By Al-Ahram Weekly
Britt Boutros Ghali’s latest exhibition “Women of MyWorld” is replete with subtle resonances, and I am confident that it cause a stir in Cairo. These are women with pluralistic instincts. Do not anticipate replicas of Spanish Cubist Pablo Picasso’s Femmes d’Alger (Women of Algiers). True, Picasso as a man, painted his women with tremendous verve. A man paints women somewhat differently than how a woman paints women. Picasso’s “Version O”, the final painting in the series of Women of Algiers, painted in 1955 was first sold for $31.9 million in November 1997, as part of the Ganz collection, at Christie’s in New York. “Version O” was auctioned at Christie’s New York for a second time in May 2015 and at a pre-sale valuation of $140 million was one of the highest ever placed on an auctioned artwork. For Boutros Ghali, the instinctive cerebral impetus outstripped the innate visual.
Her works resonate with the essence of femininity, and especially the role that spirituality and ethics endow women with a particular avocation, a calling rather than a pastime. Mothering, raising families and as the artist tells me “loving and caring for men”. Her works are curiously quinquennial in the sense that her women focus on five attributes of the feminine. First and foremost, she insists, on love and loving. “I do not consider myself a feminist,” she confides to me. There is an energy and zing in her women. Most are physically beautiful in an ethereal fashion.
“My women come to me. I believe they are reincarnations of women in previous eras, who want to tell the stories of their past lives for me to present them in contemporary settings,” Boutros Ghali tells Al-Ahram Weekly.
Her women are painted with passion, and they are down to earth. she does not take into account only white, aristocratic, and elitist perspectives. They are neither ethnically specific nor do they express multi-culturalist forms of feminism. Her words were reminiscent of the African American term “Womanism”, the second aspect of her five pillars.
For black women, achieving suffrage was a way to counter the disfranchisement of the men of their race, and this is precisely how Britt Boutros Ghali envisages the essence of womanhood. Even though she is Norwegian, hers are women of colour. Some are black but the majority are what one might describe as off-white.
“I come from northern Norway, beyond the Arctic Circle. We have four months of darkness throughout the day in winter, and four months of continuous daylight during summer. The “Northern Lights” are magical, and southern Norwegians see us northerners as wild and boisterous, a trifle psychotic,” she extrapolates.
The term womanism was first coined by African American author and intellectual Alice Walker in her 1979 short story, “Coming Apart”.
The women suffrage movements of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, promoting women’s right to vote, were important. But Britt Boutros Ghali is acutely aware that certain women, and in particular among the aristocratic elite are content to be housewives, or to be more precise women of leisure.
“They are prone to malicious gossip because they have no vocation. And, they treat their servants atrociously. One such woman visited my atelier, and pompously pointed out four painting that she said she would purchase. We agreed on a date and a time. Of course, she never showed up. So I took the painting to the Picasso Gallery, in preparation for the exhibition. She suddenly stormed into my atelier and demanded the paintings, and I told her point blank that they were already hanging in the exhibition. She was horrified and rushed to the Picasso Gallery were she promptly purchased the paintings,” the artist expounded.
The incident itself is illuminating. Just as Walker’s In Search of Our Mother’s Garden’s: Womanist Prose is revealing. Walker is credited with coining the term “womanist.”, but other African American women who rejected feminism soon took up the term, and articulated the meaning and implications of the interlocking oppression of race, gender, and class.
Walker categorically stated that “I don’t choose womanism because it is “better” than feminism...I choose it because I prefer the sound, the feel, the fit of it”. Chikwenye Okonjo Ogunyemi concurred. “A white woman writer may be a Feminist, but a black woman writer is likely to be a Womanist.” The same applies to art. Indeed, Boutros Ghali insists that she is no “feminist”, the third of her five pillars. She paints women because she believes that women are capable of expressing much love. But, she insists that some women are also a source of destruction and terror. An embittered woman can raise a generation of beastly men. She believes in the power of women, whether for good or for evil. The mother is the educator. As such she draws upon the actions of women as the primary, primeval protagonists who make or break their progeny’s lives.
