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Mothers of Invention

Documentary finds defiant spirit of female artists.


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The woman artist confronts a long litany of discouragements. What we should all hope to see more regularly is the defiant spirit of the five female artists featured in Who Does She Think She Is?, screening this Thursday at the Memphis Brooks Museum of Art.

The documentary film, directed by Pamela Tanner Boll and Nancy Kennedy, follows five women as they balance the many facets of their lives and, although not without struggles, manage to do so quite successfully. They produce exceptional paintings, sculptures, and music, live with purpose, have healthy, happy children — in fact, the only ones who seem to be incapable of handling it are some (but not all) of the husbands — and sooner or later, the ones who can't hack it are out of the picture. In a particularly funny and poignant example, Mayumi Oda, a Japanese painter and political and feminist activist, tells us that when her husband left her because he said he "needed a wife," she responded simply, "I need a wife, too."

It isn't that the film bashes men. Female empowerment holds a premium, as does a desire to level the playing field in the art world and beyond. But the empowerment comes in many different packages: a married Mormon mother of five, a single mother of three in New Mexico, an aspiring pastor-cum-actress jockeying between her family life in Cambridge and career aspirations on Broadway. So not only do they defy a gender-biased value system, they defy the expectations of feminists and artists.

With a refreshing group of focused, confident women, the film explores how one can not only be a mother and an artist but, in an even more progressive stance, how one can be an artist and also a mother. Some rely on the support of their husbands (the film does a nice job of representing the husbands who nurture) and some rely on the their children's capacity for art, taking them into the studio to learn and create right alongside mom.

Whatever the method, the film highlights the fact that each works for the particular individual. There is no way that all women will stop being mothers, nor would we want them to. But the idea that the artist's life and motherhood are mutually exclusive is a myth, a gross oversimplification cemented by centuries of practice.

Still, conflicts between work and family aren't the only barriers that stand between women and the male-centric art world. The film broadens its scope to include all female artists, mothers or not, with extensive commentary from eminent gender-studies scholars, curators, social scientists, other artists including Judy Chicago, and even the Guerrilla Girls, an art-activist group founded in 1985 that works tirelessly to promote the vastly underrepresented female artists of past and present. (They also use the names of dead female artists as pseudonyms and wear gorilla masks in public.)

The commenters convey some dismal statistics: The percentage of solo exhibitions by female artists from 2000 to 2004 was 11 percent at the Guggenheim, 2 percent at the Tate Modern, and 2 percent at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Whether or not you believe this is the result of an entrenched male-versus-female paradigm, the numbers are disheartening.

From the five featured women to the examination of our gendered value system, the film gives credence to the simile proposed by Leonard Shlain, author of The Alphabet Versus the Goddess. Our society is like a stroke victim: One entire half of the body politic is paralyzed and isn't being heard, and the effects of this weigh heavily on the success of our society, culturally, politically, and otherwise.

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