The art of the housewife

Canonical art history has invalidated and exiled from its discourse a critical figure upon whose laborious back multiple worlds were held in place.

by Rosalyn D`MelloPublished on : Feb 09, 2021

These days I have been intellectually circumambulating the vicinity of suppressed female thought in order to establish firm links around housewifely arts and vandalism. Almost eight years ago, a dear friend and an immensely talented and well-respected editor, Simar Puneet, gifted me a slim copy of a book by Isabella Beeton, titled The Campaign for Domestic Happiness. It was published by Penguin under a series called ‘Great Food’. Beeton was born in London in 1836 and died at the age of 28, four years after the publication of her single-volume Book of Household Management, a significant contribution to the genre of domestic literature. My copy began with a piece by Beeton called The Mistress. It reads as the usual run-of-the-mill spiel about how married Victorian women were expected to behave, and the feminine virtues they were expected to uphold. “As with the commander of an army, or the leader of any enterprise, so is it with the mistress of a house. Her spirit will be seen through the whole establishment; and just in proportion as she performs her duties intelligently and thoroughly, so will her domestics follow in her path,” so reads the first sentence. “Of all those acquirements, which more particularly belong to the feminine character, there are none which take a higher rank, in our estimation, than such as enter into a knowledge of household duties; for on these are perpetually dependent the happiness, comfort, and well-being of a family,” she continues. The opening makes it abundantly clear that Beeton had irretrievably bought into the narrative that conflated a woman’s self-worth with her ability to be servile and appeasing. It’s difficult to look upon her undertaking with generous eyes, especially if you have a history of having been colonised by the British. Still, if you are able to grapple with the complex dynamics of the how and the why of the book’s existence, there’s a lot that is utterly fascinating. There must be a reason why this slim copy, only an excerpt from her more voluminous tome, has been travelling with me ever since I moved out of the apartment I shared with Simar, and is part of the small treasure of companion texts integral to my next book.

Image from Isabella Beeton’s The Book of Household Management | STIRworld
Image from Isabella Beeton’s The Book of Household Management Image: Courtesy of Medical Heritage Library, Inc. is licensed with CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.

Living with Beeton’s book, reading beyond its evangelical zeal for what was experienced by many as the drudgery of domestic work, the book alerted me to the category of the housewife; and how this persona was one that had to be necessarily shed as feminism became more mainstream. In fact, much of the consciousness raising in the West was centred around the oppressiveness of being a housewife, and not having the agency to choose other forms of work. I remember distinctly coming upon Nora’s exhilaration in Ibsen’s The Doll’s House when she speaks about what it meant to earn money. “Oh, I often got so tired, so tired. But it was great fun, though, sitting there working and earning money. It was almost like being a man,” she tells Mrs. Linde. Sometimes I replace ‘money’ with validation, because I like to imagine that’s what the money meant. To be paid for one’s labour was experienced by her as humanising, an acknowledgement of her self-worth. Beeton’s treatise on domestic happiness became a starting point for a line of investigation for me. Domestic happiness seemed premised on certain forms of deceit, maintaining the status quo, and towing the line. I could see why the early feminists needed to discard of the myth of the happy housewife, a woman content with her servility. Martha Rosler’s 1975 artwork, Semiotics of the Kitchen, powerfully staged a rebellion against the disempowering, oppressive politics of domesticity. Standing behind a kitchen counter, instead of pleasurably enticing us into making a complex dish in order to perform better as a housewife, Rosler picks up kitchen implements, calls out their name, and makes a gesture that exposes the violence of the tool in hand and its complicity in the centuries’-old vandalism of female subjectivity. Viewing it today, as a 35-year-old feminist, I locate it as a significant moment in feminist history and perceive how it set itself up as a counter to figures like Julia Child. But I sometimes wonder if feminism, in discrediting the vocation of the housewife for its alleged servility and the unpaid nature of its perpetuation, was also complicit in disregarding many of the intellectual and discursive traditions that housewives preserved through their administrations?

