Curator’s words: Women in Proverbs, Proverbs in the age of Digital Art
Işıl Ezgi Çelik | Ed. Peter Traynor | 16 September 2021
Wherever you are from and whichever language you speak, just think of a proverb that objectifies or disparages women. Most probably, you will come up with one, if not with many. The Digital Art exhibition Women in Proverbs provides a colourful criticism of the ways in which proverbs around the world depict women.
This year, Agora Digital Art’s artist in resident for the month of September is İrem Çoban, a Turkish Digital Art artist and academic. Çoban’s art practice merges illustration, videography and cinema with a focus on gender studies. Through her work, Irem brings a critical visual narrative to the issues women face worldwide.
Proverbs can be seen as condensed moral guides to life. As a matter of fact, they communicate perceived truths and commonly shared values of the culture for which they speak. Despite being cultural, they lay claim to truth and make a random cultural idea sound like absolute wisdom. This way, proverbs don’t only mirror cultural values but also function as ideological tools that transmit and revitalise those values within and in-between generations.
It is not surprising that patriarchal cultures produce proverbs that devalue, objectify, and demonise women. For identity is plastic and it is socially constructed in connection with cultural values, in patriarchal societies, those proverbs ensure that women are perceived as naturally degraded or villains. By teaching how to see women, they help to construct woman-identity as such. As a result, they play a historical role in the persecution of women’s existence through witch-hunts, insane asylums, child marriages, infanticides and so on.
Socially constructed woman-identity is pushed upon people down through the generations as natural, and eventually, even women end up self-dictating these values and internalising them. When Simone de Beauvoir (1973, p.301) said “one is not born, but rather becomes, a woman”, she revealed the socio-cultural mechanisms that shape the woman-identity and the woman-being accordingly. When Judith Butler later conceptualised gender as performative, she, too, reminded that woman-being was not a biological phenomenon as taught to be so, but socially produced and reproduced constantly. Moreover, Butler (2015, p.28) questioned the role of language in making bodily acts performative, and she pointed out: “It is not an accident that God is generally credited with the first performative”. God supposedly created light and everything else that exists by simply speaking them into existence. Thus spoke Butler that “[t]he point is not only [that] the language acts, but that it acts powerfully”. Therefore, the utterance has the power to bring things into being or make things happen. As do the proverbs. They convince people from one generation to another to perceive certain things in a certain way by presenting their perceived truth as the truth.
With ideas circulating the world freely thanks to digitalisation, we see that such truths are relative to cultures. The end of the grand narratives brought the idea of universal truth, too, to an end. It is just as well that the collapse of the absolute truth opened a liberating space, especially for those exposed to systematic oppression in a culture, like women in patriarchal societies. This way, today, it is possible to deconstruct deeply rooted perceived truths of proverbs and the imposed values they convey about woman-being.
The changing faces of art, old as humanity, have evolved from ancient cave paintings to the Digital Arts of the contemporary world. Digital Art has unprecedentedly increased the power of visual communication with visual stories travelling around the world in seconds and joining the collective memory of humankind. Digital Arts have brought in the democratisation of artistic expression and let women who were once left out of art practice raise their voice and make themselves heard as they would like to be heard all around the world.
To change how women-beings are treated, we need to change the way we think of women. Since language is performative and shapes our thinking, to change the way we think, we need to change the language. In her work, Irem deconstructs the cultural expressions long used to depict women. The Digital Art exhibition Women in Proverbs, which consists of ten digital illustrations and one video work, visualises the way proverbs of different cultures depict woman identity.
For this series, Çoban found inspiration in Mineke Schipper’s book Never Marry a Woman with Big Feet: Women in Proverbs from All Around the World which shows how common it is to devalue women in manifold ways worldwide. Initially created for the Turkish audience, Çoban’s illustrations incorporate the Turkish translation of the proverb she handles. In the digital sphere, from a perspective that is beyond culture, Çoban humorously visualises each proverb as it is told without any interpretation. This way, she shows how nonsensical and ridiculously funny these expressions are in the absence of the meanings that culture assigns to them. In the Turkish language, the proverbs represent the word of (male) ancestors. Starting from her native language, Çoban invites us to have fun with the way (male) ancestors saw women and with the outdated ideas of patriarchy.
In this exhibition, Çoban’s work is presented together with the proverbs in their original language, their English translation and cultural interpretation. This multi-cultural and multi-linguistic project is rooted in the communicative potential of both visual language and Digital Art, which connect people worldwide, beyond cultures, and offer new languages for new thoughts. While inviting us on a vivid visual journey through colourful illustrations full of cultural references, Çoban let the perceived truth of these proverbs that construct a disparaged or villain woman-identity get lost – not in translation – but in the infinite information of the digital age and the all-inclusive colourful pixel oceans of the Digital Arts.
Butler, J. (2015). Notes Toward a Performative Theory of Assembly. London: Harvard University press.
De Beauvoir, S. (1973). The Second Sex (org. 1949). Translated by H M Parshley. New York: Vintage Books.