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Women of Substance
A Canon in Progress
By Olu Oguibe
"Women of substance" is an installation that consists of 100 paintings. It is a personal canon that celebrates 100 remarkable women who gave character and vision to the 20th century. The women are drawn from different cultures and backgrounds from around the world, and represent different professions and preoccupations. There are scientists and singers, educationists and politicians, teachers and artists, and so on.
Canonization is, of course, a patriarchal preoccupation, and one that has almost always prioritized men over women. It is agreeably a dubious enterprise, but it has its uses in so far as it anchors memory, and - at least at face value - recognizes and celebrates accomplishment.
The project is in line with much of my work, which centers on commemoration, and especially my most recent work in which I assume the persona of the Ordering Subject, with the privilege to pronounce on history, cultures, and societies. Often my purpose is to bring such ordering systems under scrutiny, partly through irony, and partly through replication.
In "Women of Substance", however, my intention to inscribe through an artistic gesture, is as serious as my interest in questioning canonization as a patriarchal tradition and as a process. In its details I intend the project as not only a critical engagement, but a learning encounter, also; one that provides those who interact with it an opportunity to discover, appreciate, and acquire new knowledge about individuals, cultures, and historical moments that are otherwise unfamiliar to them.
"Women" is also an essay on painting, which redefines history painting by taking it beyond the singular, monumental object or moment, into the terrain of the epochal and encyclopedic. In the piece, history painting is no longer about a singular event or protagonist. It is about an entire epoch spread over time, and the multiple narratives that constitute it. The works is therefore a history painting or, better still, a history installation. "Women of Substance" is not about portrait painting.
I'm particularly happy that "Women of Substance" is getting its first public showing in Cuba, especially since the first two individuals honored in the project are Cuban: Haydeé Santamaría and Célia Sánchez, both of whom fought alongside Castro and Guevara during the revolution, and dedicated their lives to service after (image top right). Santamaría and Sánchez embodied the very finest of the human species in the 20th century. Like every other individual in "Women of Substance", they helped produce a better century and earned their place in history.
"Women of Substance" was begun while in residence at the World Trade Center in New York, under the auspices of the World Views artists residency program of the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council, to whom I am indebted.
New York City, 2000
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