Cynthia Korzekwa ©
For centuries women have used stitching as a means of expressing themselves. For example, deciding what colors, what fabrics, and what patterns to use is in itself a form of self expression. Stitching also has been used subversively such as with the Underground Railroad Quilts used to help slaves escape or Madame Defarge, a character in Dicken’s Tale of Two Cities, who transmitted secret codes in her knitting.
Sometimes stitching can be used as a form of protest as with Bordamos Feminicidios a group of Mexican women who use embroidered handkerchiefs to protest against female homicides. And many artists, including Louise Bourgeois, Maria Lai, and Tracy Emin, have used stitching not only as an art form but also as a means of externalizing some of the anguish within.
But sewing can offer women something else—companionship. American quilting bees, for example, were social gatherings that permitted women to get together to work on quilts thus combining necessity with pleasure. The sewing circle concept eventually became démodé but made a revival several years ago when Stitch ‘n Bitch knitting groups started surfacing worldwide. Women rediscovered the pleasure of working with their hands while sharing stories with other women.
Everyone has a story to tell and, eager to create an anthology of such stories, Lavinia Lindsay and Cisca Mikx have teamed up to create a sewing bee beyond borders they’ve called 99 Art Project. Women from around the world have been invited to explore the possibilities of using needle and thread to share personal experiences.
The ladies participating begin with finding a white shirt that will act as home base for the journey their stitching will take them on. Because hands make the world tangible. They help us interact with our surroundings. But they also provide a means of interacting with our own being. Working with our hands helps prevent self-alienation.
And working with our hands collectively creates a bonding in the same way that stitching unites one material with another. As the women of 99 Art Project begin exploring themselves, they will share their discoveries with other members of the group. Like a patchwork blanket, they will put their pieces together to make a whole.
I, too, will be participating as well and documenting my journey here on this blog. Because female Synergy and Solidarity will save the world!
One reason why the typical Mexican attire Frida so loved such as huipiles, rebozos, and ponchos continue to be used is because the designs are simple, practical and elegant.
Claire McCardell (1905-1958) was a designer who also took the Occam’s Razor approach to creating clothes in large part because of the WWII imposed parsimony. Using limitation as a source of inspiration, Claire created designs meant to make the most out of a little. She used “alternative” fabrics such as denim and wool jersey and surplus government weather balloon cotton for her creations. And the shortage of leather led to Claire’s making ballerina flats popular.
With the war, women had to assume a chores generally done by men as the men were busy being soldiers. No longer objects but, instead, sheer animation, women needed clothing that was practical and easy to move in. Claire may have been influenced, when studying in Paris, by Coco Channel’s desire to liberate women shackled by fashion.
Claire, often referred to as the High Priestess of the Understatement, said she designed things that she needed for herself but, it seemed, others needed, too. She strove for simplicity and created mix ‘n match garments that could extend a wardrobe with the leitmotif of functional and affordable.
Claire revolutionized American fashion via some of the following designs:
Monastic dress, a toga like gown with a belted waist (1938)
Diaper Bathing Suit (1942)
Popover Dress (1942) which was a wrap-around dress including an attached pot holder for those women who had guests for dinner and thus had to run back and forth from the kitchen.
A wrap dress was versatile in that it could be used as a house dress, party dress, dressing gown and even as a bathing suit cover up.
For the Mayans, a huipil created a sacred enclosure for a woman’s body. And, when she entered her garment by pulling it over her head, the woman became the axis of her universe. Popover dresses also permit the woman to be the axis.
The Future Dress made from triangular pieces of fabric.
Shoulder Shrugs are easy to fold and easy to wear (1947)
Georgia O’Keefe owned a number of McCardell dresses.
Claire collaborated with artists such as Picasso, Chagall, Milo, Leger using fabrics designed by them for her creations. For her “Fish Dress”, she used Picasso’s ‘Fish Print’ fabric (1955). Thus something designed by Picasso could be bought by the yard. The artist didn’t mind commercializing his art. However, Picasso refused to have his designs used for upholstery fabric. It was one thing to be worn but something totally unacceptable to have his art used for sofas thus be sat upon.
Huipil dresses to make inspired by Claire include the halter top dress and the Grecian tunic dress.
