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JOURNAL beyond borders

Women Beyond Borders – The Art of Community Building

Women Beyond Borders Website

Faye Shen, WBB Artist – SINGAPORE – 2001



Freedom. Love. Searching. Sex. Courage. Violence. Hope.


Such are the imaginations of women around the world captured in small, almost ordinary prototype boxes, transformed into poignant works of art and soul.


Women Beyond Borders (WBB) is a touring cross-cultural collaboration that celebrates womanhood by honoring her voice, her wisdom and her experiences.


Ten years ago in Santa Barbara California, Co-founders Lorraine Serena and Elena Siff drew their attention to a miniature wooden box sitting on a coffee table. Lorraine’s dream was to make community building her art, taking her “out of isolation as a singular artist into the world of collaboration.” She calls it “making art as if the world matters.” Her definition of art is derived from the Latin ars, artis: to join together. The WBB movement started via inertia as Lorraine and her friends worked through numerous networks of friends and family with the purpose of documenting and honoring women’s voices through the women’s works of art.


Today, the thoughts, aspirations and feelings of women throughout the world are encased in some 400 boxes from over 36 countries worldwide.


Each artist is given a similar miniature wooden box (3.5″ x 2″ x 2″), reminiscent of a hope chest -an American dowry box. These small pine boxes are then crafted into individual works of art that extend beyond the box’s confines – transforming a finite medium into an infinite expression space.


Completed boxes evolve into different shapes, colours, sizes and dimensions from the small pine box that they once were. More importantly, boxes from every country give the viewer a glimpse into the spirit and social climates of the lands. Those from Mexico are colorful and vibrant – reminiscent of fiesta and life, those from Afghanistan carry a deep longing for freedom, creations from Japan are provocative and chic, while boxes from Israel are etched with the Sabbath and spirituality.


Universal themes of the ideal woman, women’s roles in society, oppression, freedom for expression, hope, love, and religion are embodied in the creations. Rich and insightful local themes are also evident in works such as Singaporean artist, Prisca Ko’s “Constraints Faced by Contemporary Women. Her creation was modeled into a block of public housing apartments and sought to explore and express the constraints faced by contemporary women who live in public housing apartments – also known as Housing Development Board (HDB) flats – in Singapore.” She expressed her lack of physical space, and the constraints of “physical, emotional, mental and social to religious realms” in the various ‘units’ in her block of flats and the ampoules that they held.


On the other side of the world Lobsong from Tibet uses the symbols and colours of Buddhism and the produce of the land (barley and yak cheese) as she etches her religion and the simple abundance from subsistence living into her box. Diana De Solares shares of her existence in Guatemala as portrait of the Artist as a box (her heavily nail – armored creation) speaks of the physical violence and unrest around her and of her physical and psychological resilience to remain unscarred within.


“As the boxes are opened, so is communication,” says Lorraine. “The beauty of Women Beyond Borders lies in this spirit of support evidenced as women contact one another, exchange, collaborate, and converse as they come out of isolation into relation.” This exhibition crosses the boundaries of race, religion, caste, politics and geography as women around the world come to relate to their sisters though the viewing and the creation of art. A new understanding and reverence of women around the world takes root as one experiences the deep, intimate dialogue that occurs between artist and viewer.


Intensely personal stories of rape, abuse, and struggle are told at the WBB exhibitions. The late Hwee Choo – a cancer patient who had died before her box was complete – had her incomplete box exhibited in the WBB Singapore exhibition held at Sculpture Square in May this year. The words “Cancer is a terrible disease” were scrawled almost painfully and illegibly on the side of her box. “The illness is like the box itself,” said the artist’s statement. “Though the box may represent the ravages of cancer, the body still holds a bright and vibrant heart, undivided by the struggle.” Such were the intensity and the intimate outpourings found in many of the boxes at the WBB Singapore leg of the tour, and at all the exhibitions that preceded it.


Be it in a train car in Russia, or a temple in Katmandu, each exhibition has reinvented itself from place to place as the boxes continue their journey throughout the world, bringing healing and understanding amongst women and men worldwide.


“A womb, a tomb, a gift, a shrine.” These boxes echo the signs of our age, and tell the tales of womanhood in this century. They represent the collective voice of women around the world – honest, intense, sincere. Never to be ignored, and definitely not to be forgotten.


Box Above: Faye Shen – The Vessel of Light, Singapore, 2001


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