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JOURNAL beyond borders

Expanding Circles Essay by Lorraine Serena

WOMEN/Beyond Borders

 

 THE WAY OF WOMEN

 
Women in communication, sharing ideas, insights, dreams, joys, sorrows and collective memories, an age-old concept.
 
WOMEN/Beyond Borders is an extension of this continuum and represents women at their collective best. It is more than an exhibition, it is a worldwide conversation among women and about women. Over two hundred artists and curators from diverse backgrounds and cultures collaborated for almost three years in order to create exhibitions which will travel to fifteen countries, and connect the participants via modern technology. As we move toward the next century, we have challenged ourselves to see beyond limiting categories of class, politics, ethnicity, geography and belief, to who we are in a reality beyond definition. Through this experience we have been led to understanding, interaction and trust. Together, we have envisioned this collaboration in a way far greater than we could have individually. The beauty and power of W/BB lies in this spirit of support witnessed around the world as women converse, exchange and send their visions further into the world.
 
My work with Suzi Gablik and Suzanne Lacy in a workshop, “Making Art as if the World Mattered,” at Anderson Ranch, Colorado during the summer of 1991, was undoubtedly an underlying impetus for this project. We acknowledge our human desire for community and concern for our world through this project. As we cross borders and bring women into relation, we have embarked on building a world community. This building of community has become the art form.
 

A GRASSROOTS BEGINNING

 
W/BB was born in a conversation at a gallery opening in Santa Barbara, California in September 1992, as Elena Siff and I contemplated the ease of shipping miniature works of art around the world! The idea spread by word of mouth and very soon we found ourselves collaborating with over a dozen area artists. At one of our studio meetings, we focused on a miniature wooden souvenir box from the 1950’s which was on the table in front of us. “That’s it!” someone said, and the “box project” began. Several hundred boxes, each 3 1/2 inches x 2 1/2 inches x 2 inches were constructed. Inspired, we swiftly began contacting artist and curator friends around the world who, in turn, invited up to twelve artists to participate.
 
In describing our inventive distribution process, Mary Heebner states in a Santa Barbara Magazine article, “Our selection of countries was made simply on the basis that someone in the group knew someone else abroad. Isabel enlisted the help of her thirteen year old son, Xavier, who carried plain boxes to artist Eliana Molinelli in Argentina. Elena’s daughter Ravelle, a UCLA student studying at a Hebrew University, found Daphna Naor, a curator in Israel. A friend of Elisse Pogofsky-Harris, Carole Rosenberg, took boxes to Cubana women and Elena traveled to Italy to find an exhibition site there. Mari Olguin, visiting from Oaxaca, left my home with an information packet in her suitcase, and a week later we had a fax from Tanya Coen, director of Casa de Mujer: “We seem to have hit a small gold mine of Oaxacan women artists–send boxes ASAP!” 1
 
There was no formal process here! Evelyn Jacob Jaffe spontaneously walked into a gallery in Paris and left a half dozen boxes with a young women who distributed them to friends. They returned as some of the most elegant, conceptual pieces! During a stay in Paris, Alice Hutchins discussed plans for a segment of the exhibition in France. My daughter, Stephania, contacted artist friends in New York City. Beverly Decker enlisted her sister-in-law to locate Native American women in New Mexico.
 
At the inception of this project, Liz Brown, Curator of the University Art Museum at the University of California at Santa Barbara, said, “You have a conceptual elegance in your vision, keep it flexible, use a diversity of venues based on interpersonal connections and allow the project take on a life of its own.” W/BB now moves forward and expands, as a living entity. We let it go and indeed, it now has a life of its own!
 
Artists included to date represent the United States, Japan, Austria, Uganda, Kenya, Argentina, Spain, Mexico, Italy, Sweden, Finland, Australia, Vietnam, Israel, Cuba, and France. Arab women have joined artists in Israel. A Phase II of Women/Beyond Borders includes Ecuador, Russia, England, Switzerland and Germany. Another thirty countries await information. Participants include emerging artists, self taught artists, nationally and internationally known women. Artists range in age from eighteen to eighty eight! Not only have geographical borders been crossed, but the borders of rejection and limitation as well. All boxes were accepted.
 
