Ways of Seeing: What’s Beyond ‘Domestic Bliss’?

For the past few years, on International Women’s Day, I’ve always tried to do something that I think honours great women, that pays homage in some way to their diverse contribution. Last year, this meant spending a lot of money – that I didn’t really have – on a ticket to see Solange playing at Sydney Opera House that coming June. Through her music, Solange has been a woman at the frontier for demanding change in the relationship between women and society. I couldn’t think of a better way to honour International Women’s Day than to treat myself to the hearing and seeing her perform, which due to her transcendent choreography and spellbinding visuals, is truly an experience.

This year, to continue the tradition, I went to the opening of the Domestic Bliss exhibition at the Gallery of Modern Art. The collection showcases the work of 27 artists and while drawing on the building’s history – it originally being a home itself – the exhibition also reflects on how artists have sought to understand the dynamics between public and private space. Works in the exhibition, by men and women alike, seek to consider the gender connotations surrounding the domestic sphere and the way in which women and men inhabit and occupy particular spaces in the world. In looking at the way in which people are depicted within spaces and, consequently, associated with particular ideas implicit in the spheres they inhabit, the artists invite us to join them in questioning the way that domesticity has shaped women’s place in the past and to what extent spaces today are still subject to gender biases.

Through ceramic sculpture, domestic objects and installation, renowned artists Grayson Perry, Niki de Saint Phalle and Emannuel Cooper also explore people’s close relationship with materials and the impact of these ‘things’ on what people manifest in the world. At the core of the exhibit is a question that we are asked to consider as we walk around the room: ‘what happens if we question what is seen as ‘domestic bliss?’ What narratives emerge, and whose stories are kept there, trapped within this private interior world? At the centre of the exhibition is a reading table which invigorates discussion about what people see. I am told that there will be a number of events which have been programmed to further stimulate conversation. This will enable the exhibition to evolve based on what emerges from people’s responses to the space and its themes. Acknowledging that one of art’s most important features is its affective power, its ability to expose and its capacity to incite – through emotion, aesthetic and representation – the exhibition seeks to transform the way people see their roles in the world and their space within it.    

One of the most affecting parts of the exhibition for me was Jacqueline Donachie’s images of ‘the female artist in her studio.’ In seeing ‘the female artist’ in her professional landscape, it struck me that the domestic sphere had been a dual space for women, both a nurturing and intimate environment, whilst also an extremely restricting one. The burdens of domesticity, and the historically situated perception of this work as woman’s responsibility, has often manifested itself into the performance of particular roles that women, in ‘belonging’ to this space, had been expected to embody. Looking at Donachie’s work arose a question, one we should always take time to reflect on: where are the women in history who have managed to break out of the home? The great female artists, writers, film-makers, creators, poets, thinkers – how many of them have been kept from engaging within the public space due to the gender division of the private and public spheres? However, Donachie’s photographs of the artist in her workspace reveal that social transformation is inherent in changes to our everyday environment. The artist is using her studio space as a site to shape her professional identity and validate her commitment to her work.

Women’s increasing access to the public sphere beyond the domestic can be seen in their diverse and intersectional representation in a variety of previously male-dominated professions. However, it must be acknowledged that this change has not come about without the active resistance and the surging defiance of many women – white, black, gay, straight, trans, you name it – who refused to let themselves be manhandled and side-lined. Women, in their strive for independence and self-representation, defined what womanhood meant to them by protesting for women’s rights in the streets, by defying convention in their art, by boldly demanding equality in their workplaces, by challenging ideas in their universities. In this, they found that they could be unshackled from gendered notions of femininity, freed from the kitchen by becoming professionals and activists. Self-representation is key to creating a space where the personal and the social world meet, towards garnering recognition for women and giving them the space to forge identities on their own terms.

When we acknowledge International Women’s Day, what we are celebrating are these women. Those like Bessie Coleman, who broke barriers of race and gender in the 1920’s, to become the first African American civilian to hold a pilot’s license in the world; Maya Angelou, whose ‘I Know Why The Cage Bird Sings’ chronicles a life filled with tragedy, racism and sexual abuse, while managing also to fill every person who reads it with a sense of how to live with love, is a kind of self-belief and disobedience in itself. Indeed, her infusion of life with poetry seizes us to believe there is nothing that cannot be overcome, nor anyone who can stand in our way if we never give up who we are. Angela Davis, whose politics and Marxism makes her an inspiring and outspoken activist women’s rights, becomes the change she wants to see in the world, in her own words stating: “I am no longer accepting the things I cannot change. I am changing the things I cannot accept.” These women, a few of the countless in history who have brokered space for themselves by challenging the spaces cut out for them, have also created space for us all, women AND men. Challenging women’s inequality by deconstructing gender prejudice gives all of us the chance to live our lives the way we want, beyond the entrapments of norms which restrict all genders.

International Women’s Day is just a day, but when it’s over we should not stop thinking about the questions that it invokes. I try and seek out the extraordinary women in history, the bold who are remarkably and unapologetically themselves. When you really look through history, you find there are so many extraordinary women, often dismissed or overlooked by the history books; they opened up a whole world to me. They gifted to me the belief that there was great power in expression, that no woman should be self-conscious about taking up space. In seeing them out there in the world, making moves and being visible through the great things they give back and create, they taught me that it is important to really occupy space in the world, to make one’s self seen and heard. International Women’s Day is a time to reflect: we must acknowledge how many women in the past have been stunted or carved out, who have been robbed of opportunities to manifest themselves and reach their full potential by the sexist dismissal of their talents, the repression of their imagination, the silencing of their words. The exhibition encourages people to look for the women that the history books often only mention in relation to their ‘more successful’ male counterparts. We must recover them, let them inspire each of us to draw from – and give meaning to – our life from these places beyond the domestic.

I believe that, despite progress, women are still fighting for their place in public space and for self-representation. How much have ideas about the domestic really changed?  Are women still unfairly overburdened and restricted there? Go have a gander at the exhibition and make up your own mind. It’s what these spaces are for.

[Jude Mckechnie]

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