The essay was published in Majkut’s ‘In Control’ exhibit catalogue – the catalogue is available through Majkut’s website
How Does a Feminist Artist Celebrate?
Chiseche Salome Mibenge
We were boarding schoolgirls a couple of years into adolescence. Our parents didn’t have money, but they had immense status. We understood that private school was a sacrifice on their parts, but we occupied that space with unflappable confidence learnt from watching them host presidents, generals and ambassadors at their dining room tables. Our weekends seemed endless and after mandatory prep, we danced, often to Janet Jackson’s Control (1986) – “When I was seventeen I did what people told me. Did what my father said, and let my mother mold me.” We choreographed and repeated our routines over and over again in the bathroom because it had a large mirror that helped with synchronization. We were born after Independence, and we knew we would have control: education would give us our father’s jobs, our mother’s homes and lots of servants, one for each child.
We bartered books: Mills & Boon, Temptation, Harlequin, Harold Robbins, Jackie Collins, Danielle Steele, Virginia Andrews. In combination, they provided a satisfying spectrum of soft to hard porn that included incestuous sex, rape, deflowering, Viking sex, Victorian sex, celebrity sex, and married sex.
There was no contraception in these books. And there was a lot of rape that ended with the heroine’s volcanic ecstasy. These two elements of the writing formula always reminded me that I was reading fantasy. I had a rigorous sex education that covered the mechanics (ovaries, labia, sperm, scrotum) but also emphasized that there would be no pleasure without consent and responsibility.
I was seventeen when my sister Chisala gave me condoms ahead of my first semester at the University of Zambia. The Pill was dead to my generation, the class of ‘97. HIV/AIDS had been with us for more than a decade, and by then enough police officers, schoolteachers, soldiers, nurses, priests, moms, dads, and babies had died that there was public acknowledgment that this disease did not just smite prostitutes and other miscreants. I used condoms and they were central to my sexual pleasure. Save something for your husband? I promised myself that I would save unprotected sex for my life partner.
I forgot about The Pill until I was almost 40 after I introduced my undergraduate students to third world feminist approaches to human rights law. The Pill suddenly became relevant as we discussed white anxieties about racialized bodies and their hyper-fecundity, hyper-sexuality and hyper-polluting tendencies. Self-described “testo junkie” Beatriz Preciado, a leading thinker in the study of gender and sexuality, provided me with the language needed to complicate the history and the legacy of The Pill, which included human testing on Puerto Rican woman and eventually Mexican and Haitian women. It “was thought of as an urban eugenic device and as a method of controlling nonwhite population growth” (Preciado, 174-75).
Chisala, older than me by seven years, went on The Pill when she became sexually active. I asked her why she used The Pill and she explained that as a freshman at an American university in London (class of ‘91), her orientation package directed her to centers for reproductive health where The Pill was dished out “like candy.”
“The British had an epidemic of teen pregnancies,” my sister explained. “We were scared of getting pregnant in London and not of getting AIDS. And I regarded the rumors about The Pill causing infertility or making you fat as malicious attempts to disempower young women like me who wanted sexual autonomy. I only started using condoms after I graduated and went back to Zambia. When I’d go to get a new Pill prescription, the nurses would try and shame me because I wasn’t married. The sexual reproductive health class we were all forced to attend was full of married women who were afraid their husbands would find out they were using contraception. That’s why the injections became so popular in Zambia. They were easier to hide from husbands.”
I asked my sister if she thought Mom and her peers had used The Pill, and she continued, “Yeah, sure they did. That’s why they were always sick—they were the guinea pigs. You know they were so young but always had high blood pressure and they got so big, all that weight gain…it was The Pill and the injections and the implants. But honestly, The Pill was empowering for me. Remember all my friends—Penelope and that old married man; Chanda’s abortion; Mulenga had to get married and then she died; Salome died too, God bless her; and Remi thought aspirin was a contraceptive. She got pregnant. And she’d been to college! They had no idea how to take care of themselves. Okay, I give Mom and Dad some credit, but I think Sex Ed is what saved us.”
I wear a talisman. A brooch constructed with string, a safety pin, and red and white beads. The white beads create a backdrop for the red ribbon. It was said that women “living positively” made the AIDS badges and distributed them to churches, schools, wherever awareness-raising was called for. I found these handcrafted brooches worn proudly throughout southern Africa, by all of us affected by HIV/AIDS. I didn’t consider them art then—they were cheap crafts—but a priceless symbol of the fire we were emerging from.
My mother is an artist. She sits on the veranda surrounded by Congolese kuba cloth, Zambian hides, cotton from the Indian textile stores in Kamwala market. There is no fabric that can resist the manipulation of her powerful fingers. As an adolescent I was outraged when I opened her passport and read “Vocation: Housewife.”
