Artist Weekend: Women and Resistance

Artist Weekend: Women and Resistance

Remembering is repetition. Remembering is the only confusion. Do you understand?

by Amber Coomans

5 – 7 May 2017

As a heritage student, something I learned on the first day was that history is constructed. Heritage is a label that people stick onto something they find important. This Artist Weekend is about that very aspect of history: how come when we google the word resistance (verzet in Dutch), only one woman pops up in Google Images?

From Friday May 5th until Sunday May 7th I attended Castrum Peregrini’s first Artist Weekend: Women and Resistance, a weekend full of artist talks, debates, presentations and film screenings. The weekend is part of a yearlong program titled The Female Perspective, which focuses on questions of female identity, feminism and gender, both in relation to the historical context of Castrum Peregrini and its founder Gisèle van Waterschoot van der Gracht. I watched this weekend, obviously, through my own eyes: a young heritage student with many questions about history, heritage and also about Gisèle’s own affinity with the female identity which was broadly debated this weekend.

The weekend opens with an introduction by curator Nina Folkersma, in which she explains more about the Female Perspective in relation to Castrum Peregrini: the house of female artist Gisèle, where she worked and lived, is the perfect place for such an event. Castrum Peregrini not only wants to preserve the material heritage of her studio and living space, but also the immaterial heritage of friendship, respect, culture and art. In WWII, Castrum Pererini served as a hiding place where spiritual and artistic freedom was the greatest survival tool.

This freedom also plays a central role in the film by Lynn Herschman that follows Folkersma’s introduction. It is about the relationship between the feminist art movement and the anti-war movement in the 1970s. The film has an impressive beginning: visitors of the Whitney Museum in New York are asked to name three female artists. They can only think of Frida Kahlo. The movie continues and a long impressive list of female artists comes along. Artists such as Judy Chicago, Nancy Spero, Howardena Pindell and Judith Baca, names I have never heard of; names that young artist and art student Janine Antoni has never heard of and names that – in literature – seem unfindable in the libraries of America. The three words that describe the feminist art movement are still relevant today: Women Art Revolution.

 

Bianca Stigter, Marjan Schwegman and Pieter Paul Pothoven present their work on the 6th of May. Bianca Stigter is former editor of the Dutch national newspaper NRC Handelsblad and one of the foremost cultural critics and historical writers in the Netherlands. Later this year, she will release the revised and richly illustrated edition ‘Atlas van een bezette stad’ (Atlas of an Occupied City). Stigter presents an impressive list of female resistance fighters like Frieda Belinfante, Rosa Boekdrukker, Marie Tellegen and Gesina van der Meulen. She also shows that many of these female heroes were related to each other, and part of the Amsterdam elite. Next is Marjan Schwegman, professor in Politics and Culture at the faculty of Humanities at Utrecht University. From 2007 to 2016 she was the managing director of NIOD (Institute for War, Holocaust and Genocide Studies). In her presentation she explains how the women Stigter talked about, became invisible. These women became partially invisible because historians often defined resistance on the basis of hard, ‘masculine’ characteristics. In the work of Loe de Jong, women are virtually absent because, as a typical man of his time, he does not include how the people in hiding were taken care of.

The role of women, who appear in the Dutch history of the resistance, is mostly described as supporting in the form of a courier. The role as courier became the focusing-point, though at the same time, Jacoba van Tongeren for instance, was not only a courier but also had a leading role in the famous group 2000.

Schwegman is interested in the dilemma of using violence, especially because religion was very important in people’s lives at the time.

Multimedia artist Pieter Paul Pothoven researches Amsterdam based socialist resistance groups, like RARA and CS6 before, during and after the war, in which both men and women played active roles. He is also interested in the dilemma of using violence: how can this history be presented without falling into nostalgia and glorification of violence? He states that it all depends on your view on life: are you already seeing violence all around you? And what does the term violence mean? Some people see the exclusion of refugees as violent.

In the round table discussion afterwards, Pothoven states that the mainstream historiography is very patriarchal. He tries to put himself in the role of a young girl: what history books could I read in which I recognize myself? A member of the audience asks what it means that Pothoven, again as a man, is writing down this history of women. But why should men always account for this? Asks Schwegman: “I have written about men and I have never had this question.”

 

The third and last day of talks has a very different feeling than the day before: more personal and vulnerable, and this is mainly because the speakers tend to put themselves into the position of someone else. What the speakers have in common is their struggle with the theme “truth”.

Aya Johanna Daniëlle Dürst Britt holds an MFA from Leiden Unicersity in Islamic studies. She is an editor of the online al.arte.magazine, which publishes articles in Dutch and English about art, culture and society in relation to Islam. In Leiden she studied the life and work of Hasrad Inayat Khan, the founder of the Universal Sufism, and father of Noor Inayat Khan: resistance fighter and first female radio operator to be sent from Britain into occupied France to aid the French Resistance. Apart from an impressive ancestry, with royals and a long line of mystics and musicians, she also grew up hearing Dutch, as her father’s organisation would develop into the universal Sufi Movement in the West. It has a significant branch in the Netherlands, especially in the city of The Hague. Noor Inayat Khan built up a resistance group, but was betrayed by a jealous woman. This lead to her being imprisoned for several years, and eventually, a death sentence. Her last word, before her execution, was: ‘Liberté!’. This could be interpreted in the spiritual sense she grew up with: spiritual freedom. Britt asks herself the question: “What would I do? I am like her, I love music, art, and mysticism. Would I sacrifice myself?”

Ronit Porat works with photographic materials and combines them with biographical texts and materials from archives. She was born in a Kibbutz in the north of Israel, where history played an essential role in the formation of both personal and national narratives. When she finds a story that touches her in a way, she adds a layer of imagination and very often an autobiographical layer. She states that she is not very interested in the “truth”, because there is no such thing as truth. She really enjoys spending time in archives but finds it difficult to get access. Later in the round table discussion an audience member presses the fact that archives are constructed, and that fiction and history cannot be separated.

Annet Mooij, researcher and writer working on a biography of Gisèle recognizes this. Histories are stories, filled with affection and emotions. This makes writing the life story of Gisèle so very difficult. “My task is to add some meaning, logic or even a question mark to the stories. The story behind the story is impossible to find.”

Of course the weekend is about the Female Perspective, but Gisèle herself really struggled with the term femininity. In the period of her resistance in the war, she was responsible for the money, in that way she wasn’t ‘female’ at all! Later, one of the hiders accused her of being too masculine: “You made use of my male part, now you accuse me of being too masculine!?” In a letter to her husband, mayor Arnold d’Ailly, she even writes that she hates being a woman. Besides, Gisèle never focused on herself as a ‘female artist’. In that perspective it’s even more interesting that a weekend like this is, which is focussing exactly on the female aspect of artists and resistance fighters, is being organised in her former studio. What would she think of that?

 

Remembering is the only repetition. Remembering is the only confusion. No matter how complicated anything is, if it is not mixed up with remembering, there is no confusion. (Insistence, Andrea Greyer)

This quote of the screened movie sums up this artist weekend for me. I ended up having more questions after the weekend than I had before. What is resistance? What does female resistance mean? What is truth?

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