How does it feel to be silenced?

In my exploration of women in art, within the Aberdeen Art Gallery collection for the micro-commission I'm working on, I have been considering what it means to be a woman today. What are the challenges women are dealing with at this moment in time, with the pandemic affecting every household? Women are facing far more unemployment due to the fact that they are dealing with a myriad of responsibilities. The World Economic Forum says that 1 in 4 women could quit their jobs due to Covid-19, in particular mothers, senior-level women and women of colour due to the statistics that show that women's work continues to be undervalued.  

Claudia Goldin calls the phase of feminism from the 1970's to today a quiet revolution towards equality in education, career development and a balance with the home. This revolution was substantial and significantly feminine in that women took these steps not presumptuously or forcefully, but quietly step by step towards the place we find ourselves now. Women are closer to having equal rights in education, careers and choices in family life in many parts of the world, but the pandemic has now meant that this evolution is devolving. In Katherine Edward's recent article, Women are Leaving the Labor Force in Record Numbers, she explains how pandemic constraints are currently worsening gender inequities by making women take a step back in the social and economic progress they have fought so hard for. It's even started to be called a potential "she-cession," a word situated between recession and c-section, implying that women are being cut out of the workforce. 

This has a strong connotation and in my practical work with painting I have been experimenting with the contemporary symbolic significance of wearing a mask or being a masked woman. I have been sketching from the Aberdeen Art Gallery collection: women in situations of work and care, but also female nudes and portraits. I have started covering their faces with masks as many artists have done since the beginning of the pandemic, and the effect on me has been profound. I find that as I am painting I need to consciously stop to remember to put on their mask, and it feels like I'm silencing them, erasing their individuality. By adding a mask it is as if I am committing some kind of violence or defacement, by denying them the respect they deserve as historic artworks in a gallery or the individuals that they represent. The thought then arose that this is not a new experience, for women's voices have long been silenced, or hushed, and the quiet revolution which Goldin speaks about was in itself symbolically masked. The fact that everyone has to wear a mask now means that we are all straining to have our voices heard, so hopefully this may grant us the possibility to empathize with those who have been silenced and to stand up for gender inequities. I would have to agree with Edward when she suggests that now may be a good time for a louder revolution, one that can actually bring about lasting legal, social and economic gender equality.


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