The Japanese-American Betty Tsurusta’s landmark The Womanish Roots of Womanism: A Culturally-Derived and African-Centered Ideal explicitly spells out the essence of womanism. The appellation allows women of colour to affirm and celebrate their colour and culture in a way that feminism does not. And, the women painted by Britt Boutros Ghali sensitively express the sentiment expressed by Womanists.
Womanism, after all, is a social theory deeply rooted in the racial and gender oppression of women of colour.
Face-recognition technologies can be informative about the persona of an individual. And, every painting of the artist in the exhibition has character and a unique personality of her own.
Racist phrenology, now regarded as an obsolete amalgamation of primitive neuroanatomy, where the skull is supposed to determine an individual’s psychological attributes.Britt Boutros Ghali has no time for such racism. And, the artist abhors such outdated theories, and yet she pays meticulous care to the features of her women, the fourth pillar, of this particular artist’s quinquennial perspective. Phrenology was largely discredited as a scientific theory by the 1840s. Phrenologists believe that the human mind has a set of various mental faculties. Racist theorists argued that Australian Aborigines, for instance, had no cerebral organ for producing great artists, and the same can be said of the indigenous Sami people of northern Scandinavia, the Nordic countries in general and parts of northeastern Russia. The Sami are traditionally known in English as Lapps, or Laplanders.
The artist has had numerous encounters with Sami shamans, some who have predicted landmark experiences in her own life. Shamans visit her regularly when she is in Norway, and they always turn up when she is in dire need of their spiritual guidance. She is in awe of such spiritual guides and practitioners of the natural elements. The Sami of northern Norway are at one with their harsh natural surroundings. Their nomadic reindeer herding lifestyle is their hallmark. Their high cheek bones, short and stocky stature, and almond shaped eyes distinguish them racially from other Norwegians.
Physiognomy, the assessment of a person’s character or personality from his or her outer appearance, especially the face is presumably a notion that the artist does not object to. First, she believes that some of her women are embittered, or more precisely where morose or melancholy, and deeply disaffected in a previous life. Others are serene, confident in their charm and charisma.
Boutros Ghali delineates her women’s features, whatever their race. Most of her women are Egyptian, but many are African, and there are the odd Asians, too. Second, in aggregate they are characteristically not dissimilar regardless of their race, One can invariably identify a Britt Boutros Ghali woman, and they do have a uniqueness common enough that distinguishing them is critically important.
Britt Boutros Ghali pays attention to features in each face.
The eyes, eyebrows, lips and nose are swank.And, also, the jewelry, dress and appurtenances stand out. “My women tell me when not to apply any more make-up, and some eschew ornaments altogether, dismissing such trinkets as knickknack”. Even those of her women who are obviously not particularly wealthy have a certain ritzy panache.
Naive painting is pejoratively dismissed as art which is without a formal training or degree. Yet, great artists such as Paul Gauguin are considered “naive painters”. Boutros Ghali, like Gauguin is distinguished by her experimental deployment of colour and synthetist style to highlight the individual characteristics of her women.
Many of Boutros Ghali’s women are reminiscent of Gauguin’s Vahine no te tiare or “Woman with a Flower”. Egypt for Boutros Ghali is what Tahiti was for Gauguin. Vahine, the Tahitian word for “woman” has echoes of Boutros Ghali’s “Women of My World”.
Incidentally, like Gauguin’s Danish wife Mette-Sophie Gad, Boutros Ghali is Scandinavian, and like Mette she was towards the end of her late husband Raouf’s life, the family’s chief breadwinner. However, while Mette eventually divorced Gauguin, Boutros Ghali stuck to Raouf to the bitter end.
Boutros Ghali’s Parisian life inculcated in her a love of art. Her favourite His Edvard Munch, the Norwegian painter who like Boutros Ghali also had an inspirational Parisian sojourn. Munch was particularly impressed by Gauguin’s “reaction against realism”. Munch was a post-impressionist synthetist aesthetic like Gauguin. And, I dare say, like Britt Boutros Ghali herself.