nature, women, or third world cultures. 

 

Their 'intuition' proves premonitory today when the impact of human activity on the Earth threatens an environmental crisis. The Anthropocene is nothing more than the result of capitalism, (an era in which all of nature is transformed by the focus on accumulation of capital, hence Jason W. Moore calls it Capitalocene [2]), and capitalism is itself the brainchild of patriarchy. The term Ecofeminism was invented by french author Françoise d'Eaubonne in Le Féminisme ou la Mort  (1974). Since the 1970s it has spiraled into many different branches of studies and perspectives, yet, all channel a critique on the effects of patriarchal capitalism on the environment, not to radicalize women’s supreme closeness to nature, nor to overturn women's identification with it—as the binary opposition for men and culture—but to resurrect a primeval understanding of the world as a living organism, and encourage ecological sustainability. The ancient sacred writing, then, beginning in the beginning and reaching far beyond the dualistic dialectic of Western civilization (men, women, nature, culture, animate, inanimate) may prove our only way forward.

 

With the advent of monotheistic religions and then the scientific revolution, Western culture increasingly set itself above and apart from all that was symbolized by nature and the feminine [3]. Capitalism, writes Silvia Federici, started as a war on women [4]. It systematically required a flight away from the feminine, far from the memory of union with the maternal world, and a rejection of all the values associated with femininity and motherhood, including our body. René Descartes' A Discourse on Method (1637) single handedly reduced the body to be distinct and beneath the soul, providing a kind of automatism and mechanistic view of the world that is the prerequisite for the capitalist project of exploitation: the invention of 'dead matter' [5]. The word matter itself is etymologically linked to mater, meaning ‘origin, source, mother’.

 

The witch-hunts (a genocide) have been strategic to this project. Naming and persecuting women as “witches” paved the way to the confinement of women in Europe to unpaid domestic labor. But also, arresting the witches, usually old women (the word witch itself shares the root with 'wit' and 'wisdom') eradicated the ancient animist understanding of nature as a living organism. Similarly, in colonial history, the cult of civilization helped justify the continuing exploitation of nature's resources and control over indigenous inhabitants.

 

Feminists have always been at the forefront of environmental activism, and women the pioneers in the fight against ecological destruction. American scientist Rachel Carson's seminal book Silent Spring (1962) set the stage for the environmental movement that led to the creation in 1970 of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Artist Agnes Denes's Wheatfield - a Confrontation: Battery Park Landfill (1982), is widely regarded as the first artwork to denounce the ecological crisis and inequality. Today its value is more relevant than ever, in the wake of both climate change and the increasing divide between the 1% and the rest of the planet’s population.

 

It is widely argued that women's social experience of caretaking and nurturing, and their unique role in the biological regeneration of the species, means that they are often the first to spot and experience signs of distress. In the industrialized world, women, often uneducated housewives, felt compelled to revolt against the mindless spraying of chemicals, toxic waste, radiation seepage from nuclear power plants, weapons testing, and the ultimate extinction of life on Earth. Their intuitions were, (inevitably and unfortunately), always proved to be right. 

 

Meanwhile in developing countries, women's struggle to survive in a rural environment is directly linked to an ecological struggle, as women are intimately involved in sustaining and conserving water, land and forests they depend on. Indian eco-feminist Vandana Shiva theorized women’s increasing subjugation in the midst of what she calls 'mal-development', by questioning what we consider and value as Progress and Wealth. It turns out that the battle against the environmental crisis is also, and again, played out on the grounds of gender, race and class. This is especially apparent when we consider that economically-challenged countries have become the dumping lot of wealthier ones, and available cures against its effects (illness), depends on the (at times spine-chilling) limited knowledge and focus on women's bodies and health. The taboo surrounding women's bodies and sexuality is one of the most acute consequences of the denigration of Mother Earth, nature and natural processes, and the flight from the feminine.  Yet, it does not affect only women, but men too.

