Simple power (by Olga Norris)

Sometimes a visual piece stays in the mind beyond any memory of the context, or any impulse to find out more about it and/or the artist at the time.  When this happens to me I find that more often than not the work has a powerful simplicity: a clear sense of itself. 

One such piece which I remember distinctly is the one below:apologies for the small size

For My Mother (Vogue 1977-1997), 1998     Tracing paper and marker

I did not take a specific note of the title or the artist at the time, and it is only by chasing around Google now that I have now found that the latter is Emily Jacir.  The piece was part of an exhibition I saw in Oxford in late 2003 entitled Veil.  The show itself was culturally thought-provoking as also noted by a local reviewer, who like me was particularly drawn to Emily Jacir’s piece. 

This is how the artist described the work as developed for another exhibition:

“The work is a selection of three pieces from the series entitled “From Paris to Riyadh(Drawings for my Mother, 1976-1996)”. These pieces are based on my memories of traveling in and out of Saudi Arabia. On the airplane from Europe to Saudi Arabia, my mother would black out with a marker all the exposed parts of female bodies in the latest Vogue magazines in order to bring them into the country. In “Novembre 1977”, “Avril 1984”, and “Mars 1991″, I have traced all the illegal sections from each month onto vellum. The tracings from each issue becomes a piece comprised of drawings in which all that remains are the black shapes. Marker on vellum documents all the illegal sections from these months. Each of these pieces are laid out in the shape of a page and hung in order corresponding to the pages of the magazine. These drawings represent the space in between a place where the image of woman is banned, and a place where the image of woman is objectified and commodified.”

What I saw in Oxford was one piece on sheets of tracing paper, not vellum.

What struck me at the time was that it was a powerful piece visually, before I had read any explanation.  I enjoyed its lack of frame, its ‘povery’ of materials.  I was also intrigued that it could be described as a kind of quilt form made up as it was by repeated rectangles comprising flat shapes in two colours.  It would work as an abstract art quilt if rendered as such.  Then I found that this domestic art form would indeed be appropriate.

On reading the label I discovered that it deals with both the daily domestic and the political on the obvious level concerning the veiling of Islamic women – but also aspects which pertain to fashion magazines, for all kinds of women.  Emily Jacir has taken what might be described as an oppression-reactive negative act and turned it into an enlightening thought-provoking statement while making a pleasure-giving object.

But I think that it is important that the piece itself, its simple presentation, works even without the explanation.  I believe that this makes for more powerful, and certainly more memorable art.  I have come to believe that the most enduring art wears its complications in layers, to be revealed on examination but not necessarily immediately on initial encounter.  Yes, the work must attract us and hold that interest, but be sufficiently rewarding at that point.  Any ensuing curiosity then can reinforce the initial satisfaction further.

The trick is of course to be able to make such work: to keep it powerfully simple at surface, while stitching in layers of back story, links, and springboards to further inspiration in others.  Only the great achieve this, but one has to keep trying.  I find with my own work that the more I contrive to include in my designs the less successful they are.  Cutting out seems to be a positive act, although then the danger is that the result is bland.  Ah for the ability to stride purposefully along the tightrope!

I am interested to read what others think.


7 Responses to “Simple power (by Olga Norris)”

  1. 1 olganorris August 1, 2009 at 12:56 am

    Nancy, thinking further about the issue of not taking folks seriously unless one knows examples of their culture – I think that this is true in all areas. I think that whatever one’s occupation, it is knowledge of serious work in that same occupation in any part of the world which draws attention, consideration, and respect.

  2. 2 olganorris July 31, 2009 at 1:25 pm

    Thank you for the link Nancy. Yes, it is a kind of mapping – indeed mapping is a fascinating area to pursue within art. And also we in the so-called West do not know enough about artists in other parts of the world. It is easier to keep seeing the stuff that is shown to us rather than looking in diverse directions.

    I too like to start with the familiar, but I do like to take my thread down the odd dark tunnel to see what I can find. I regret to say that I did not pursue the initial encounter with Emily Jacir’s work, but allowed this one piece to remain shining alone like a jewel in my memory.

  3. 3 Nancy July 31, 2009 at 6:20 am

    Without having read your text yet, I saw the image and thought of an aerial map — bits of landscape abstracted by viewing it from far above. And it is a sort of “mapping” exercise, isn’t it? Mapping women’s bodies and the terrain of what can be seen and what cannot be shown. Thank you for calling our attention to this and Emily Jacir. When I followed your link to Jacir I noted that she is Palestinian. The Guardian’s Michael Tomasky, whose commentary I usually like a lot, recently wrote a tossed-off post about the lack of Palestinian figures in the art and cultural world, without realizing how censored their work is. That, also, is another kind of coverup.

  4. 4 olganorris July 23, 2009 at 2:33 am

    First let me apologise for not having put my name up with the title. I forgot that it is not done automatically. Anyway, I have rectified this now, and you can see that ’twas I who wrote this post.

    Eileen, you have given me something to think about too. As someone who loves making salads and one pot cooking where everything goes in together, your pasta sauce allusion gave me pause.

    I guess the conclusion I have come to thus far is that the soup, or sauce is what is brewing in our minds; each new ingredient adding new flavour as it acts on the others both individually and as blends. It is out of that ever-evolving mix that the elegant simplicity of a work must come, I believe.

    I also agree with Kate that the repetition is what makes the piece visually powerful. Just one or two pages would not have the same effect at all.

    Clairan, thank you for pointing out that I had not declared myself. I will try not to forget in future.

    I agree about the business of not letting the intellect interfere with the creative process – or at least not over-intellectualising what one is doing in a piece of work. I’m a great believer in seeking out ingredients for the pasta sauce as described above, but then in letting the resulting mix more or less produce what it will. There does have to be a kind of editorial eye however, and that is the hardest element to get right – whatever right is!

  5. 5 Clairan July 22, 2009 at 10:32 am

    Spare simplicity seems to me the absolutely hardest thing to accomplish. For me it happens very rarely and always comes as a surprise. I have to let my “lizard brain’ do all the work without interference from intellect.

    I agree with Kate; in this case it is the repetition that fills the composition without filling the “page.” The lack of color also adds to the stark and simple effect, while equally referencing the black hijab. I enjoy the spare composition juxtaposed against the complex issues it addresses. What drew me into the composition initially was the way in which it looked like a language or a code.

    Not to be too cranky, but could the author of the post please stand up? I really appreciate knowing to whom I am addressing my remarks. But whoever you are, thanks for a very inspiring post.

  6. 6 kate July 22, 2009 at 6:26 am

    I agree with the concept of “less is more”. In this piece, the individual tracings are spare and simple. But I think the entire composition works because of the large number of tracings. The power comes from a simple process, but repeated many times, giving it weight and filling your field of vision.
    Also, without banging the viewer over the head with information, it allows for many interpretations.
    I was impressed with her starting point. Instead of simply making a case against Islamic traditions, which is somewhat common in the USA, she also makes us think about Western culture and our treatment of women. One aims to protect female purity to the point of covering them in shrouds of obscurity, erasing individuality. The other aims to celebrate female beauty to the point of focusing only on their physical appearance, reducing women into glorified clothes hangers.
    Thank you for highlighting this exhibition. Very thought provoking!

  7. 7 Eileen Keane July 22, 2009 at 5:06 am

    This was a surprise to me. I’ve always thought “it needs a little more here and a little there”, like really good pasta sauce. Taking away for a more minimalist look is something I’ll have to try. Thank you.

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