After traveling to each of the participating countries, W/BB will return to the United States in the year 2000 for a final exhibition and become a part of a permanent collection, to be determined. A few of the exhibition sites include: The Santa Barbara Contemporary Arts Forum, Santa Barbara,
 
1 Mary Heebner, “Box Network.” Santa Barbara Magazine, Fall 1995, Volume 21/Number 4, pages 46-51.
 
California; Wifredo Lam Center, Havana, Cuba; The National Museum of Kenya,
Contemporary Gallery, Nairobi, Kenya; Kunstlerhaus, Graz, Austria; Tin Sheds Gallery, Sydney, Australia; ICC Contemporary Gallery, Jerusalem, Israel; Kulturhuset, Stockholm, Sweden; and the Extra Moenia, Arte Moderna, in Todi, Italy. Adjunct events and exhibitions are also being planned.
 
Beyond these exhibitions, participants have formed support groups, visited one another, raised funds, and organized panel discussions and workshops. A dialogue has been established among women and doors have opened to new possibilities.

 

THE PREMIER OPENING

 

The Santa Barbara Contemporary Arts Forum was the site of the premier exhibition on November 4, 1995. The boxes struck a deep cord in those who attended. A record number of people came and responded to the quality and power of each work, as well as the collective pulse of the exhibition.
 
“WOMEN/Beyond Borders exhibition surpasses all of our expectations, high as they were! I am quite sure that the exhibition will be received enthusiastically everywhere it goes. It is sure to be among one of our most popular shows. It was also one of our most meaningful exhibitions.
 
W/BB is such a timely endeavor as it brings together women’s visions at the end of a century marked by women’s struggles to find their places and their voices. It is also particularly important in that it cuts across all borders-physical, political, religious, racial. W/BB has been transformed from a simple idea into a profound project that will engage and affect people as it makes its way around our world.”
Nancy Doll, Director – Santa Barbara Contemporary Arts Forum
 
Woman/Beyond Borders is an inspiring, thought-provoking, and aesthetically thrilling project. The connections it has fostered between nations and among women are remarkable. It also becomes a testament to the unbounded possibilities of human creativity, tested here in the seemingly simple transformation of a small wooden box.
Marla Berns, Director- University Art Museum
University of California, Santa Barbara
 
Women representing various participating countries attended the opening. Meeting them was the highlight of the evening. Lizet Benrey-Fuller, artist and daughter of Shirley Chernitsky (curator from Mexico City), attended with her family. Ingeborg Pock and Eva Ursprung came to the opening from Graz, Austria! Annica Karlsson-Rixon and Paulina Wallenberg Olsson represented Sweden. Darlene Nguyen-Ely, Suzie Vuong, and Be Ky Nguyen and her son, now living in Southern California, represented Vietnam.

 

VARIATIONS ON THE THEME OF A BOX

 

Historically the box is reminiscent of a vessel, treasure, shrine, womb, tomb, gift, hope. As we began to receive completed works, it became clear that the humble container which we spontaneously selected was a powerful symbol, a resonating archetypal symbol of woman herself.
 
Completed works range from powerful, conceptual pieces to whimsical and nostalgic boxes. Those from Mexico are colorful, some sinister; from Israel, powerful and provocative; from Argentina, sculptural and earthy; from Paris, sophisticated and deliberate. Some works are fraught with the terror of oppression and others brim with hope and humor. There is a great variety, all compelling and unique. The images represent the spectrum of human experience: love, birth, relationship, power, courage, violence, death, and the sacred. These miniature boxes, which can be held in one hand, transmit a depth of vision which belies their size.
 
Joan Crowder, Art Writer, Santa Barbara News Press speaks of individual boxes:
 
The boxes are their own form of communication representing everything from universal women’s issues to personal memoirs. A few artists took the boxes apart and reconstructed and transformed them. Carin Ellberg of Sweden ground the box into sawdust and placed it in a Plexiglas box of the same dimensions.
 
Kabura Simpiri of Kenya calls her box “My Culture, My Pride.” It is a container for a miniature portrait painted on the bark of a tree sacred to her Maasai culture. “By revealing this beauty of the Maasai people, I hope my contribution in some way helps in the preservation of this priceless culture,” she writes.
 
