I thought I’d jump ahead in blogging the book, to look at some of the public art created by activists interested in women’s culture
Since art activists believed in the power of feminist art to “raise consciousness, invite dialogue, and transform culture,” their work appeared not in the traditional venues of museums and galleries, but in the street, at malls, in front of government buildings, and in site-specific locations. Perhaps the best know project of women associated with Los Angeles feminist art activism was done as part of the Power of Place project created by architectural historian, Dolores Hayden.
Biddy Mason’s Place commemorated the life of a prominent nineteenth century black midwife in Los Angeles who successfully sued for her freedom after her owner brought her West. Mason left exactly three documents in the historical archives: her picture, freedom papers, and the deed to her house. As the primary midwife for a community that lacked medical care, Mason’s work reflected a central aspect of women’s culture, women’s control of their own “sphere.” As one of the earliest black landowners in Los Angeles she was also a prominent leader in the burgeoning free black community. Her successful suit demonstrated women’s agency during a period in which the law attempted to render her powerless by refusing to allow her testimony in court, thereby erasing her from that historical record. She was precisely the sort of woman lost to history.
The project consisted of four parts, a mural, and installation, and two print pieces, a poster and an artist’s book.
Sheila De Bretteville’s “Biddy Mason: Place and Time” (above) creates a mural timeline of Mason’s era that interweaves the known facts of her life. In some regards, the timeline is conventional. It reads chronologically from left to right and incorporates the surviving historical documents, yet De Bretteville also depicts in the wall images of the accoutrement of Mason’s trade, midwifery, to invoke a sense of what her life might have been like.
Without the many dates, places, and names that normally make up a chronological timeline, De Bretteville uses sparse depictions, short declarative sentences, and the existing archival documents to places Mason’s life into a larger context. Each moment in time is encapsulated in a brief sentence, most of which begin with the pronoun she (above). This strategy both highlights that this mural depicts a woman’s life, but also echoes the anonymity of most women’s lives by not referring to Mason by name. Thus the viewer is both recalled to Mason’s specifics but also reminded that most of the women from the past have been forgotten.
Betye Saar’s installation, “Biddy Mason’s House of the Open Hand,” consists of a photo mural and assemblage to give viewers a sense of being inside a structure akin to Mason’s home. The mural incorporates an image of Mason’s descendants to depict a family standing behind an iconic picket fence, with the fence becoming a part of the structural sense. Displayed prominently in a faux window, are an assemblage of artifacts excavated at the site and the one extant photo of Mason, also furthering the recreation of the original historical site.
To expand the reach of Biddy Mason’s Place beyond visitors to the site, a poster, “Grandma’ Mason’s Place: A Midwife’s Homestead,” designed by De Bretteville and written by Hayden, uses documentary evidence from the era recreate aspects of Mason’s life. Hayden draws on emerging scholarship in women’s history to sketch out the life of a woman who would otherwise be forgotten and uses images of black midwives from the South, where historical evidence proved more plentiful. Similarly, quotations consisted not of Mason’s words, of which there is no record, but of the accounts of her by her children and grandchildren. Hayden also included recipes for herbal remedies that might have been employed by Mason.
Susan King reclaimed Mason for history in her artist’s book called “Home/STEAD” which was given to libraries with holdings in Western Americana. King emphasizes the personal connections she felt with Mason, by drawing on the similarities between her life and Mason’s. Using rubbings of ivy from the gates of the black cemetery in Los Angeles, King creates a vine that connects the places Mason crossed while walking behind her master’s wagon, while noting her “meditations” on the transformation of the site. She also uses images of herbs for healing that she learned about as a girl in Kentucky alongside the traditional herbs used by nineteenth century midwives.