My piece which is presently on display at the National Art Gallery of the Bahamas as part of their NE4 Exhibition.
My godson wandered into my ‘creative’ bedroom last year. His eyes widened, and he turns to me and says, “Aunty Susan you are not a real woman to have such an untidy room!”.
Far from being offended, I was fascinated by his perception that a ‘real woman’ is tidy. Inspiration for art can come from the strangest places.
His comment prompted me to think about being a woman – the typical image being her figure - elsewhere in western society the longed for frame of a woman is tall and thin to the point of emaciation - whereas the men in
The Bahamas seem to have a deep-seated admiration for a more voluptuous form. Which defines 'woman'? The image of a woman that is seen in magazines, or the common reality of something slightly more curvaceous!?
Not really fitting either category, I wonder what it is that defines being a ‘woman’. Is it being tidy, as my godson insists? IS it a body like
Sophia Loren with bedroom eyes? Is it the housewife? Or a 'career' mom? Or supermodel? Or transsexual? I asked men and women “What defines a woman?” Their answers are far ranging, and none really seem to answer my question, as there are too many exceptions, too many anomalies.
And so I enter the closet of self and try to discern what I believe it means to be ‘woman’.
I start by looking at the paraphernalia of my day to day existence. I collect the debris. The razors, the shampoo, the
contraceptive pills, the dust, the lint, the nail polish, the tampons, the hair dye etc etc.
I look at the reality of all this stuff that I use every day as a woman and it seems so raw next to the images I see in magazines. There I see beautiful red stoves, perfect cherry pies, immaculate women, perfect skin, a lifestyle that includes a gorgeous house, husband, kids, lover, car and career. Then I look at my stove, my bed, my children, my toilet, and there is a glaring disparity. Does this mean I’m not a ‘real’ woman?
Then I consider all the roles I play as a woman: sister, daughter, lover, mother, sweetheart, friend, and again I’m faced with a disparity. How can I be a mother and a sweetheart when my well conditioned society perspective cringes at the proximity of those two words?
But I am more than these external images – I have feelings that may range from ecstasy to despair in the matter of moments. In any one day my feelings can shift a whole rainbow of emotions. Does that make me a woman? And how does that fit with all the other things that seem to create the idea of what it means to be a woman?
How can I hold all these contradictions?
Yet every woman does, all the time .... every day.
Conceptual and contemporary art are open to any interpretive media, so rather than painting a picture of all these many things on a traditional canvas with oil paint, my solution to expressing this dilemma, is to present the actual objects and images, feeling they have a more direct association with the viewer. I search for what will be an appropriate new 'canvas' for my ideas, and find the perfect vehicle in an old suitcase that my late mother-in-law gave to me 16 yrs ago. It appeals not just for the obvious imagery of the baggage of life, the idea that we have to contain all these disparate parts to being a woman, but also because of the uncomfortable lineage of woman: mother-in-law and daughter-in-law.
I assemble my piece of art, I attach all the objects I have collected (and many that I mentioned above), and include a variety of other items from my life in womanly roles: everything from an old recipe that my mother wrote out for me when I was 21, to a dried rose from an ex-beau. What fascinates me as I place all the paraphernalia is the uneasiness I feel when certain objects are placed next to others - the juxtaposition causing an internal tension. This increases as I then add to the suitcase images from magazines that are put into zip lock bags to signify the separation I feel towards these images, from my reality, which is represented by Polaroids I take of myself, my children, my sink filled with dirty dishes, my unmade bed, and other everyday detritus of life.
On small pieces of paper I write the multitude of contradictory emotions I may feel in one day, happy, sad, etc.
Then on plastic label holders, I have printed off all the labels I fit into, daughter, sister, lover, mother, etc.
By this stage the suitcase is full, and looks like some strange shrine to womanhood. In the past I have used red thread as a symbol of the blood connection between humans. In this case I use it to symbolize the blood connection of female lineage, and also I use it to bind all the disparate items and images, as women have done for centuries by the female arts of stitching, embroidery, patchwork, knitting, crocheting and tatting.
This piece of art is not a painting. It does not comply with the expected form of art so prevalent in The Bahamas, certainly in Freeport, but I believe it tells us a clear story about our ideas of what it means to be a woman.
In the overview of my own art, I feel it is less opaque than the language I normally speak in, artistically. This comes from a conscious intention to make my work more clear, and again, by using my own experience, I feel that it has the capacity to touch more people. Through the exposing of this ‘Disparity Reality - Woman’ we can have more consciousness as to what choices we have in expressing our essential woman-ness, or even give pause to reflect on how we judge other women and their ‘woman–ness’. Are we going to conform to the music videos idea of woman, or Martha Stewarts idea of woman, or find our own balance that may hold all in a truly more whole-some way?
This piece of art also forms a sort of snapshot of "NOW" in the continuing journey of my life. Glancing at some of the representative pieces of my woman-ness that are included in the suitcase (the contraceptives, the pink thong, photos of my children aged 10 and 8), I start to wonder how my perspective will change in the years ahead, with menopause and all the challenges and joy of being a woman in her 50's.
The “Disparity, Reality – Woman” piece of contemporary art is part of the NE4 – having been selected as part of the annual national exhibition in the National Gallery of The Bahamas in Nassau.
The Ne4 is the mecca for contemporary artists in The Bahamas, being the epitome of a non commercial environment that actively encourages artists to step away from their bread and butter work to push the boundaries of their usual artistic endeavor.
I understand that to most people, who do not have exposure to the story of art, my work may seem inflammatory, overly personal, maybe even shocking, but in the context of art history, the work I’m doing is merely ‘contemporary’, fitting in the
natural progression of art.
It is also truthful.
In my ethos – an ethos that is richly woven with a Christian upbringing and a deep sense of God - I believe that telling truths is essential to a healthy life, and something our politicians, corporations and society, seem to overlook!!! It is also interesting to note that revealing this truth - a truth about my existence can be perceived as political and provocative. How have we become so comfortable with the lies about woman that a revelation of a true womanly reality is considered shocking?
I hope to the contrary that it is not shocking, but liberating!!
During a discussion recently at The National Gallery, a member of the audience pointed out that the work, though apparently chaotic at first glance, was in fact very disciplined and ordered in its composition. Ironic, considering my godson's perception of the “chaos” that prompted this piece of art!
As with all art viewing, the glimpse it gives inside ourselves and our perceptions is the true creative gift, allowing new perspective and compelling insights into the shared humanity of men - and women - everywhere.
About the author:
Born in Edinburgh, Scotland, Susan Moir Mackay is a professional artist with a B.A. (Hons) in Art and Design from Edinburgh College of Art. She is an impassioned advocate of art and has a deep abiding belief that art benefits individuals and communities. Susan has travelled extensively, observing art in all its forms and has invested much of her time to art education projects, as well as developing her own art works and exhibitions.
Susan currently lives in Freeport with her two children, Fiona and Dylan. She can be reached at