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The Photographic Work of Clara Gutsche, Adrian Piper and Allyson Clay
Clara Gutsche, Les Soeurs Carmélites, Le grand parloir / The Large Parlour, Trois-Rivières
The cloistered nun is perhaps the most literally invisible role that a woman could choose; but this concealment contradicts any association with powerlessness. The role of nun also refutes the assumption of women’s limited ability to perform meaningful work. The founding women of Quebec’s religious orders made great contributions to Quebec society, particularly in establishing schools and hospitals; their proven efforts and modelled ability had direct benefits for the future of young women. These nuns are the vestiges of a matriarchy that set the groundwork for female equality. At a time when women were rarely educated and had few choices available to them, joining a convent provided women with a beneficial alternative.
Clara Gutsche, Les Soeurs de la Visitation, La salle du chapitre / The Meeting Room, La Pocatière
It is obvious from the age of the nuns that they lived through a different era, and in this respect, Gutsche has documented a living history. It is also unusual to see this many aged women so respectfully portrayed. Gutsche focuses our attention on the sublime strength of the elder nun depicted in Les Soeurs de la Visitiation, La salle du chapitre / The Meeting Room, La Pocatière
(1991), whose benevolent smile is the apex of the triangular composition made of figure, chair and face. Neither art history nor contemporary mass media pay much attention to older women, unless to deride or undermine them. Notably, there are very few younger nuns present in the photos, which may reflect today’s diverse options for women. Beyond an intense spiritual commitment, there is little to compel young women to enter the convent. As such, it is significant that Gutsche captured the images of the nuns before they and their remarkable way of life disappear.
In stark contrast to the choice exercised by cloistered nuns, Adrian Piper did not choose to be invisible. But as a light-skinned black woman, she easily blends into her predominantly white, academic environment. While she could pass as white, Piper uses the ambiguity of her appearance to confront racial and gender prejudice. As an artist Piper’s work encompasses a range of media, and since the 1970s, has had a strong sociopolitical agenda. She analyzes and questions the invisibility and exclusion of the non-white other within dominant culture, laying claim to a subjective position of inclusion. Food for the Spirit1 (1971) is an early photographic and audio series examining her identity as a black woman. It is a precursor to her more disruptive and confrontational works, such as The Mythic Being (1974-75), which again examines identity, but in particular confronts xenophobia. In both Piper has made herself the subject of the work; she shifts from an intensely private and autobiographical investigation in Food for the Spirit, to an aggressive public confrontation in The Mythic Being. Despite the difference in tone, both works exemplify Piper’s directness in dealing with the discomforting issues of sexism and racism.
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1. Adrian Pipers Food for Spirit at thomaserben.com (http://www.thomaserben.com/artists/piper/previous_shows.html). Last verified: 15 October 2005.