Sunday, June 13, 2010

Feminist Jewelry Collection Part I

Click through to read about these pieces from my collection of feminist jewelry featured in "Gender and Jewelry: A Feminist Analysis."

 "Adam's Soul Echoed Lilith"

"Eve/Mother Tongue"

 Eve and Lilith: A Collection of Feminist Jewelry

Over the course of the past several years, I have been working on a collection of narrative jewelry that addresses issues of gender and sexuality entitled “Eve and Lilith: A Collection of Feminist Jewelry.” The work itself is hand constructed of silver and gold with precious and semi-precious stones as well as nontraditional materials such as thread and leather. It employs a range of theorists' work in fields as diverse as cinema, religion and, especially, feminist and queer theory. Several pieces come directly out of the use of Eve and Lilith as female archetypes bound up with ideas about evil and knowledge and submission, archetypes that weigh heavily and begin to speak about societies' attitudes towards women, and women's attitudes towards themselves. Others employ gender paradigms implicated in the myths, like the virgin/whore dichotomy, as they are experienced in modern society. Another category of work utilizes narrative for dual purposes, to reclaim feminist genealogies and to impart subjectivity to traditionally disenfranchised subjects by actively telling their tales. A final group of pieces relies more heavily on structure, both to queer the narrative around socially normative experiences and to amplify the interaction between access to jewelry and access to the female body. 
My body of work draws on and attempts to subvert feminist film critic Laura Mulvey's conception of to-be-looked-at-ness, or presenting oneself to the male or societal gaze. “In a world ordered by sexual imbalance, pleasure in looking has been split between active/male and passive/female. The determining male gaze projects its fantasy onto the female figure, which is styled accordingly. In their traditional exhibitionist role women are simultaneously looked at and displayed, with their appearance coded for strong visual and erotic impact so that they can be said to connote to-be-looked-at-ness.”2 Jewelry therefore presents both a challenge and an opportunity to feminists: As a medium, it is inherently and inextricably bound up with the body and social restrictions and conceptions thereof. In this collection, I develop the concept of jewelry for the wearer, intended to subvert this paradigm by giving the wearer both control over access to the piece and a richer experience than that of the viewer. By shifting the power to the wearer, the piece ceases to be a contributor to to-be-looked-at-ness and becomes part of a more layered narrative.

Lilith is a mythological figure that appears in early Mespotamian culture, including early Judaism. Genesis retells the creation of humanity twice in succession, with some significant differences. It appears first as “God created man in his own image, in the image of God created he him; male and female he created them.”3 This is followed shortly afterwards by the more familiar story of Eve's creation, in which she is taken from Adam's rib. Several rabbinic midrashim, or commentary stories, grew up around this distinction. The tradition says that God first created a pair of humans of dust, Adam and Lilith, but Lilith's independence caused a rift between them. Subsequently, the God caused a deep sleep to fall upon man, and he slept, and He took one of his sides, and He closed the flesh in its place. And God built the side that he had taken from man into a woman, and he brought her to man. And man said, 'This time, it is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh.'”4 Lilith is then cast as a demoness, the incarnation of lust, leading men astray, a killer of newborns with her daughters, the lilim, and, in some versions, the goddess of the underworld.5 Two narratives of interest to feminism are invoked here – firstly, the maternal imperative, and the association between unwillingness to submit to patriarchal norms with unnatural womanhood, a mother who kills children. It also recalls tropes within fairy tales: In these more modern myths, “those women who are either partially or thoroughly evil are generally shown as active, ambitious, strong-willed... they are jealous of any woman more beautiful than they.”6 Uncontrolled sexuality, female power, death, and destruction are deeply interwoven. 
The title of the piece “Adam's Soul Echoed Lilith” is taken from a poem by Avetik Issahakian, an early 20th century Armenian poet, who wrote, “Though Adam's lips said Eve, his soul always echoed Lilith.”7 The piece is a silhouette pin with a bas relief effect sculpted out of silver, showing a nude female figure reaching upwards while surrounded by leaves and branches. On the back, away from the eyes of the viewer, is inscribed the text “Adam and Lilith never found peace together; for when he wished to lie with her, she took offense at the recumbent posture he demanded. 'Why must I lie beneath you?' she asked. 'I also was made from dust, and am therefore your equal.' Because Adam tried to compel her obedience by force, Lilith, in a rage, uttered the magic name of God, rose into the air and left him.”8 From the front, it serves as a beautiful, clearly proud illustration of the Eden narrative, defying the shame mapped onto female bodies in and out of the garden. The wearer holds the text close to their skin, aware of the subversion inherent in the narrative glorifying Lilith and able to share that secondary layer of meaning with those they allow full access to the piece.
Eve is a similarly complicated figure. On the one hand is her portrayal through traditional religion, the source of original sin, her role as mother of humanity eclipsed. She is not even permitted the agency of having made a wrong decision – instead, she is held up as an example of the weakness of women, their inability to resist temptation. In the Eve/Mary dichotomy, she represents what women are seen to be by default, sinful, weak, human, while Mary serves as the antithesis, a woman not representative of women, a woman who transcended her very sex. Eve doesn't escape criticism in feminist literature, either.
Lilith is referred to as the anti-Eve, as if Eve were the root of all negative images of women, as if Eve were the problem Lilith came to solve. As feminists everywhere rally to support and reclaim the besmirched name of Lilith, Eve is left abandoned, doomed forever to be attacked from both sides – condemned by the rabbis for her rebellion and by feminists for her submission – for being too bad and too good all at the same time... In a way, then, feminists have bought into the sexist interpretations of the story without questioning them as they did so articulately with the Lilith legend. They fail to see the similarities between Eve and Lilith, married to the same man, rebelling against the same God/parent, destined for the same historical mistreatment.9