The contradictions between the expectations of women and the realities of women concern a number of the artists. Rowena Galavitz of Oaxaca, Mexico, created an elaborate quilted satin box, fine and feminine. But inside, viewed through a blue scrim, is the photo of a nude woman and a sinister looking knife.
 
Akane Asoaka calls her box ,”Until Death Do Us Part.” Inside is a tiny white cotton shirt that extends out from the box and becomes a wedding dress at the other end. In her statement, Asoaka says the piece comes from a collective memory of playing mother. “In Japanese, when we say ‘to get married’ we use the word ‘to be tied up,’ she explains.
 
The most poignant boxes are from Cuba. Jacquiline Brito Jorge’s is a boat, set for escape. Another contains a lock of hair and a tattered bandage. Its title is “No Escape is Possible.” Memory is the subject of Shuli Nachshon of Israel who filled her box with slips of paper on which were words that she wished she had said to her mother.
 

Ciel Bergman’s “Grief Repair” contains wax with blood behind it, threads and a needle. She calls it a metaphor for the efforts of women all over the world to heal, to keep communities whole, “despite a world which seems eternally based on war and conflict.”
 

Lorraine Serena’s box is filled with empty bullet shells, a statement about violence and anger and in a poem she asks, “Where is the greatest battlefield to conquer, on the terrain or in the heart?”
Judy Dater says she was shocked by the box she created, coated with lava and filled with green jelly buddies. She calls it “Virus Box”. It feels appropriate at this time, she says, in view of “threats to the environment, threats to our health, to our civilization and our culture.”

 

But there is an underlying tone of hope in the exhibition, with women recognizing their strengths and taking responsibility for their futures.
 
Japanese artist Chiori Ito’s box refers to nature and natural history. She explains. “Each of us is connected by our umbilical cords through hundreds of generations of women into one continuous line…like the growing roots of a plant…we are simultaneously standing both in history and the frontier of the new world.”

 

Lesley Tannahill, also from Japan, calls her entry “Pandora’s Box,” but the items in it are good, not evil. She offers the other version of the story: “The box which Pandora opened contained everything that was good and when (against her husband’s advice) she raised the lid, all that was good escaped out into the world. I like this story and think it’s a fine metaphor for the creative, open-minded nature of womankind.”2
 

WOMEN/Beyond Borders “GETS WIRED”

 
Audiences throughout the world can now view the W/BB exhibition via the Internet, including: images of the boxes, exhibition locations, dates, essays, reviews, comments, etc. Sky Bergman, assistant professor at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, California , worked with her students to design a World Wide Web site for W/BB, in order to create accessibility to the project and to promote communication between artist and audience. In commenting on this process,
 
2 Joan Crowder, “Box Populi, ‘Women Beyond Borders’ Creates a World Wide Web.”
Santa Barbara News Press, Monday, February 6, 1995, page B 5.
 
Sky stated, “The Word Wide Web is being used as a site to connect women who wish to participate in web chats and also to view the W/BB exhibition and individual artist portfolios.”
 
Hundreds of men and women from nations around the world have already logged on, including: Chile, Brunei Darussalam, Bahrain, Lithuania, Thailand, United Arab Emirates, Malta, Russian Federation, Kuwait, Malaysia, Iceland, Indonesia, Slovenia, Turkey and on.
 
Victoria Vesna, artist/professor at the University of California, Santa Barbara, created a component, “f-e-mail and beyond,” to further elicit dialogue among women to assist in empowering them with new technologies. Victoria emphasizes, “Knowledge is power.” The possibilities of this connection cannot be underestimated as women continue to discuss relevant issues as well as to plan future collaborative ventures. Women are encouraged to gather around this electronic hearth to connect and create in a way more vast than ever imagined.
 

