Within Each Home There Is Only a Mother
In the beginning there was a thin sheet of carbon. The seeth subtly slips between drawing paper and whatever is on its surface. We generally use carbon paper to trace or copy images or writings. The carbon copy result does not claim to be “original”, as is the claim sounded by graphic artists of their print work edition. Using carbon is copying, tracing, or duplicatong. The result of carbon coping is a trace, duplication, transcript. The more pile or carbon sheets are used to trace, the more blurry and removed is the image or reflection that is reproduced from the original.
Theresia Agustina Sitompul (Tere) uses carbon as a monoprint medium to trace her belongings: kebaya shirt, skirt, pair of jeans, pair of underwears, bra, undershirt and socks. Even clothes of her daughter and mother were used, taken out of the closet to be carbon copied. The material of carbon paper–containing no element of metal–is used as a replacement of printing ink. The relief printing was not produced from etching (woodcut or metalcut), but from the soft texture of fabric, the fine stitches of clothes, the bulge of yarns embroidery or brocade, the lump of buttons, the seamline of the underwear, blouse, skirt, jeans pants, et cetera.
Tere is stamping objects, not printing them. She does not create “prints”, let’s just call it stamping. Stamping produces a more blurry print like unequally fine traces on a surface. If printing is an ambitious attempt to achieve similarity, carbon copying on the other hand is much more close to vagueness, producing images like wavering and quivering shadows. The trace of carbon copied personal objects produces tiny blue rippling oceans, various shapes and curves, floating delicately on the paper surface.
Between Identity and Ambiguity
By tracing the outer side of those various clothes (outer clothes and under garments), the body outline of their wearer are implied on the resulting trace. Tere’s daily outfit produces the imagery of Tere’s body shape and aesthethic aura, Blora’s favorite princess long dress produce the petiteness of the child’s body. Likewise, the clothes of the late mother will make us reimagine the body of Tere’s mother that were.
What was the intention behind tracing those clothes?
“There is always the conscious and non-conscious in my artwork,” Tere explained.
The blurry ocean and vague blue lines seem to be calming Tere’s heart, the carbon copier or the shadow maker. Artists usually already know which ones should be made fuzzy and which ones should be made properly clear. However, vague or clear, body trace always seem to be more impressive and profound, with multiple interpretation than just a lump of meat, tangles of muscles and a frame of skeleton. The fuzzy imagery imprinted on an empty paper can be seen as impressions or (female) body stamp disguised in clothes. This is the cultural images which without us knowing have been getting attached to our biological and natural facts. Initially clothes are to protect the body, and then slowly it became the second skin, and then it absorbs (and exudes) the aura, imagery and passion of the wearer’s body.
Thus it could also be said, the clothes are unconscious imagery of the body. The image of clothes reincarnate as an unconscious symbol shaping the identity of female(ness) in Tere’s work. Tere’s figure appaears or exists through the (shadow of) clothes, the personal object attached to her body, everywhere and anywhere, every day. It’s the reflection of a woman, a mother.
The refelction of the mother appears with her little girl, Blora. In several works, we see the intimacy between mother and daughter, Tere and Blora. One time Blora nuzzles, nudges up inside her long skirt, pushing up into the stomach, becoming one with Tere’s body. On other time, they hold hands tightly, staring up ahead. Or the mother and child stoop down together as if attempting to find shelter or avoiding harm. On other scene, a small girl seems to sit calmly in a pair of folded long sleeves of her mother’s see through kebaya, as if sitting in a throne.
The reflection of Tere’s mother is also present with the vague images of the deceased’s old clothes being traced. The mother did not “mold” her child. The mother left a trace on the child, at who knows where, on what part, and we also don’t know since when to be exact. The trace or reflection makes a woman or little girl, somehow looks like their mother. The reflection which may at times be clear, but at the same time not always obvious. The traces of wounds which are not the mold of wounds, but the reflection of wounds. The reflection of wound is not a wound, and the reflection of clothes or body are not reality, thus it is always entices.
“And then, where is the father?”
Without the presence of the father, we should be allowed to interpret the feminity and maternity/motherhood identity in Tere’s carbon copy works. How often artists use the maternal strategy to represent their female(ness) identity. Motherhood is “a true guarantee of female(ness) for any women-artist who harbor this aspiration.” But recently, the centuries old normative connection between motherhood and femininity has often been rejected by the artists themselves. Just look at the image of a beefy and tattooed mother nursing her child (Catherine Opie), or the photographic images of two pregnant and smirking young men (Hiroko Okada). The works of these female artists display a violation to the conventional gender boundaries. At the time, (the potential of) motherhood is no longer something that is typical gender. (Linda Nochlin; 2007, p 65).
Throughout my interview with Tere, the artist seems to also reject the “theory” of “normative” equality between men and women. It is not the content of equality that is being rejected (for example the social roles or work delegation between the two based on biological facts), but the theory that stops at being “theoretical”, or merely a form of “representation”. When your husband is angry and pounded on the door late at night because there aren’t any rice available in the kitchen, just when you are already sleeping from being tired after spending the day taking care of “your child”, surely it won’t suffice to just describing it in your work. You must pursuit your own aspirations, fighting for equality in your daily life, so that you actually won’t be fond of formalizing or theorizing any kind of inequality.
