About four years ago, I sat in the boiling shade in Madhya Pradesh, India after furiously taking pictures of the Khajuraho temple sculptures before the sun got too high. I sat panting, watching the tourists mill around, fanning their sweating bodies. The locals went about their every day ritual of setting out lunch in the temple shade, seemingly unfazed by the scorching air. I came home from that trip earlier than planned; but, as we fast forward to 2016, I find myself deeply missing my research and writing on material and art history.
Diana Vreeland said “Fashion must be the most intoxicating release from the banality of the world.” As I sit squarely in a 9-5 job, that thankfully puts food on the table and pays the bills (in Vancouver no less!), I find myself thinking about those words more. For me, Diana’s ‘fashion’ could be synonymous with art and history, and the importance of the arts in bringing us slivers of escape, personal expression, political representation to our lives.
Today, I feel strongly about the importance of art and material history, in the way it offers alternative paths into histories that have been overwhelmingly written about by men. History is about asking ‘why’, ‘how’, and using new information to continuously question how we understand the past. Part of this is being aware of how the prejudice of conservative historians influenced how stories of the past were told. So, realizing that women were purposely left out of history, rather than absent from the making of it. Clearly, the skill of critical observation is not just for historians. It is a crucial part of being present and informed in our every day lives as we attempt to decipher the avalanche of information that we are faced with each day.
My thesis focused on how women of power had been written out of history by men in an incredibly conservative field – Roman History.This is a field that is nearly two decades behind on incorporating any feminist theory into its research. Chilling, I know. It was almost too easy to examine a piece of material history (like the first image in this post of an empress on monetary scales) and see evidence of powerful women in each century, and yet the history books were silent on them. I found so many extraordinary stories of women’s power, that I taught a class at Simon Fraser University’s continuing studies program called “Murder and Intrigue: Emperors and Empresses of the Roman and Byzantine Empires.” It was an enormously fun class, as I streamlined my years of research into a sensational lecture series that focused on the most thrilling ‘soap opera-esque’ stories of imperial rulers. The take-away though, was that women held political power as much as men, and in some cases, even more.
Which brings me to another important part of history. Storytelling.
I shudder to think of the number of dry, boring history books I had to slog through just to be able to say “there, I read so-and-so’s important history of the politics of the 1st century AD, and now I can say it’s total shit”. My daughter and I have been taking Italian lessons (my mom is from Italy), and what I have found is that you cannot learn the Italian language without learning about the culture too. There is no understanding of one without the other. I have been telling Finn what I know about Italian history, and on my own I am learning even more. The key part though, is being able to turn these tidbits of information into a story, which is what fascinates Finn and has fueled her determination to visit Italy as soon as possible to explore all these places.
I would love to share some of these stories with you: not just about how a seemingly innocuous coin can tell us about how politically power an empress was, or how a public sculpture of women and children in 200 AD was a revolution in representations of masculinity and femininity; but also about how fashion, art, and other forms have been used over the centuries as tools of resistance, of solidarity, of political change, and of social movements.
So, obviously, just a few light tales.
*top image of a Steelyard weight with a bust of a Byzantine Empresss, 400 – 450 AD, the Metropolitan Museum of Art