STORIES ALONG THE WAY

 

In February, 1995, Jony Waite from Nairobi, Kenya arrived via a Greyhound bus just down the street from my studio to hand-deliver the first completed boxes! As she began to unwrap them, I felt the initial impact of time, energy and creativity invested by each individual artist. According to Jony, “African women have a strong desire to interact with women from other countries. WOMEN/Beyond Borders is an enormous step in enriching and connecting us. In Kenya women have been subjugated for years as chattel, but recently many have begun finding their voices and power. We are delighted to work with WOMEN/Beyond Borders and look forward to networking with creative groups worldwide.” Before Jony left to continue her journey, she expressed her gratitude for acknowledging women in Keyna and Uganda, and said that the Contemporary Gallery at the National Museum of Kenya will be honoring the African participants with an exhibition!
 
When Eva Ursprung, artist/publisher from Graz, Austria joined W/BB, she in turn invited women from the project to participate in a group she founded entitled Kunstverein W. A. S. (Woman’s Art Support). As Eva states, “One of the main aims of W. A. S. is international networking of woman artists, so W/BB fit perfectly and several W/BB participants in Austria have become members of the executive committee.”
 
The townspeople of Graz pitched in to give artist participants and their works a festive send-off. A copy shop printed the invitations gratis, a local bakery provided refreshments and the neighborhood hardware store donated pedestals for the works of art, a generous extension of the community support!
 
As a result of a poetry reading ‘Poetry For and About Women,’ December 7, 1995 held in conjunction with the W/BB Exhibition, Bunny Bernhardt was inspired by fifteen year old Joss Jaffe’s poetic plea to support all young women afflicted with self abuse. Bunny will be forming a group entitled “Grandmothers to Protect Granddaughters”, wise women tossing a life raft to young women of the world! What a concept! If this were the only outcome of W/BB, it would have been enough.
 
A father came to my studio with his daughter to view the boxes prior to the exhibition. They spent two and one half hours discussing issues expressed: birth, death, conflict, the imagination…. It was a profound dialogue which exemplified the depth of human relationship.
 
An unexpected fax recently arrived on May 16th, 1995 from Heide Bilderbrand from Vienna stating, “I am a friend of Gina Ballinger and one of the twelve women in Austria who worked on a box. Last week we had a meeting in Tuscany and I want to report to you the following: Anne-Käthi Wildberger works at the Antikenmuseum in Basel/Switzerland and is assisting in the preparation of an exhibition entitled ‘Pandora’s Box: Women of Classical Greece.’ She had the idea of enlarging the exhibition in Basel with a Swiss segment of WOMEN/Beyond Borders. I find this a brilliant idea, as the exhibition will deal with antique boxes, vessels, etc. To actualize it by a present-day segment of female art work is just an ingenious idea.” Dr. Margot Schmidt from the Antikenmuseum Basel also wrote of ‘Pandora’s Box,’ I am looking forward to the realization of this project. If we can join W/BB with ‘Pandora’s Box’ in Basel, it would mean that we would link not only women of our time, but we would also link with the ancient Greek women who, at their time, had a strong need for solidarity.” Thus with these two communiqués, we began W/BB Phase II.

 

REFLECTIONS ON WOMEN/Beyond Borders

from the participants:

 

“There is no hierarchy in this exhibition. We are all creating a piece from the same inexpensive pine box and there is a real sense of us supporting one another. We are women artists of all ages, from all economic backgrounds and with varying degrees of professional reputation in the “art world.” As this project has grown and the dialogue with other international artists has increased, through the fax and Internet, it is apparent that there is a vital stream which is flowing among us as the exhibition begins its epic voyage. Whatever happens on the way is the essence of WOMEN/Beyond Borders!”
Elena Mary Siff/co-founder
 
“As contributing artist and team organizer of WOMEN/Beyond Borders, I learned to understand the world in a radically new way: one that is based in interaction and team work, versus the traditionally patriarchal view of individuality, competition and isolation. Woman is one and multiple at once; her strength resides in being so versatile to the extent that her individuality doesn’t feel threatened by working in collaboration. This attitude is very valuable and very rare nowadays. Collaboration, exchange, dialogue are the elements that contribute to the impact of a show like this. Woman extends herself and becomes “female”. Female exists beyond anatomical difference. ”
Maria Velasco
 
