Testimonies: In a Female Voice

The book Testimonies: In a Female Voice was put together as a result of a team project of students of the Theory of New Media and Design at the Academy of Arts, Architecture and Design in Prague, led by Zuzana Štefková. The project began in September 2010 and the interviews with selected female artists and art theoreticians took place over the course of the school year. One of the goals of the team project was to introduce the participants to key Czech and Slovak female artists and get to know the creative background of the artists in intimate settings that enabled an informal discourse. Another aim was to use the course to create a framework which would improve the disproportionate ratio of Czech female artists in the practice of contemporary art and thus explore the “(in)visible role of the gender.”

Initially, we only addressed female artists – Jitka Válová, Margita Titlová Ylovsky, Milena Dopitová, Veronika Bromová, Michaela Thelenová, Jana Štěpánová, Anetta Mona Chişa, Lucia Tkáčová and Ilona Neméth. The selected artists were supposed to represent different perspectives given by their diverse ages and experiences. During the year, the scope of respondents was extended to the field of female art theoreticians, whose professional work more or less touched on the subjects of gender or feminist art. Interviews with Milena Bartlová, Martina Pachmanová and the Serbian art historian Bojana Pejić were included in the project. Their testimonies, just as the interviews of the other narrators, capture not only their life stories, but provide a more complete look at “female art” or “women in art.”

The diversity of the selected artists and theoreticians, who share a relationship to art as well as gender, enabled an individual approach to each of them. The common thread in most of the interviews naturally became the subject of gender, which plays a significant role in the works of the majority of the selected women.

The interview methodology was inspired by oral history, a method suitable for mapping the experiences from specific places, periods and the historic figures within them. The uniqueness of the method is evident, especially in situations where most of sources are, for various reasons, inaccessible or were destroyed. But it can also play a significant role for researchers monitoring the shaping of a historic experience in its everyday form. The main goal of oral history is to look at the world through the eyes of the subject.2 It focuses on the person, on how they experience and think of historic events, how and by what they were formed and influenced. The oral history interview, unlike a spontaneous exchange in everyday conversation, is structured, directed from the researcher’s point of view toward acquiring certain information and developed according to a number of rules.

In the case of the actual interviewing practice within the team project, the oral history methods were adjusted. Unlike the classic interview, which includes the researcher and the narrator, these interviews usually took place in the presence of six to eight subjects. One interviewer led an open interview and moderated it, while others present could enter the dialogue at will. The aim was to leave open space for the narrators and enable them to share their memories, opinions and feelings naturally.

Because the selected women were distinct personalities and their experiences had a purely individual character, the structure of each interview developed in its own way. Still, the connections and parallels cannot be overlooked. Besides their gender and their relationship to feminism, which was the basic thrust of the interviews, there were memories of childhood and environments in which they grew up, as well as concerning the beginning of their artistic work.

The narrators also spoke on the subject of the era of the Communist rule, their activities during the revolution and afterwards. They recalled artists or art theoreticians they considered their role models, but also their classmates or artistic colleagues. Also notable was the respondents’ views on the teaching of art and art history in the past and today, because a significant number of them currently teach at universities.

The team considered it very unique to have the opportunity to meet the artists and theoreticians in their “natural environment” – whether an atelier, a studio or at home. Special attention should be paid to the interview with Jitka Válová, which took place before Christmas 2010, shortly before she died. Her health considerably influenced the course of the whole interview, as well as the text that is a part of this compilation. For this reason, it may appear somewhat confused and disjointed, but the aim was to sustain the authenticity and atmosphere of the interview.

With the other narrators we also strived to interfere as little and sensitively as possible with their storytelling. The results are texts of differing length and depth. However, they are a true reflection of our meetings and a probe into the lives of female artists and art theoreticians. They are the testimonies of their personal lives and witness accounts of society in times past, present and perhaps even in future.

Members of the team led by Zuzana Štefková: Pavla Baxová, Martin Busta, Helena Doudová, Kateřina Šlaufová, Lucie Šmardová, Tereza Špinková, Veronika Šubrtová, Tereza Volná a Barbora Zavadská.

The Trouble with Gender

To search for new approaches to gender or the so-called female and male issues, or to feminism is difficult and it is not only an artistic challenge, but also an intellectual one.
Martina Pachmanová

I don’t see any difference. Only that men wear pants, and now I wear them too.
Jitka Válová

When I decided to paraphrase the classic work of social constructivism, Judith Butler’s book Gender Trouble in the title, I was lead by the experience from the Czech art and arthistory environment for which the gender perspective in art is still something rather marginal, if not outright suspicious. A significant portion of both the professional and general public approaches gender perspective in art with a double prejudice. When it comes to research of historic material, the general expectation arises from the assumption that the gender point of view lies in searching for undiscovered female artists. When it comes to contemporary art, the interest in gender is often understood as interest in “female art” and, as such, either trivialized as a fashion tendency or a trend, which has already been passé for a long time.

The collection of interviews with female artists and art historians understandably risks indirectly confirming this one-sided approach, where gender is erroneously exchanged for femininity and everything relating to women. However, the opinions and life stories of women published in this book do not bear witness to a segregated female universe and often touch on gender only indirectly. Nonetheless, with most of the respondents, gender does reflect in their work as a theme as well as a starting point and, in their own way, they all discuss the aspect of (their own) embodied and gender-conditioned experience.

