First, let me be honest: I had no idea what to expect as I made my way to the Visual Arts building last Friday night for the mixed-media and performance exhibition And She Was: The Female Experience Explored and Celebrated, designed by Emory alumna and Schwartz Artist-in-Residence Megan Watters (11C).
My first thought: it’s a shame that the Visual Arts building is basically hidden behind fraternity houses and trees.
Inside the lobby, a small group of patrons waited for the doors to open, as the exhibition was a go-at-your-own-pace event, beginning at 8 p.m. each night from Nov. 19 through Nov. 21. From the lobby chairs, a sound inside the gallery seemed to rush like the a waterfall. There was a laugh and the occasional clinking of metal.
My second thought: these are strange sounds. But I think the combination of those oddities while being in the dark about what exactly was in store just made me, and probably all the other people in the lobby, even more excited to see the exhibition.
After a few moments, Watters pressed through the closed gallery doors, saying, “The house is open.” Edith Piaf’s “La Vie en Rose” and the smell of incense tumbled into the lobby, beckoning early-comers out of the dark, chilly air and into the curious, florid world that had overtaken the gallery.
The experience of walking through And She Was was powerful, the aesthetics nuanced and beautiful and the ambiance a sensory delight.
I was struck, however, by the fact that these compositions seem to overwhelmingly revolve around physical appearance, beauty and the conflict between societal projections of beauty and personal beauty. Generally, while a visual arts piece is inherently, well, aesthetic, I couldn’t help but wonder if the beautiful, stylistic component of that piece overtook its own potential for diversity of symbolism and meaning.
Inside the exhibition, a luscious scene greeted the audience: draped in thick fabric and leaves, a bronze mannequin stood overlooking the array of burning candles, flowers, orange peels, autumn crops and water pitchers that surrounded the two performers, College sophomore Julie Spinner and College freshman Angela Jiang. The composition evoked a dramatic countryside, the necessity to gather fruits and berries for one’s livelihood and the feminine connection to the delicate beauty of flower petals, the fleeting scent of herbs and the hearth and home.
While this type of “feminine experience” is not one we tend to experience within the context of modern life, it spoke to a human heritage and time when people embraced a connection with the land as a necessity of life. The inclusion of this composition held an undercurrent of bravery, since it spoke to the more subdued, a-woman’s-place-is-in-the-home past that we tend to, in accordance with modern views of feminine equality, shy away from mentioning. But this heritage is undeniably real, and thus the presence of such an illusion was both an intriguing surprise and a refreshing exploration of an aspect of femininity largely obscured by modernity.
Poised in the corner beside the doors was a more visually subdued display, featuring a mannequin adorned with the fabric of a baroque dress and pearls. She stood in front of a wall of mirrors and empty picture frames, surrounded by ornate masks as if she was preparing to go to a masquerade. The task that faced her, it seemed, was to decide which mask to wear, or rather which iteration of herself to fill the mirrors and the empty picture frames with. Or perhaps she had just returned from the masquerade, and, removing her outfit, realized that the masks are what fill the mirrors and frames, not the lady behind them. She seemed to ask, simultaneously, “Who am I?” and “Who shall I be?”
Moving forward through the gallery, the next scene comprised of a mannequin dressed as a bride in overflowing layers of white muslin and a similarly clothed actress, College sophomore Kaeleigh de Silva, who floated around the mannequin, fanning her with circular leaflets of lace. A layer of muslin covered their heads, concealing both of their faces as the performer moved about. From above, a projector cast flowers, water and greenery onto the two, bathing their white figures in images and color. Periodically, the performer abandoned the mannequin and, gazing into the distance, removed the fabric that concealed her head. She untied her hair and let it flow down her shoulders, taking a moment’s respite, and then, retying it in a bun and pulling the fabric back over her head, returned to tending the mannequin with a gentle sense of duty.
Despite the beauty and aesthetic nuance, the focus of the compositions began to drift further towards the ‘self-image’ aspect of femininity, which was a slight disappointment in light of the original scene because, in short, it felt predictable.
In the next composition, a dressing area with a vanity, a mirror and a mannequin with illuminated, Marie Antoinette-esque hair were a backdrop for an actress, College junior Tracy Li, as she tried on different styles of hats, only to moodily toss them to the floor. As she opened her trunk in search of more outfits to try on, she came face to face with another actress, College sophomore Wei Wei Chen, smiling and giggling like a childish fairy, who had been concealed inside of the trunk. A gleeful contrast to the other actress, she emerged from her hiding place in the trunk and danced around, suggesting dresses for her and gladly accepting the outfits she tossed aside.
The final composition featured an actress, College junior Andrea Echols, originally, in a white polkadot dress and high heels, who stood before a mannequin that was draped in dark fabrics, black lace and red lipstick. As the display progressed, the actress removed the dress, revealing a darker outfit underneath, and pulled the mannequin’s black lace around her. This powerful display spoke to a woman’s rejection of the ideas that society clothes her in and a momentary waltz with the taboos that she feels within herself.
Aesthetically, I loved it.
Looking at the group of five compositions as a whole, as well as the looping of “La Vie en Rose,” the exhibition was, for the most part, placed in a stylistically 1940s world. Even in a time frame before the rise of what we think of as modern feminism, I have to believe that there’s far more to explore and celebrate within the feminine experience than topics regarding our relationship with beauty, and so And She Was calls into question the nature feminine experience itself. How do we interact with it in our daily lives? How did the women before us interact with it? What makes it unique from any other human experiences? What is, “the feminine experience?”
This article was updated on Dec. 8 at 10:51 a.m. College sophomore Wei Wei Chen was inside the trunk, not College junior Tracy Li. Li tried on hats and tossed them across the floor, not Chen.