So, are artworks suitable for struggles to equality? A pseudo-theory or pseudo-equality, if in reality you–as a woman–spend your life washing clothes by the well or cooking vegetables in the kitchen, a mere “kanca wingking”– the back support team?
Again and again I asked Tere, how should one relate between artwork and the gender identity of a woman? She answered in brief, which was: I want to make other people happy seeing my artwork.
For Tere, the representation of female “identity” must be retracted all the way back, to the reality of “wingking” or “behind”. Tere’s question is more or less like this: do women who use identity only as far as gender issue while quietly preserving the existing gap? Or reject it since the very beginning when feeling that the gap actually exist in the daily life?
Therefore if I could apprehend Tere’s view that is reflected in the carbon artworks, the following train of ideas follow. Female identoty in women artists’ artworks is not for creating something different, so the male(ness) and female(ness) can essentially appear as something different. The artist–woman artist–does not need to elaborately differ the images of femaleness, because for her there aren’t any essential difference between men and women. Why?
Difference is (still) different, I think to myself. And it’s always challenging. Whether it is essential or not–or whether for us there is something that is called “essentia”–the matter can be different. If the difference is not realized as something essential, it could probably because for Tere the carbon copy works, the mother-child images, the vague images of female clothes are only to make other people happy. Despite, perhaps the works were born through a journey, sense-feel or experiences that might not always be happy. If that is the case, are we actually experiencing ambiguity between the statement and the artworks, between the experience and representation or “theory”?
Helen McDonald use the term “ambiguity” for such situation, which tacks on the study of feminist scholars, especially related to the virtue of women’s body in the visual domain. Isn’t there an ambiguity in the representation of women’s body, as an object of erotic display (for the artist), and at the same time a stimulation for visual pleasure (for the audience)? In the recent past, erotic ambiguity tends to no longer be an issue, what’s on stake is something considered to be higher: discovering a way to mandates the ethical claim to become a common concern. (Helen McDonald, 2001; p. 29).
According to Tere, “Actually I’m confused in trying to explain what is happiness. Or perhaps it is me who cannot make myself happy. But I aspire to become an independent woman.”
Apparently, being independent is happy, and those who are happy are independent figures. In the carbon copy traces does Tere looks like an independent woman?
Mother, My Mother and “The One”
In this exhibition we are not only seeing “graphic” artwork the thin and vague result of tracing or carbon copying, but also ten objects of thick and solid books. As we can guess, the content is more or less, solely the images of Tere, Blora, and the shadows of the clothes. There are also proverbs, stamps of alphabets from A to Z not sure what it would be arranged into. The entire page, hundreds of pages forming one book. The book is one, but it is also many. “Ibu” (mother), “ibuku” (my mother) and “book” seems toshare pronunciation similarities and can also be a meaningful play for the carbon copier. Tere invites us to go to a deeper house, go to mother’s house, return to the pages and content of the book. With exasperation she drilled a deep hole in the book to show how unlimited book content can be.
Like in one of the book, Tere uses the metaphore of The Mother as “The One” in her works. Let’s contemplate about mother. When mother is with us in a home. In other times when mother is no longer there, in our home. Mother’s home is always going to be our home, but our home is not always our mother’s home. At a time, a woman is the child of a mother. And in other time, the small woman becomes a mother, “becomes” mother. In yet another time, our age would even be older than our mother. But even so, mother is still a mother. She is the Mother. And Tere said, “in each home there’s always one Mother, ‘The One'”.
Is the Mother, “The One” is always a woman?
This is what Tere stated: “A mother can only be said to be not only a woman. It happens that the mother here is a woman because she has to nurse her child. That is why there is an emotional bound between mother and child. But there are also mothers who do not nurse and there are also fathers who try to become mothers, like my father for example, when he was a widower by my mother. My father always said that he’s a “BaBu” which means Bapak-iBu (Father-Mother). But ideally, for me a mother is only one, ‘The One’.”
Two years a go I heard the term of mother as “Allah yang katon” or the “Visible God” from the artist Maria Indriasari. Maria imagined the role of mother or a sort of idealization of a mother that brings goodness for every member of the family, especially as the matron for everyone in the house. As God Brings goodness to the universe, mother or The Mother is the symbol of goodness for the entire house. Mother’s goodness radiates, becomes the source of welfare for the home.
In Tere’s work, we actually also see the reflection of her mother. Between the traced or carbon copied clothes are her late mother’s clothes. Her own clothes size now is bigger than her late mother’s. Which part of your body that looks like your mother’s body? Which part of your child’s body that looks like your body, as her mother?
Because clothes are, once again, not just for outside appearance, it is also absorbed by the wearer’s body, we are always thrilled to see clothes, even only its image. For example the clothes or old clothes in our wardrobe at home, that are once worn by our family members.
When once upon a time Tere look at those clothes, it was probably what thrilled her first of all. Through the carbon medium that was discovered unexpectedly as a choice to produce monoprint, she offers us a meaning: women or mothers who want to be happy, independent because they are not willing to be “the victim” in their personal or social lives. A mother that islike a thick and sturdy book, despite of the black hole in it ***
Jakarta, 11 November 2014.
Published: December 17, 2014