But everyone is talking about another housewife, Anna, the fictional American in Switzerland depicted in Jill Alexander Essbaum’s novel, Hausfrau. The cover of the book is striking in its evocation of Ghada Amer’s “Kisses on Wallpaper,” a floral feast “constructed out of lines of thread embroidered on canvas” (Farrell, 53). Amer’s works often combine the sexually transgressive with unremarkable domestic imagery. Laurie Ann Farrell writes that Amer “had to find a way to depict women using tools and methods (such as sewing) associated with them” (Farrell, 53). Farrell’s description of an Amer project provides a jarring parallel with Essbaum’s Hausfrau. “After consulting numerous women’s magazines offering beauty techniques and advice, she [Amer] decided to create four handkerchiefs, each of them hand-embroidered with lines of text; detailed grooming tips for the body, hair, nails, and skin” (ibid.).
Anna receives a gift from Marie, a doting friend who is suspiciously unsuspecting of Anna’s adulteries and domestic misery. “Inside were a dozen antique handkerchiefs embroidered with Anna’s initials. Mary had done the needlework. The handkerchief on top was baby blue. Anna traced the ‘A’ with her thumb and the ‘B’ with her forefinger. She sighed so deeply it sounded like a sob…‘You know, I used to do this stuff…I don’t do it anymore’ ” (Essbaum, 190). Anna has one recollection of childhood that almost evokes a sense of well-being, and in it she sits on her mother’s lap before an ancient Singer sewing machine. However, Essbaum does not let Anna find her liberation in domestic rituals and comforts, and it is her children, the greatest symbol of domesticity, that ultimately expose her to a patriarchal, corporal discipline.
Yet artists like Ghada Amar, Tracy Emin, Faith Ringgold, and Yvonne Wells have sought empowerment from patriarchal traditions with thread, wool, crochet needles, and other innocuous women’s tools. “Feminist artists have, in a sense, become curators of their own history, which is the gathered creative work of women in writing, crafts, needlework, artmaking, cooking, home making, and childrearing. This collective work-history becomes a theater of dialogue between the woman artist and the world in which a new philosophy of woman is being formulated. This is a feminist version of appropriation, for we have appropriated the history of women and the work of our predecessors as our creative and spiritual base” (Schapiro and Wilding, 8).
Katrina Majkut is in good company. “I was discovering how all women’s traditions relate to sex and procreation but in a very indirect, allegorical way. For example, cross-stitch will push the idea of family and motherhood, i.e. procreation but nothing else, but it will never address its actual physical demands or needs of women. As an artist, it dawned on me that it would be incredibly powerful to directly combine the two. I wanted my cross-stitch to honestly depict modern women when it comes to reproductive freedoms and health” (Mibenge and Majkut).
And there it is, The Pill, in Majkut’s cross-stitch: that game changer in the struggle for gender equality. Preciado disabuses the feminist of a full-blown celebration of The Pill as a symbol of women’s autonomy. The feminist journal Heresies asked feminist artists to recognize and celebrate our history without idealization, and to invoke, transform, or represent the materials and artifacts of our daily use (Lang, 28). Majkut honors the demands of these voices. Her feminist cross-stitch is more than a canonization of the control granted by our reproductive devices. “One artwork that I plan on making that would fit very nicely into this exhibit is sterilization tools. Most people don’t know that many minority women during the mid-twentieth century were unfairly subjected to sterilization against their will as a result of Eugenics and racial discrimination. It’s an untold narrative, and for that reason, an important one to depict. Being confronted with all these objects themselves has a real power, especially when presented against such a ‘domestic’ medium” (Mibenge and Majkut).
Majkut’s art captures the impact of “glocal” inequalities on women’s reproductive freedoms, tempers our feminist celebration with a sober account of control over poor and raced bodies, and is a gentle reminder that we are not done yet. Majkut presents a visual narrative that a third world feminist, or any feminist, can embrace and embroider over her own historiography(s) of freedom.
Essbaum, Jill A. Hausfrau. Random House. New York: 2015.
Farrell, Laurie A. “Recalculating Exchange Rates Power and Poetics in the Works of Ghada Amer,” Looking Both Ways: Art of the Contemporary African Diaspora. Snoek Publishers and Museum of African Art. New York: 2003.
Lang, Avis. “What is a Feminist?”Heresies: A Feminist Publication on Art and Politics. Heresies collective. New York: 1989: 28.
Mibenge, Chiseche S. and Majkut, Katrina. “Demystifying Wedding Ritual One Cross-Stitch at a Time.” SIN/GIN. http://chisechemibenge.com/katrina-majkut.
Preciado, Beatriz. Testo Junkie: Sex, Drugs, and Biopolitics in the Pharmacopornographic Era. The Feminist Press. New York: 2013.
Schapiro, Miriam and Wilding, Faith. “Cunts/Quilts/Consciousness.” Heresies: A Feminist Publication on Art and Politics. Heresies collective. New York: 1989: 24