 

My journey in the realm of eco-feminism, took me exactly here, today: realizing  that the same machine that kills women (capitalism) does not spare anyone. Female bodies went from being worshipped to being fatally neglected by medical and technological progress, animals have become extinct at an incredible rate, vitally important forests disappear, and humanity as a whole is threatened by a level of pollution that is our own making. It is a world made by and for men that in the very end is killing us all, men included.

 

Feminism always seems, to me at least, an inaccurate (and unfair) word for it, when the feminist project for equality so often expands beyond granting women human rights, and, as in the case of ecofeminism, highlights the effects of literally 'toxic' masculinity on men's health too. Animals, plants, all living beings under the sun are concerned. 

 

 

In the end because of the ongoing political conflict in Iran, I never managed to curate my (secretly eco-feminist) exhibition there. Yet, in 2019, I gathered my research and presented it in Gaia has a Thousand Names, An Eco-Feminist Exhibition at the Elgiz Museum in Istanbul. Despite its universal relevance the show only received a small mention in an art magazine's column dedicated to a list of feminist exhibitions. It reminded me of when, in the 1960s, geo-scientist luminary James Lovelock proposed to call geo-scientists 'Gaia-scientists' instead, resurrecting the goddess figure to grant planet Earth the dignity of a life of its own, geoscientists refused, embarrassed and belittled to work for Gaia—Mother Earth. 

 

 

At present, I am working towards creating an overview of the many ways and forms in which women artists have, often unwittingly, perpetuated ancient beliefs and rituals that date back to the olden goddess religion and their relevance today. Apart from discovering many great women artists the book may also provide a parallel history of the Earth (a second Earth by the second sex), as told by those wise women (witches) whose beliefs, scientific advancement has proved to be true. In fact, quoting Starhawk, a theorist of Neopaganism:

 

"Modern physics no longer speaks of separate atoms, and isolates from a dead matter, but of energy flows, probabilities, phenomena that change when we observe it, and recognizes what shamans and witches have always known, that energy and matter are not separate forces, but different forms of the same thing.” [6]

 

We humans are only a part of a great beyond, a living organism, and ecology, Eco being House in Greek, may as well be another rather inaccurate term for what is certainly not a human construction, nor should be regarded as such. 

 

I hope that the book I am working on, will reach a few mixed classrooms, opening up windows into different worlds, and questioning historical narratives for the next generations, and one day even go as far as being translated for the people in Iran I never got to meet, at least for now.  It wouldn’t merely be a feminist victory if it did, or the book just another feminist art anthology, but represent instead a steppingstone towards making the world, Mother Earth, a better place for all, and our re-education ultimately, a quest for Hers and Our own survival.  

References

[1] Gimbutas, Marija A. The Language of the Goddess. London: Thames and Hudson, 1989. 

[2] Moore, Jason W. Anthropocene or Capitalocene?: Nature, History, and the Crisis of Capitalism. Oakland: PM Press, 2016.

[3] Merchant, Caroline. The Death of Nature. Wildwood House, 1980.

[4] Federici, Silvia. Witches, Witch-Hunting, and Women. Toronto: Between the Lines, 2018. 

[5] Bordo, Susan. The Flight to Objectivity: Essays on Cartesianism and Culture. Albany: State Univ. of New York Press, 1987.

[6] https://starhawk.org/

TARA LONDI is an Italian–Irish writer, art historian and independent curator currently based in France. Since graduating at Goldsmiths University of London (2009), Tara has curated art exhibitions, private art collections, and cultural programs.  Tara specializes on feminism and ecology, and has lectured on both subjects at CAS, Sorbonne University, and Contemporary Istanbul. Tara is currently writing a book on eco-feminist art and her first novel. 

 

Image credits, top to bottom,

Tragic Magic, Oil on Linen, 11.75” x 11.75”, 2020 by Ambera Wellman

If Women Ruled the World, copyright Judy Chicago, Christian Dior SE, 2019.

Starhawk (Witch, and Neo pagan theorist) by Suzanne Husky, 2019, still from Earth Cycle Trance, led by Starhawk, 32 min video, Istanbul Biennial, 2019

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