Challenging the Perceived Value of Women Through Abstract Art
Womanhood and value — and how those two things are connected — were high on my mind at the beginning of 2018.
I recently found myself, after years of thinking I already had it down, questioning how women are valued within mainstream society. Mostly because I wasn't feeling very valued, or at least that I was being valued for the right reasons — valued as more than just someone who is the manager of emotional labor in a relationship, more than someone who is just there for sex and not a relationship, more than someone who is to be taught rather than be the teacher, or as someone who will be of help rather than someone who has an idea and will direct others to help carry that idea out. To get to the bottom of all of that questioning and those emotions, I picked up a paintbrush and some assorted bottles of colored ink.
Big-picture questions continued to arise:
What does it mean to be a woman in the first place?
While we are having some long overdue, thought-provoking, and challenging conversations about sex and gender these days, I still feel more often than not that my value as a woman is seen as lying in my ability to be of help, to care for others, and to reproduce. And if that’s the case, are a woman’s eggs her most vauable assets? Are we reduced to being valued for our biology and nothing more? Should young women who are infertile feel ashamed and devalued? When a woman gets old enough, and her body is no longer able to produce eggs, will her value truly have diminished?
What, also, is a legacy? Does one have to have children in order to leave one?
I found this question to be especially pertinent for high-achieving women — women who actively seek career and societal prominence — because those things notoriously take away from time which may otherwise be spent on family. If a woman goes on to, say, create a body of work that captures attention and forces others to think and challenge their own assumptions or affects society in a positive and lasting way, even if she never goes on to have children, couldn’t that be legacy enough? It seems society would have you believe it's not, especially if you are a woman.
Whatever the answers to those questions, it's still difficult to escape the reality that as a woman I often feel reduced to my biology. And the older I get, the more aware I become of the fact that it is true, at some point a woman's seemingly most valuable assets, her eggs, will run out. We tend to raise our daughters in a very gendered way, to be at least subconsciously aware of this, if not directly. It's common knowledge that when women age past 30, our societal value decreases, so it seems to only make sense to raise a daughter to seek family first and early — before her value can become compromised. Beyond that, we tend to raise our daughters to be cheerful and compliant — not necessarily ambitious leaders.
I read some journalism recently that profiled a handful of fathers and talked about how they each raised their daughters. And I kind of cringed, because it was an unintentional handful of stories where father is the keeper of daughter. In each instance I was reminded of the lack of freedom I’ve always felt when it comes to the expectations of being someone’s daughter — Dad is the person you answer to, who you can never talk back to, and who always has the final word. Dad is the unquestionable leader. And yet I was relieved when I compared my own life to some of the daughters profiled, because I was given so much freedom when I was younger. No one directly raised me to seek family first and early. Rather, I was raised with near-total freedom to be whoever and whatever I wanted to be, even if that meant I would not be a wife and a mother. The silent expectation that you, as a daughter, will go on to get married and have a family — leave your womanly legacy — has always been there. But neither my father nor my mother have ever put it as a set expectation for me. And for this I am thankful.
So I used that paintbrush and those assorted bottles of colored ink to leave a bunch of abstract Eggs as a legacy, as part of an ongoing series titled Fertile Ground. They are the true result of my questioning and emotions. I created the first Eggs in January, and told my mother that I wanted to show them in galleries. Right away, five of them were sent to hang at the ArtHelix gallery in Bushwick, from mid-February through early March. Next, they moved to Café Grumpy’s NoLita location, where they hung through the month of April. Currently, they can be seen at the LIC Arts Open Gallery at The Factory in Long Island City, Queens, though the end of August.
I want people to consider womanhood and womanly value when viewing my Eggs, and develop their own questions in response. I also want people to realize how diverse women are. Maybe all of these eggs belong to the same woman and are a testament to her own constant transformation, or maybe they each belong to different, beautifully diverse women. Maybe they are natural, or maybe they are synthetic. Each Egg is a vibrant landscape in and of itself. Some may even be fertilized — or not. And while we may technically define being female by the ability to produce eggs, none of them are actual representations of womanhood.
By using the egg — an inherent symbol of birth and rebirth — as an icon for the consideration of womanhood and womanly value, I hope to challenge others to think more deeply about how we define a woman, where a woman’s value lies, and all the different possibilities for legacy she may leave besides children.
All of the works in the Fertile Ground series can be seen at my contemporary art studio website, Alyssa Yeager Studio.