Bibliography: McCardell, Claire. What Shall I Wear? . The Overlook Press.New York. 2012
Last November, my daughter and I went to see the “Mexique” exhibition at the Gran Palais. Here is the long overdue publication of my related notes:
Pont Alexandre III is the most ornate and grandiose bridge in Paris. Named after Tsar Alexander III, the bridge commemorates the alliance established between Russia and the Third Republic in 1892. And, with its view of the Eiffel Tower, it’s an often used location for wedding picture and tourists’ selfies. Crossing the bridge is like taking a stroll in an en plein air museum as the bridge is full of sculptures—cherubs, lions, seashells, monsters and much more. Built for the city’s World Fair in 1900, the bridge links the Hôtel des Invalides with the Petit and the Grand Palais.
The Gran Palais hosts a number of exhibitions every year such as “Mexique” dedicated to Mexican art from 1900-1050. Naturally, Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera were the main attractors but there were, aside from Orozco and Siqueiros, many “minor” artists of interests such as José Guadalupe Posada, Julio Ruelas, Roberto Montenegro, Ángel Zárraga and Carlos Mérida.
Some of the women included in the exhibition:
Bibliography: The Human Tradition in Mexico byi Jeffrey M. Pilcher
If you’re going to suffer, sing about it. This is what Mexican rancheras have taught me. And no one respected this philosophy more than Chavela Vargas.
Ranchera songs are populated by the broken hearted who go to cantinas to drink away their sorrows. This music was traditionally dominated by men until Chavela elbowed her way in to make space for las borracheras, women who could drown in alcohol as easily as men could. And before criticizing these tequila drinking mujeres, it should be noted that Chavela & Co came from pre-feminists times. This Cantina Solution was a reply to conformity and fake respectability. Drinking like men suggested a form of emancipation.
Chavela Vargas was born in Costa Rica but moved to Mexico at the age of 14 where she sang in the streets until she got gigs in cantinas. Here she made no secret of her sexuality and was known as a cigar smoking, heavy drinking womanizer. Chavela sang in cantinas for years until she was discovered by singer and songwriter extraordinaire José Alfredo Jiménez.
Jiménez did not play a musical instrument and knew little about musical technicalities but he wrote over 1,000 songs many of which are still well-know today. Together, Jiménez and Chavela turned pathos into poetry.
Chavela felt at home with Jiménez’ songs. Take, for example, En El Último Trago where the singer asks an ex-lover to drink together until oblivion. Because:
The time hasn’t taught me anything,
I always make the same mistakes,
I drink again and again with strangers
and mourn because of the same sorrows.
Once her career took off, Chavela came in contact with a new milieu. She became friends with Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo and was often their house guest. It’s also rumored that Chavela and Frida had an affair together. Besides, Frida liked to wear huipiles, Chavela ponchos. If you saw the movie Frida, you can’t help but remember Chavela singing La Llorona.
But the Cantina Solution caught up with Chavela. She became a major alcoholic and, during the 1970s, gave up singing. But almost 20 years later, at the age of 81, Chavela returned to the stage. She debuted at a sold-out Carnegie Hall at the age of 83. After each song, she was rewarded with a standing ovation. The audience could not have enough of her. In the words of Pedro Almodóvar, Chavela made of abandonment and desolation a cathedral in which we all found a place.
The Spanish poet, Federico García Lorca, was one of Chavela’s passions. Unfortunately, García Lorca’s life was brief. In 1936, he died at the age of 38, assassinated during the Spanish Civil War.
In 1993, Chavela went to Spain and stayed in a room that once had belonged to García Lorca. Every day, she said, a yellow bird would come peck on the room’s window and she was sure the bird was the spirit of Lorca himself.
Chavela spent the last year of her life recording Luna Grande, a mixture of music and García Lorca’s poetry. So great was her love for García Lorca that, at the age of 93, she travelled to Spain to visit his grave. Chavela fell ill but insisted on going back to Mexico where she died a few weeks later.
And who can be more inspirational than Chavela—abandoned by her parents as a child, bullied for her sexuality, living on the streets, addicted to alcohol yet, more than 80 years old, gets on the stage to deliver a goose bumping performance. Thanks Chavela!
(originally posted HERE)
Copyright © 2015 Cynthia Korzekwa. All Rights Reserved
Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera, dreaming of a unified and independent Mexico, sustained the Mexican Revolution and thus all things indigenous. They, like many other artists at the time, were highly influenced by educator and philosopher José Vasconcelos as well as painter and filmmaker Adolfo Best Maugard who both encouraged a return to Mexico’s native roots. This was the beginning of “Mexicanism” in the fine arts. Previously Mexicans, colonized by Spain, had a sense of artistic inferiority feeling that anything of cultural worth had to be of European origin.
