Tanya Shirley – “The Female Artist: Living Bad a Man Yard”

Guest speaker Tanya Shirley at the opening of Explorations 3: Seven Women Artists

Guest speaker Tanya Shirley at the opening of Explorations 3: Seven Women Artists

We are pleased to present the remarks presented by poet and scholar Tanya Shirley at opening of Explorations 3: Seven Women Artists on Sunday, May 31, 2015:

If my grandmother saw her children looking untidy she would say, “How you look like you a live bad a man yard so.” The aim of my talk this afternoon is to reclaim my grandmother’s phrase and apply it to the Jamaican art scene where Jamaica is the man’s yard and female artists through the simple act of creating art are being bad. However, I perceive this badness as a good thing: a subversive act of rebellion. My grandmother used the phrase to imply that her daughters looked as if they were being ill-treated by a man. One could argue that the phrase is a metaphor for how patriarchal strictures in our society still prevent female artists from gaining the maximum benefits that could be derived from their artistic output. I want to make it clear that I am not talking today as an art critic. I leave that to the experts like Veerle and O’Neil. I’m a poet and poetry is art; therefore, I am talking about my journey as a female artist. From that viewpoint, I will also address the term “women’s art” or “female art” and how I think the category assists and restricts the work that we do as female artists.

When I was a graduate student at the University of Maryland, I had the honour of having breakfast with the esteemed poet, Derek Walcott. Of course I’ve seen Walcott on many occasions since then and I can tell he has no recollection of our meeting and why should he, I was but a mere graduate student at one of his many university visits. However, that meeting was instrumental for me because one of the things he said very early on in our conversation was, “Don’t ever get married or have children…I’ve met too many good female poets who’ve stopped writing because their responsibilities got in the way.”

One could argue that his sentiment was fuelled by chauvinism and stereotypical ideas of femininity. However, the truth of the matter is that many great female artists have had to deal with the burden of creating art while fulfilling society’s role of the “real woman”; especially in our Jamaican context, where I would argue that art is still not perceived as a viable occupation and though we have many women in managerial positions, women are still judged by their ability to master the traditional roles of wife, mother and housekeeper. As an aside, I will give you a joke, I went to the mineral bath in St Thomas a few years ago and one of the informal masseurs, while massaging me, asked if I had children and when I said no, my good-good therapeutic massage turned into a blessing and a “balming” for my poor, barren womb. Up to when I was getting into my car, this man was still reaching through the window to touch my belly and chant a few Psalms for my womb.

Prudence Lovell - Untitled (Conversation I) (2015)

Prudence Lovell – Untitled (Conversation I) (2015)

As female artists, when we create in an environment like this, we are constantly aware of the politics of going against the grain. Women are permitted to dabble in the arts as a hobby but when you brand yourself as a serious artist, when you have the audacity to exhibit your work and to spend countless hours creating art, it means that you run the risk of being perceived as a ‘bad’ woman, one who is perhaps neglecting the more important work of contributing to society via traditionally prescribed roles. As the writer Virginia Wolf said, women need a room of their own and metaphorically that applies to having the space to create. The challenge for women artists is that society often does not grant them that space in the same way that men are given the space to work. In the same way that black children in the United State are often told, “you must work twice as hard,” the female artist has to work twice as hard just to claim and maintain her space as an artist. Therefore, when a woman produces art, it is in many ways a rebellious act and her work automatically becomes political. Continue reading