As Eve has been cast as the archetypal woman, it is too easy to cast her to the side in reworking the boundaries of femininity. I aim to draw on those similarities, to rewrite the implications of these characters, to use them to talk about gender, and sex, and history, and strength. 
The piece “Eve/Mother Tongue” looks at the story of Eve and theories of human evolution, specifically the evolution of language. The front shows a slightly abstracted apple in a tree, which when unhooked from the top wire falls down into four panels, bound together with thread. Access to the full piece is controlled entirely by the wearer, leading to a richer experience for the wearer than the viewer. This series shows the regression from a sewing machine, to a needle and thread, to a fig leaf, to a naked woman, looking at the progression of knowledge that has led to something taken for granted in our society, the production of clothing, and tracing it back to Eve. The back features two quotes, the first on women’s, specifically mothers’, role in the evolution of language, the second on the progression of knowledge leading to the idea of clothing. The back is entirely inaccessible without removing the necklace altogether, again defying the traditional conceptions of the gaze. The two together are intended to look at the story of Adam and Eve in a more literal, positive light, with Eve as a representative of all early human mothers who, by developing symbolic language, began the process of knowledge accumulation that has led to modern society. Eve has been reviled from all sides for too long. Emily Apter writes, “the term gynophobia refers first and foremost to a kind of resistance to bearing femininity as a professional liability, performative history, and weight of existence.”10 This piece rejects the gynophobia that accepts the repressive narratives imposed on Eve - rather it reimagines the act on its own terms, as a heroic one. It defies the need to transcend femininity to achieve greatness, rather it remaps greatness onto the maligned source of femininity's perceived inferiority. 
2 Laura Mulvey, “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,” 19
3 Genesis 1:27
4Genesis 2:21-23
5 Patrick Skehan, “The Wisdom of Ben-Sirah”
6Marcia Lieberman, “'Someday My Prince Will Come': Female Acculturation through the Fairy Tale,” 197
7Avetik Issahakian, “The muse of Sheerak: Selected Poems of Avetik Issahakian”
8 Robert Graves and Raphael Patai, “The Hebrew Myths,” 65
9Yiskah (Jessica) Rosenfeld, You Take Lilith, I'll Take Eve in “Yentl's Revenge,” 134
10 Emily Apter, Reflections on Gynophobia in “Coming Out of Feminism?” 114


Unknown said...

Hi Rebecca, I am a second year Fine Arts student majoring in jewelery and small objects. I am currently studying the body in visual art, particularly the body politic and the female masquerade. Your book has been invaluable as a source of reference for my essay. I would like to recommend Susan Cohn's thesis on recoding jewellery.
Keep up the wonderful work, thank you.
Christopher Hardwick (Brisbane, Australia)

Bekka Ross Russell said...

Thanks so much - it is a fabulous resource, one I wish I had discovered a long time ago! This is why it's so important to get this kind of work out there - even if it's not perfect, there's just such a paucity of information, and so widely spread, that it can leave a wannabe student of the subject a little out in the cold.