So with this Mexican Renaissance, Frida and Rivera began collecting Hecho en Mexico. Their collection included folk art, Pre-Columbian artifacts as well as over 1000 retablos many of which are on display today at the Casa Azul. Collecting retablos was made easier for them by the fact that during the Revolution, many churches were closed by the authorities facilitating the appropriation of the retablos inside.
The term retablo comes from retro tabula (“behind the altar”) and, in Spain, refers to the large paintings behind the church altar. However, in Mexico, retablo generally refers to small devotional ex-voto paintings commissioned by someone who wants to give thanks for an answered prayer.
The origin of a retablo is a need. And to resolve this need, one prays for help. If this need is taken care of, thanks must be given. So a retablero, one who paints retablos, is commissioned. The ex-voto painting has 3 basic elements: an icon of the person prayed to, a graphic description of the reason behind the prayer, and an inscription describing and thanking.
Prayers are generally directed to the Virgin of Guadalupe but sometimes Jesus or anyone of the infinite number of saints is supplicated including St. Lucia, St. Francis, St. Juan Diego and St. Peter of Verona.
Frida found a retablo regarding a trolley car accident that so resembled her own that she decided to retouch it in such a way as to make it seem that the retablo had been made specifically for her. At the bottom she added the inscription: Mr. and Mrs. Guillermo Kahlo and Matilde C. de Kahlo give thanks to Our Lady of Sorrows for saving their daughter Frida from the accident which took place in 1925 on the corner of Cuauhtemotzin and Calzada de Tlalpan.
Many of Frida’s paintings resemble retablos in that they are narrations painted in a naïf style with an element of despair based on real life situations.
When André Breton saw Frida’s work, he called her a surrealist. But he also said that Mexico was the most surrealistic country in the world—relief sculptures of bloodletting Aztecs, Day of the Dead skeletons, martyred saint statues, imaginary animal carvings are all examples of this surrealism.
One of Frida’s paintings is based on a newspaper article about an unfaithful woman who’d been stabbed to death by her husband. The husband defended himself by saying that “it was just a few small nips”. Angered by the violence so frequently inflicted upon women, Frida painted the massacred wife (Unos Cuantos Piquetitos, 1935).
Dorothy Hale was the wife of a well-to-do portrait painter but when her husband died in a crash, Dorothy was left without means to support herself. She decided to resolve the situation by throwing herself out of a skyscraper window. Dorothy’s friend, Clare Booth Luce, commissioned Frida to do a portrait for Dorothy’s mother. But the result was too hardcore for Luce who, instead of giving it to Dorothy’s mother, kept it hidden for years (The Death of Dorothy Hale, 1939).
When Frida discovered her husband was having an affair with her sister, she decided it was time for a divorce. Wearied by womanhood, Frida replaced her Tehuana costumes for a man’s suit, cut her long hair and portrayed herself with scissors in hand and locks of hair scattered all over the floor. The verse of a song is painted across the top: «See, if I loved you, it was for your hair, now you’re bald, I don’t love you anymore». (Pelona, 1940)
Although there is no longer a market for retableros as in years past, there are artists such as Alfredo Vilchis Roque, Fermín Luna Sanbrano (or Zambrano) and David Mecalco who make paintings in retablo style. And, in the not too distant past, migrant workers from Mexico working in the U.S. also commissioned a number of retablos. Today, instead of commissioning retablos, many people simply leave on the wall of small churches photos with inscriptions of thanks.
I, too, have a passion for retablos. Retablos are not only visually delicious, they also represent the concept of gratitude. That’s why years ago I wrote about the Aesthetics of Appreciation and did a series of Cardboard Retablos. Expressing thanks for what we have has many benefits like reshaping our brain.
A smile can automatically lift our spirits as can gratitude because both provoke chemical reactions in our brain. Both increase the production of serotonin and dopamine, the feel good neurotransmitters. Gratitude, then, is like Prozac. Some people take pills. Some people say thanks.
When you start expressing gratitude on a regular basis, negative thoughts are sent to the shadows. Instead of seeing the glass half empty, you see it half full.
The more you give thanks, the more you realize how much you have to be grateful for. So why not make a retablo!
(Originally posted HERE)
Related links: A Brief History of the Mexican Votive Paintings That Inspired Frida Kahlo
Copyright © 2015 Cynthia Korzekwa. All Rights Reserved