Empowerment and equality: Lightbourn opens a space for dialogue on women’s issues

Sue Katz Lightbourn’s exhibition, Exposed opened at Antonius Roberts’ Hillside House Gallery on the evening of Thursday, April 13th, 2017.  The show is a fun, thought provoking, yet challenging journey through a world of images collected and reassembled out of context and time.  Collage and assemblage lend a great deal of lightness and offer accessibility to the serious discussion of women’s roles in society and the mental, physical and emotional controls society places on them.

Sue Katz-Lightbourn, ‘Pink Angel’ (2016), paper mache wings, plaster cast, vintage ads, found objects, dimensions variable.

Katz tackles this minefield of gendered programming and the women who blaze a trail through space and across boundaries, very much in the manner of Virginia Woolf’s 1929 essay. A Room of One’s Own, that declares the need for women to have a private space, where they can create and simply be.  Women are always being told how to look and how to be in order to be “pleasing” to the proverbial male gaze.

The entertainment, publicity, marketing industries all send powerful messages of what is “normal” that make us judge ourselves and others based on entirely artificial and materialistic ideas and images.  Katz captures the innocuous unrelenting attack on our psyche that is so often unperceived. We become embroiled in a world of images that dictate how we “think” we should look and how we should behave. Of course, one of the big ones is diet and being the right size and shape.  Although no two people are created the same, we are meant to be ruled by an image of what is “standard and acceptable” beauty in order to fit in.  Girls are taught to starve themselves in order to be “pretty”; boys, too, are increasingly led down this road, particularly with the pervasiveness of social media and pernicious cyber bullying.

Sue Katz-Lightbourn, ‘A Woman’s Place Is In The…’ (2016), plaster form, vintage ads, found objects, 26 x 14”.

Katz encourages equality and empowerment for women who are usually the objects of greater inequality and scrutiny than most other groups.  To be sure, the images are overwhelmingly from American popular culture and focus on the need for women to be beautiful, slim and malleable. The violence implicit in the project is never focused on.

Katz’s show brings back memories of the television series Mad Men with the world of advertising being revealed on screen and the sexism and bigotry that it espoused and marketed. The programme explored the social mores of early 20th-century America.  It also demonstrated how active the advertising industry was in building, shaping and then upholding those stereotypes and how the industry changed with the times.  Advertising has a great deal to do with social programming, as demonstrated from episode to episode with Don Draper and his team building ad campaigns for big companies and all their escapades.  It was the time of women’s liberation and Black and Jewish empowerment.  Most of these struggles are little talked about today because they are too “indelicate.”

Sue Katz-Lightbourn, ‘Grown Up Scrabble’ (2016), scrabble board, scrabble tiles, found objects, collage, 18 x 18.

Katz fabulously explores many taboos through the loud, bright, active, though sometimes somber and dark, collage and assemblage works.  There’s usually nothing subtle about the work, though the message may not be grasped fully at first glance.  However, the work is truly accessible, as much as Wonder Woman is a visual icon for people born in the 1960s and even 1970s.

To be waiflike, wispy and pretty is to be accepted.  However, the world is too diverse for that.  Not everyone will want to or can be Barbie.  Yet media and social programming continue to deploy inflexible messages of celebrated and normative beauty. As much as we have moved into consciousness and social awareness, the same images and messages continue to circulate.

Katz’s collage practice creates a lovely burlesque box. Ironically, in that box, society sends mixed messages about that as well. We hear that it is good to be sexy, but not good to be sexual. We do not want to talk about safe sex, but we do want to talk about sexual exploitation. We refuse to discuss power asymmetries yet celebrate motherhood, not womanhood—except and only when it is subordinate. Women are encouraged to be skinny, to diet to get down to a size 2 or 3, which is usually still too big. We go into shops and the sizes are all different.  What results is a misguided self-image that sees fat and creates numerous physical and psychological challenges to attempt to control eating habits, appetite and body size.

The exhibition throws light on the troubles women face with a manufactured body beautiful for an industry that really does not like women and a world where women are usually told to be submissive and to submit to all kinds of male authority that wishes them no positive outcome. It is about control and, the power to control, which are two different things. It is not insignificant for all those people who think that simply because a woman takes over a business or steps into political office, she will have women’s best interest at heart and on her agenda.