The decision to exclusively address women had two reasons. Despite the partial successes of some female artists, the representatives of the “weaker sex” in art are still somewhat in the position of outsiders. Until the 1960s, art world was nearly without exception a male domain and even today, when the numbers of male and female art students equalize and often even swing toward the benefit of women, female academy graduates have greater difficulties finding their place in the art market and art practice than their male counterparts. Publishing one book of interviews will not change this situation, but it is not without meaning. It witnesses the accounts of women who help change the artistic canon in a practice dominated by men.

Also the strong belief that women are more sensitive to issues regarding the functioning of gender, not only in art, played an important role. This perceptiveness is conditioned by problems faced by women entering the artistic field as well as the field of the theoretical reflection of art, may it be the balancing of a maternal role with professional career or the established masculine artistic tradition.

Although the interviews did not follow a standardized form and the questions reflected the varying interests of the enquirers, several gender-related themes can be traced in the individual interviews. One of the core themes is the family experience, which is where the mother tends to be a key figure, whether emancipated (as in the case of Milena Bartlová), a missing mother (in case of Margita Titlová), or a caring one (as in the case of the Válová sisters). Other times, the dominant role in the family is the female element in general, as it is with Ilona Németh. Motherhood often appears in the stories, both as a personal experience and also reflected in the individual art works. In the Czech scene, this theme is most systematically explored by Lenka Klodová. The interview with her reveals how tightly intertwined the identity of mother and artist can be. While Milena Dopitová and Michaela Thelenová, as well as Jana Štěpánová, integrated their own as well as “borrowed” children into their work, in case of Veronika Bromová this theme is present on a symbolic level, inspired by the mystery of birth and the cult of the Great Mother. Margita Titlová also focuses on the role of the mother in society because, in her opinion, mothers are the ones changing society by raising children.

Another subject present in the interviews and, moreover, directly identified as “feminine” by some respondents, is physicality. After the fall of socialism and the onset of liberal democracy, the Czech environment became flooded with a mass of commercial and pornographic images featuring various idealized female bodies. This ever present commodification of physicality is most sharply reflected in the works of Lenka Klodová, Lucia Tkáčová and Anetta Mona Chişa, as well as Veronika Bromová or Milena Dopitová, who mention it as a source of inspiration, the latter particularly focusing on the issue of aging. While, for Margita Titlová, the body is the starting point of personal ontology and the vehicle for encountering the world, Chişa & Tkáčová use their own bodies to parody strategies of the pornographic industry, or use their own physicality to express criticism of both content and formal clichés typical for female art.

Also the issue of sexuality arises in regard to gender. For example Veronika Bromová works with this theme in a more intimate erotic sense, while for Ilona Németh the sexualization of women is a tool for the deconstruction of relationships between genders. Anetta Mona Chişa and Lucia Tkáčová venture furthest in this direction, using the subject of sexual attraction systematically to analyze power connections in the art scene. Jana Štěpánová takes on the theme of overcoming the barriers of heteronormativity, using queer sexuality both as an impressive theme as well as a way out of the trap of an unchanging homo- and heterosexual identity. Both Milena Bartlová and Martina Pachmanová point out the queer perspective on the theoretical level and its potential for enlivening the feminist discourse.

It is precisely the issue of feminism and the theoretical reflection of gender that represents a disputable issue for many respondents. The interviews reflect the equivocal acceptance with which feminism struggles in the local environment. While theoreticians Martina Pachmanová and Milena Bartlová, as well as Serbian art historian Bojana Pejić, evaluate the role of the feminist interpretation of art works and the contribution of feminism to the methodology of art history positively, most of the interviewed artists approached feminism rather cautiously. While Lenka Klodová and Margita Titlová see reasons for rejecting feminism in its separationist tendencies, Veronika Bromová contemplates the context of feminist exhibitions of the 1990s, concluding that in those days, the awareness of feminism was minimal among artists. The answer of Ilona Németh is typical, expressing concern that a feminist interpretation would narrow the possible reading of her art. The exception among the artists is Jana Štepánová, who openly admits her fascination with feminism: “I lived it too, which was a lot of fun.”

Given that many of the respondents had pedagogical experience, the gender theme recurs in relation to this practice. The artists reminisce about their (not only) female role models during studies, realizing how the ratio of female and male students in academia changed and, for example, Ilona Németh and Veronika Bromová conclude that their studios gradually crystallized as primarily female. Also Milena Bartlová takes on the theme of gender in universities, pondering the specifics of the relationship between students and male and female pedagogues respectively. Ilona Németh evaluates the uneasy situation of minorities (gender or ethnic ones) and Milena Dopitová notices with concern the tendency among male artists to take up academic positions to the detriment of women.

These troubles with gender are not therefore typical only for the reflection of art, but realistically influence the lives and experiences of women in contemporary Czech society. A specific kind of gender issues also appeared during the interviews published in this book. In some cases, the proper choice of language and method of inquiry proved problematic. Additionally, not all respondents considered gender a relevant theme in relation to their work and among enquirers there also was no consensus on this subject, which is reflected in the diversity of the questions asked. The result is a certain content inconsistency, which, however, may not necessarily be harmful to the outcome.

The publication Testimonies: In a Female Voice is by no means intended as a complex study of the effect and experience of gender among contemporary female Czech and Slovak artists and art historians. Nor does it attempt to answer the question of what is the actual circumstance of gender, but rather it is a spontaneous exploration of the lives and works of twelve interesting women, whose individual personalities step out of the schematic templates. Rather than providing an overall view, this collection of interviews shows us fragments of a mosaic, bearing witness to the changes in understanding gender across generations.

Zuzana Štefková

Supported by PATTERNS Lectures, initiated by ERSTE Foundation and implemented by WUS Austria. www.patternslectures.org