“Most cultures have a tradition of working collectively, lending a hand. Native and pioneer Americans built kivas, raised barns, shared talk and talent in quilting, beading, or basket-making circles. It seems that the more self-sufficient we become, the lonelier the act of making things becomes as well. Today many women are seeking ways to meet informally or collaborate on group projects as a step toward undoing the isolation of solitary work.”
Mary Heebner
 
“The feminine perspective needs to be seriously looked at and rediscovered. WOMEN/ Beyond Borders has been created in a female way. It has been very successful and powerful in this regard. What has been accomplished in this project is a real model to me of how the feminine process works. One doesn’t have to bulldoze people over in process of moving forward. You can be nurturing, flexible, open, caring, non-judgmental — all of those wonderful female attributes which are very powerful in a every universal way. This would never been done without give-and-take, without collaboration.” Beverly Decker
 
“A small box was given to me. I had to take a stand on what that box should mean. The more I worked on it, the more condensed the energy became. It came to mean a squared world of love and death in a 3 1/2″ x 2 1/2″ x 2″ space. I felt it was like atomic energy, my life condensed. When my box took its place among all the other atomic reactions of love, despair, joy, fun and fear–all done by women, it was such a reaffirming commitment to living and being a women, that I felt the room explode with all the creative energy that was present.”
Saritha Margon
 
in the comment book:
 
The exhibition touched my soul. My eyes were filled with tears when seeing all these works. I am prouder than ever before for being a woman. Athena
 
I could feel the women whispering, like clocks ticking, like all these wild, intentional undone heartbeats. I will tell everyone. Valentina Grup-Kruip
 
The depths of women’s souls we can now share together, far and deep. thank you for lighting a way. Diana Rossetti
 
Poetry of the soul, a treasure chest of marvels, a creation of possibility, thank God! We are so different and so the same. From everywhere the boxes scream the theme we are each other. A. Black
 
A great honor to women, may we continue to show the way to others.
Kathie Martin
 
Thank you for the opportunity to share a wonderful, meaningful afternoon with my daughter. Questions that don’t normally arise in everyday life suddenly get talked about. Why? Inspiration and laughter. B. J. Danetra
 
Very touching, I have tears in my eyes, and my heart sings praise to Eve.
J. Brown
 
I have returned yet again to commune with other women and feel the depth of our commonalty. I am a deeply moved by all my sister’s feelings and feel a better person after studying their expressions of love and hope. Angie Ritenour
 
Remarkable- there must be a way for us to help each other, to help ourselves.
 
Lee McCarthy
 
A perfect expression of women’s spirituality — a truly sacred expression, food for the soul. Noel
 
This is a new movement! Cindy Martin
 
It is a tearful, moving experience to see the agony, joy and creativity of women, sisters, humankind. It is also a moment of pride. Eva Haller
 
 

ONWARD

W/BB honors the vitality, wisdom, sensitivity and collective power of women’s expressions. As we move forward with a sense of solidarity and collective confirmation, there is no doubt that extending community has become the work. It is in this process that we find the greatest meaning of the word art as derived from the Latin root ar – to join together.
 
Suvan Geer, artist/writer states in an essay about W/BB:
 
“WOMEN/Beyond Borders is a step in undoing the isolation and hopelessness of silence. It is not a panacea, a goal or a band-aid. It is simply a step. Next will be the visits between artists in various countries, the letters and the Internet communications. These are interpersonal communications which will be followed by more self exploration, expansion of presence, and confirmations of global and community importance. Although we are invited to witness these exchanges by viewing the various exhibitions, unless we actively join the discussions, most will be invisible to us. Documentation will never fully reveal what this dialogue will mean to the participants. That is to be expected, and in no way diminishes what this gathering together will signify to the world. Because every revolution is people. Not crowds, or movements or armies, but individuals coming to a common understanding that they have power. That they can change the world. And it always begins with knowing who we are.”3
 
In the broadest sense, W/BB is not only about these women, it is about all women. Look and listen to these women. Hear their universal pleas for healing, justice, respect and liberation. Observe their reverence for the home, the world and one another. The women of the world express their deepest convictions. Look beyond these particular women – listen to and honor the voices and visions of all.
 
Lorraine Serena, Artist-Founder