Margaret Thatcher, for example, notwithstanding the fact that she was a woman—and reportedly a strong women—did little to nothing to further women’s legal or social empowerment. Media still insists on depicting women as merely sex objects and sex symbols, even if they are dressed in power suits. I think Katz works with these images and shows how controlling and damaging they really are to young women’s self-esteem and self-worth. It is not enough that all women are cast against a cultural homogenous mold of femininity that disallows individuality of personhood or cultural diversity. Ethnic and racial differences and geography tell us that women experience their lives and their sex differently. Yet advertising and many aspects of mainstream Western culture determines that they should all fit in the same pair of Calvin Klein jeans, for the young Brooke Shields or the same skimpy outfit to perform at a rock concert that is tailored to a particular audience.

Sue Katz-Lightbourn, ‘Say Cheese!’ (2016), custom instagram board, photos, found objects, 3 1/2 x 2’.

Many women have taken the lead in organizations, yet the images and the messages remain rather the same as when marketingand advertising were run exclusively by men. Again, Mad Men provides a bird’s eye view of that world. It also offers a serious statement of the contradictions involved in social and financial advancement that render humans unable to move beyond the control of social media and advertisement traps. We have become victims of the world that sells us ourselves and then tells us how we should continue to be or else suffer the fate of being unacceptable.

Art, while being pretty, really has a place in social commentary. Katz’s show, I think, has a solid place in creating dialogue locally about issues around exploitation, mental control and equality of access to being in this world.  It is a show with a well-thought-out message and the media through which it is displayed can speak to people without threatening their unobserved biases. Katz’s work demonstrates the “Enlightened Sexism” that Susan Douglas critiques in her book. The subtitle says it best: The seductive message that feminism’s work is done.  In this case, the work explores all the images on screen and in glossy magazines that lend credence to the belief that by simply donning sexy garb, going to work and being a mother, women have achieved equality.

Sadly, the real message is that, especially in certain countries, women’s ability to access rights and to be paid the same as men for the same job, especially when they have the same qualifications, is seriously undermined by legal and customary blocks that empower attitudes that keep women “barefoot and pregnant”.  Ironically too, the idea that women have become more comfortable with their bodies or that society has become more accepting of women’s bodies, their independence and their power, is poorly realized in most countries.

In a world where we try to raise healthy, self-assured, independent, self-possessed daughters, nieces, cousins, or granddaughters who should not have to fear walking out the door or what they watch on TV or read in magazines that tell them how to be the best submissive “girl” they can be to be. How to win the boy’s eye, to get the right match and live happily ever after, without surrendering self, though every message driven home is that they must become second to their lord and master, according to the local understanding of biblical verse.

Sue Katz-Lightbourn, ‘Silence and Shame’ (2016), measuring tape, photos, frames, dressmakers form, 5 x 3’.

Tragically, the message that women do not have to worry about body image because there are positive options out there is woefully under-gunned, to use masculinist language, when it comes to competing with the all-pervasive images that permeate through social media and cyber bullying.  It is far too common for young girls to be socially bullied virtually for not having the right body.  Yet no one discusses this.

The art that this exhibition brings to life is a message of how far things have come, but oh how much further we have to go to get beyond the horrible objectification of women that penetrates all social strata and societies in the Global South as much as in the West.

When Edward Said took on the battle against images of a feminised orient, he was working, much like Katz, to debunk old and very well-functioning, fine-tuned myths, stereotypes and images that circulate to hold societies prisoner.  As Edwidge Danticat argues, create dangerously, or be consumed. I would venture to say that Katz does that.  We need more discussion of the dilemmas that harm our girls, young women, middle-aged women and older women who are made to be less than they are by an image imposed that is airbrushed, Photoshopped and tweaked into unreality.

Sue Katz-Lightbourn, ‘What Price Beauty’ (2016), dressmakers form, hair samples, various objects, frames, 5 1/2 x 3’.

It would be truly exceptional if this work could move beyond the gallery space, (that seems to already create an idea of separation), to allow people to really be a part of the conversation.  Even if they resist the message, they will have seen the control that is placed on their image and themselves. Can we start to have serious discussion about cyber bullying, fat shaming, body shaming and all the eating and psycho-physical disorders that this exhibition throws light on?  This work makes the discussion possible.