New Work: The Female Power Shawls



Up to now I have been thinking of my scarf and shawl designs as commercial work, not as fine art. In fact, I have several kinds of work I do, including graphic design, and I try to keep these things separated from the fine art in my promotions, because, you know, art is so much more SERIOUS. However, with this new shawl project I really think the two are coming together, and the shawls ARE fine art. They involve the same kind of deep research and exploration of ideas that I have invested in my Pseudomorphs and Celestial Bodies.

SHAWL (definition)
a piece of fabric worn by women over the shoulders or head or wrapped around a baby.

Lately the shawl, or head scarf, has become a loaded object. It represents oppression, on the one hand, and a positive assertion of identity on the other. The shawl embodies modesty and utility. But most of all it is a woman’s garment and, as such, can represent a woman’s right to dress as she pleases. When we put on a garment we are re-presenting our bodies. (How appropriate it is that the shawl’s definition includes the wrapping of a baby, just as a birth mother’s body itself once wrapped her baby.) A garment always means something, but I believe our bodies themselves shouldn’t always mean something—our bodies ARE—and we have a right to BE here, wholly owned by ourselves. I have created these women’s garments inspired by the power of women, both human and mythological (or divine, depending on how you approach religion). In each I have tried not to represent the person, but to represent the attributes and message—the power—of the person (or spirit) in words and/or in images. I hope that putting on the shawls will be like putting on the power represented. Superman has his cape, and now, you can have a Female Power Shawl! Furthermore, a portion of the purchase price will go toward a resonant charity, so buying one of these shawls will not just give you super-powers, it will affect the world. (Just kidding about the super-powers!)

I made the first Female Power Shawl before I had the idea for the Female Power Shawl project. Pope Francis was coming to town and saying mass near my studio and I wanted to make some things for the audience of catholics in this part of town called the “Little Vatican,” near The Catholic University of America. I made a shawl and a scarf depicting the visual attributes of the image of the Virgin of Guadalupe: the starry mantle, the flames, the clouds, the roses. It was when I put the shawl around my own shoulders that I felt how one could be wrapped, physically, in an idea. You can see the Shawl, “La Guadalupana,” here.

Since then I have made two more designs and have many more in the works. I’ve asked friends and strangers about their female heroes and deities. The first design I finished, called “A Girl with a Book,” is in honor of Malala Yousafzai, the young woman who campaigned for girls’ education in Pakistan, was shot by a Taliban man, kept working for her cause, won the Nobel Peace Prize for her accomplishments (at 16!), and continues to work for every child’s right to an education. To design this shawl I did research on the visual culture of the Swat Valley, the region of Pakistan where Malala was born. I discovered that one of the recurring motifs in the wood carving of the area is based on a woman’s neck ring. The neck ring shape, a nearly-round crescent with outer-facing ends, is pre-islamic, and is thought by anthropologists to be a symbol of female power because of its similarity to the shape of a crescent moon. It persisted even after the coming of islam because a crescent is islamic as well. There are several versions, one is a double twist. Although the text I read suggested that the ends look like bird heads, I think they might just as well be serpent heads. The snake is also often a symbol of female power. (The Arts and Crafts of the Swat Valley: Living Traditions in the Hindu Kush, by Johannes Kalter, 1989.)

Carved wooden chest showing two neck ring motifs, From The Arts and Crafts of the Swat Valley: Living Traditions in the Hindu Kush, by Johannes Kalter, 1989.
Carved wooden chest showing two neck ring motifs, from The Arts and Crafts of the Swat Valley: Living Traditions in the Hindu Kush, by Johannes Kalter, 1989.

I built a neck ring shape from various materials because I was interested in experiencing the motif as a physical thing, not just as a drawing. I made a couple versions and they both seem a little magical when I hold them. One version was wrapped and the other was twisted. The twisted version looks much more like two snakes. This is the one I scanned and used in the shawl design.

Small sculptures inspired by the neck ring motif from the Swat Valley, Malala Yousafzai's homeland in Pakistan.
Small sculptures inspired by the neck ring motif from the Swat Valley, Malala Yousafzai’s homeland in Pakistan.
Detail of "Girl with a Book" showing the open hands holding a book with the leaf/flame motif.
Detail of “Girl with a Book” showing the open hands holding a book with the leaf/flame motif.

The shape also made me think of two hands held out, cupped, as if holding water—or holding a book. So I drew a motif of hands in the neck ring shape holding a book. The little yellow leaf shapes could be leaves or flames, also two-lobed and opening out from a center. The text on the shawl reads: “Extremists have shown what frightens them most: a girl with a book.” This is a Malala quote used by Amnesty International. I like this sentence because, on the one hand, it is calling the Taliban cowards because they are afraid of a little girl and everyone knows that girls are weak and harmless [sic!]. On the other hand, it suggests that it really is a very powerful thing for a girl to reach into the world and seize knowledge for herself. They should be afraid! How can we possibly respect any ideology that relies on women being ignorant!

I also read Malala’s memoir, I Am Malala, which I recommend to everyone. She writes lovingly of her homeland. She holds fast to her moslem faith and describes how the Koran encourages women on their path to knowledge. She describes how the Taliban moved into her land and slowly won over people through rhetoric and intimidation. Then they started destroying schools and assassinating people. She held to her conviction that it is not a crime to seek an education. In this she was supported by her educator/activist father and her illiterate mother. The day that Malala was shot, in a school bus delivering her home from school, her mother was attending her own first reading lesson. How our daughters teach us! A portion of the proceeds from the sale of “A Girl with a Book” will go to support the Malala Fund, of course.