06 mins watch In this performance Martha Rosler takes on the role of an apron-clad housewife and parodies the television cooking demonstrations popularized by Julia Child in the 1960s | New York | STIRworld
In this performance Martha Rosler takes on the role of an apron-clad housewife and parodies the television cooking demonstrations popularised by Julia Child in the 1960s Video: © 2017 Martha Rosler. Courtesy of Electronic Arts Intermix (EAI), New York

I happened to grow up in a household in which, because my mother worked weekly 12-hour-shifts as a private nurse, my father, who worked from 8am-5pm, administered to the kitchen. Much of my childhood was spent in his kitchen, and it was from him that I learned the A to Z of cooking. This was unusual in India, where most of my peers grew up in homes where their mothers were housewives who worked hard to ensure their daughters would be anything other than that. Many of my peers, consequently, are not skilled in the kitchen and have had to belatedly learn how to feed themselves. I recently read a moving essay by Aruvi Sharma, titled I Rejected Cooking in the Name of Feminism—Until I Had to Feed Myself that recounts how the author’s mother imparted to her kitchen skills only in her later life, when she asked for it. I remember once attending a private dinner at an Embassy in New Delhi. I was there in my capacity as someone’s partner. I introduced myself as a writer. Many of the other women who were invited in the same capacity as me, as a plus one, spoke of their educational accomplishments, but ended with a regretful, ‘But now I am a housewife,’ trying hard to disguise internalised shame. It made me suddenly attentive to what this professional category had come to embody for women of my generation. It attests to how little value there is not just for the multiple levels of industrial specialisation that being a housewife entails, as well as the continued invalidation of it across professional sectors. Even within art history, while so many traditions of Femmage were passed down through housewives, their labours have continued to be kept outside the realm of the canon.

Many female artists have used their art to celebrate housewifely legacies. Liza Lou’s Kitchen (1991-1996) comes immediately to mind for how it lovingly performs durational labour (over five years) to acknowledge the unaccounted, un-validated labour of women world over. One cannot forget Chantal Ackerman’s gripping 1976 film, Jeanne Dielman, in which suspense is built from the lead protagonist’s movements as a housewife. The film powerfully communicates some of the impact of the underrated patriarchal crime of vandalism of female subjectivity by denying the viewer access into Jeanne’s own mind. Adriana Cavarero’s first essay in her book, In Spite of Plato: A Feminist Rewriting of Ancient Philosophy, delightfully meditates upon how a housewife like Penelope, whose role within Homer’s Odyssey is to wait for her husband’s return, potentially found agency in the act of weaving and unweaving on her loom, thus biding time and taking refuge within the domestic in order to belong solely to herself.

The Dinner Party, Judy Chicago (1979) has 39 place settings for 39 mythical and historical women | STIRworld
The Dinner Party, Judy Chicago (1979) has 39 place settings for 39 mythical and historical women Image: Courtesy of Blind Hen ⁑ Blind Höna, licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Cavarero helps us understand how the sphere of the political was always constructed in opposition to the domestic. The privacy of the domestic was maintained in contrast to the public nature of the political. Within this patriarchal logic, the world outside the domestic belonged to men alone. It is this violence that confronted me when I saw Raphael’s The School of Athens for the first time at The Vatican. I should have been filled with awe to finally witness the masterpiece first hand, and yet, my most primal impulse was to spit on it. I didn’t, because that would have been considered vandalism; and it would have been too complicated to explain to any authority that my vandalism was a response to historical vandalism. Instead, I calmed myself down by remembering a choice line from Hélène Cixous’ The Laugh of the Medusa in which she builds on the French word voler’s compounded meaning. ‘To fly/steal is woman’s gesture, to steal into language and make it fly.’

Postcard from Kabul by Falani | STIRworld
Postcard from Kabul by Falani Image: Courtesy of Shrine Empire and the artist

Some months ago, while reviewing a show curated by Shaunak Mahbubani at Shrine Empire, New Delhi, I was alerted to the practice of the Afghani street artist, Falani, who uses graffiti as a way of empowering women, no mean feat in a place like Kabul. She is frequently harassed by men who take it upon themselves to lecture her about how Islam forbids her from doing what she’s doing. But she is undeterred. Her mission is to make Afghanistan known for its art, not for war. She depicts women in burkhas expressing themselves, belonging to themselves. Because she is frequently challenged by male authority, she has created a parallel series where she takes photographs of the facades she would like to graffiti over and photoshops her work on to it; an extension of her desire to erase some of the violent memories of war through art. It’s a brilliant re-contextualising of the vandalism inherent to the graffiti genre, and a play on the polarity of public-private/domestic-political. It’s also a reminder to us that the act of ‘smashing the patriarchy,’ which is feminism’s mandate, involves a plurality of such forms of counter-vandalism. Falani frequently frames herself standing against the backdrop of her graffiti, performing in serve of making the personal political. In these photographs, Falani is an embodiment of Helene Cixous’ call to arms when she wrote—"Write, let no one hold you back, let nothing stop you: not man; not the imbecilic capitalist machinery, in which publishing houses are the craft, obsequious relayers of imperatives handed down by an economy that works against us and off our backs; and not yourself. Smug-faced readers, managing editors, and big bosses don’t like the true texts of women—female-sexed texts. That kind scares them”.

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