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Marjan Melkert’s ‘Herstories’—Spotlighting Women Who Dare to Break New Ground

Guest Blogger, Marjan Melkert

Support RAWA – Learning to read, 2010, mixed media, 35 x 35 cm

Besides in depictions of saints, the strivings of women have seldom been presented as examplary for both sexes in either word or image. Dutch artist Marjan Melkert aims at a revision. In her painting series ‘Herstories’ she calls attention to women who courageously cross frontiers. In different subseries, she portrays suffragettes, athletes, pilots, scientists and many more, capturing the energy emanating from those ambitious women. The artist was so kind as to illuminate motivation, method and meaning of her work in a text.

A postmodern play of words with a splendid meaning: we do not want to hear his story any more, we want to get to know her story. There are many herstories, each possessing the power to amaze (“was that really possible at the time;” “almost incredible that she managed to do all this back then”) and inspire (“I would have loved to do that sort of thing”).

Stumbling over tales from unknown, undiscovered voices, my interest grew in Herstory. Somewhere, somehow pictures began to emerge from subconscious origins, and the series started to grow following Wittgenstein’s adagio: “Es zeigt sich” (it shows/reveals itself).One thing was certain: there is no need for women to depict men, but there is an urgent need for sisters “doing it for themselves.” Otherwise, many things will remain untold.

Looking to the past, there are but a few examples of women controlling the way they were represented. For example, Queen Elizabeth I of England is a rare exception. “Do women have to be naked to get into the Met. Museum? Less than 5% of the artist in the Modern Art sections are women, but 85% of the nudes are female.” This statement from the Guerilla Girls’ “Get Naked” 1989 reminds us of a still naked truth.

In terms of size and style, the Herstories series started off with 60 x 60 cm oil paintings on wooden panels. Faces remained without detail in order to enable identification with the heroic protagonists. Heroines offer role models that emanate a positive energy. In the age of pink princesses: white lies about the (real) future of girls in a men’s world, the Herstories series provide children with an alternative. There is attention for the victimized woman in this world—and there should be—but there should also be attention for the happy and successful woman. Herstories gives and demands that attention.

series: Les Curies, 2010, mixed media, 20 x 20 cm

In the manner of the rat catcher of Hameln, research brought to the foreground one splendid woman after another: Sojourner Truth led to Harriet Tubman, Amelia Earhart to Russian Combat Pilots. The heart makes three salto mortales of joy. The margins fill with color and forms to explain the context of these women.

Different groups of women live brave lives in difficult circumstances worldwide. For Afghan women to wear lipstick, to learn or to teach to read and write can lead to a thrashing to within an inch of their lives and worse. Their courage deserves display.

While the subject matter of Herstories continued to grow, time to work became increasingly hard to find. Therefore the size of the works diminished to 20 x 20 cm, and the technique became more efficient with the use of photographs. The individual portraits are so manifold, that identification is always possible with someone within the subseries. Materials range from “classic” acrylics to nail polish. That an advantage of being a woman artist is being reassured that whatever kind of art you make will be labelled feminine gives good reason to go all the way. So feminine materials are used with a humoristic stroke. And they are pretty too! The fact that beauty burned her face is no reason to make ugly art. Why not seduce people to immerse themselves into the life and times of these heroines?

“Girls just want to have fun, that is what they really want.” Therefore some of the subseries have titles like “All American Girls,” for a chorus line of Afro-American abolitionists and for trigger happy ladies like Anne Oakley. The patriotic star-spangeld banners in the margins do the rest: this is America for you, too, Mr. Jones!

Arab singers Oum Kalthoum (Arabic أم كلثوم) and Cheikha Rimitti (Arabic: شيخة ريميتي‎), glow in the dark mother and daughter Curie (with lead frame), hidden Rosalind Franklin, Silent Spring author Rachel Carson: they recall one another from the mists of time, jealousy, and fear that hid their splendour. In the words of Nietzsche: “for the joy of others.” And many more yet to follow.

Back in the USSR “Ночные ведьмы”, 2011, mixed media, 20 x 20cm


Frauke Ehlers
Frauke Ehlers holds a B.A. Arts & Culture with a specialization in Arts, Literature, and Culture, and is currently a candidate for the MA Arts and Heritage - Management, Policy, and Education at Maastricht University, Netherlands.
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