Women in clay

The Mermaid by Louise Solecki Weir. | Photo courtesy of Italian Cultural Centre

Mangia! Mangia! Images of Italian women abound in popular culture, from the grey-haired grandmother who urges to eat spaghetti to sultry sirens the likes of Sophia Loren. A new ceramic art exhibition at the Italian Cultural Centre, curated by Angela Clarke, engages with these and other female stereotypes, examining what they mean for women today.

The exhibit, Malleable, which will be held from Oct. 18 through Dec. 10, marks the final instalment of the 2019 series Gendered Voices, organized by the Centre’s museum Il Museo. Three previous shows, Princesses and Monsters, Ancient Women in Textile, Brides: Portrait of a Marriage, used other mediums to look at the various traditional stories that shape and constrict women’s lives.

Malleable is about life without restrictions,” says Clarke, museum director and curator at Il Centro Italian Cultural Centre in Vancouver. “Clay is flexible; it can be put into any shape, [and] with clay, the will of the artisan precipitates the change. Traditionally women’s lives were predetermined. But now we’re entering a period where women can self-determine.”

Fish, females, and the importance of age five

Such self-determination often means challenging old images, notes Clarke.

“In traditional societies,” she explains, “particularly in Italy and Europe, young girls, right from the time of birth, are told stories, [which] become moral models. Women were told how they should behave. You’re born; your gender is established, and as a result of this gender, your life is established. You have the story of Rapunzel, who is a parallel with Saint Barbara. This young woman is locked in a tower; she’s protected from growing into womanhood.”

In both stories, continues Clarke, a male figure finds the young woman. In the story of Rapunzel, it’s a prince, and in the hagiography or saint’s biography, it’s God, with the saint becoming a martyr for her religion.

Women are now breaking free from these models, says Clarke.

“As opposed to these restrictions in your life, let’s just let life happen,” she says.

One example, a 2019 sculpture by Louise Solecki Weir from the exhibit Entangled shows a mermaid, a traditional figure of myth and fairy tale, caught up in a net.

“The mermaid is really the embodiment of a hybrid,” says Clarke. “She’s a fish, but she’s also a female. So she’s continuously trying to negotiate her way through the world. For a lot of women that is our lives.”

The sculpture embodies gendered roles in another way, adds Clarke. The mermaid is in the water, often associated with the womb and motherhood.

“Women [can be] called upon to play dual roles, wife and mother, the inclusion or not of a career,” she says. “For men, traditionally, there’s never this debate. In Italian Renaissance manuscripts, the notion is that a man shouldn’t even worry about his kids until they’re at least age five.”

Laughing at teapots

The exhibition showcases some of BC’s other top female ceramic artists such as Georgian Lohan and Amy Chang, both of whose work also contests stereotypes about women, as well as mythological and fairy tale figures.

“These archetypes aren’t being thrown out,” Clarke points out. “There’s references to women as benevolent goddesses [and] a gardening theme. There’s this beautiful piece by Georgian Lohan that’s like a goddess in a forest [(The Return, 2010)], and a piece by Amy Chang [that] looks at the Cinderella story [(Cinderella, 2010)], but if you’re a woman with a big foot that doesn’t fit into the glass slipper.”

As with Chang’s piece, some of the ceramics in the exhibit address issues in a more lighthearted way, notes Clarke.

“In feminism, there’s a lot of things like the #Metoo movement that look at social injustice,” she says. “But at the same time there’s humour. As Carl Jung says, the vessel is a representation of femininity, the womb, the ability to procreate. We have woman as represented by teapots, serving platters.”

For more information, please visit: www.vitalianculturalcentre.ca