Representations of the Feminine Body and Psyche: An Interview with Lili Almog

Photo by Lili Almog

I first discovered Lili Almog’s work at the Brooklyn Museum’s Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art, where her stunning images illuminated an intimate stillness in women’s faces and poses, each emotionally naked before the camera. When confronted by the images, I knew I had been invited into a conversation, a conversation about gender, about societal roles, about faith and culture. An energy pulsed from the stark, stripped view she captured through her lens.

Born in Israel, Lili Almog worked as a photojournalist before attending the School of Visual Arts, graduating in 1992. Her vision as an artist has taken her into people’s bedrooms; villages in Western China; Carmelite monasteries in Israel, Palestine, and the USA; and beyond. Increasingly, she stretches the boundaries of her photographic training to include drawing, sculpture, and video in her art. She has exhibited her work in galleries around the globe; published two monographs, Perfect Intimacy and The Other Half of the Sky; contributed to four books; and won awards. One curator says of Almog, “In times when the tides of aggression seem high on the horizon, an intimate seeking for the feminine without gender characterizes Lili Almog’s work.”

We invite you to share in this intimate conversation with Israeli artist, Lili Almog:

Sheryl: How would you define your role in the artist-subject-viewer relationship?

Lili: My intention as an artist is to enter an extremely private space without disrupting the delicate essence of communication between subject, their experience and the viewer. I wish to move beyond documentation, to preserve the private moment by transcending limits imposed by preconceived ideas, cultural stereotype and prejudice so that people may speak their stories to me.

Sheryl: You grew up in Israel and studied art at the School of Visual Arts in Manhattan. How did your childhood affect your art vision, which developed in art school?

Lili: My upbringing Israel was a creation of the powerful dynamic between women. I grew up surrounded by my mother, grandmother and sister; men left no permanent trace on our lives. Was this a kind of feminism?  Perhaps in Israel it was, since the greater society surrounding us was very traditional male-centric values. Living in a home created by, and for, women, and we were always aware of the tensions between our family’s modern feminine values and the traditional Israeli society around us. My art reflects the female bonds that were so vividly present in my childhood, and the compelling and dynamic clash of traditionalism and modernism in the culture around me.

Sheryl: Who are some of your feminist influences?

Lili: I will have to start with my mom; my mother was a model of the modern feminist woman, with all the difficult choices she had to make in order to give me a foundation to be an independent and free thinker. But I admire so many women in so many areas of life: I respect and am influenced by Simone de Beauvoir’s theories of the “other gender.” Sarah Schenirer, an early orthodox Jewish pioneer of education for young women is someone I admire greatly because of the changes she made in religious Jewish society.

Sheryl: What personal factors do you feel inform your art?

Photo by Lili Almog

Lili: My art focuses on creating representations of the feminine body and psyche.  I try to capture the cultural and spiritual identity of women set in their private spaces. My images combine elements of history, social class, and personal experience in surroundings that have timely significance.

My subjects are often from remote cultures not experienced with mass media exposure. I utilize a variety of photographic means — portraiture, landscape, and video camera —as testimonial recorders, to emphasize the individuality of my subjects, their enduring dignity, their sense of self worth and their traditional values.

Sheryl: Many of your photos are poetic, stories onto themselves, and they invite interpretation.  If there were one piece of which you’d like to tell the story, which one would it be? What is that story?

Lili: Here is a story about a nun who I photographed during my “Perfect Intimacy” project.

Photo by Lili Almog

On the way to the monastery in Bethlehem we stopped for lunch. I observed a nun fixing her habit, with a fairly large cross made of brass sticking out of a little pocket in the center of her chest, under her scapula. I asked her if her cross had a special meaning and she told me that each sister has her own personal crucifix that she receives on the day of her Profession of Vows.  Each nun receives her Profession Crucifix from the Prioress and always carries it next to her heart. This nun held her cross very gently and lovingly as she showed it to me. I was deeply moved by this and Somehow for me it became a symbol of their relationship with God From that point on, when I would photograph a sister I would ask her to show me her personal Cross.

Sheryl: You’ve travelled around the world and captured women in many different environments. Is there one culture that has affected you most?

Lili: In my project, “The Other Half of the Sky”, I created portraits of minority women in the countryside, small cities and villages in China with an emphasis on Muslim women in China. The Mosuo women are one minority that I encountered in my visits to China. They are one of the last matriarchal societies existing in our world. Geographical isolation enabled the Mosuo society to preserve their matriarchal way of life until the 1970s, when a road built into the mountainous area opened up the Mosuo culture to the outside world.  In recent years, the traditions of the Mosuo society have been severely challenged by modernization, which has brought an invasion of tourists — and tourist dollars to the Mosuo region.  Traditional practices are being abandoned for more financially lucrative opportunities, for example, farmers are leaving their fields for tour-guide jobs and women are charging money for dressing up tourists in traditional clothing. Some male tourists come to the region for sex. In the Lake Lugu red-light district, prostitutes from other parts of China dress up as Mosuo women and offer their services. The younger generation is starting to abandon tradition for all things modern; older Mosuo wonder how much longer their unique culture will survive. My work documented the Mosuo struggle to hold on to their unique matriarchal practices despite the erosion of their culture by modern society.

Sheryl: What are you working on currently?

Lili: My focus has shifted from the private space to more global space. Currently I am exploring the broad spectrum of changes in culture via landscape.  I have been working on a project, “Beyond Presence and Absence”, which documents topographical change in a kibbutz in Israel due to a natural catastrophe. Although I live in New York, I personally identify with the intimate kibbutz community and the way it deals with change so differently than we do here. I am also documenting massive change in the American post-industrial landscape from a local topographical perspective. The visual questions I am exploring are boundless . . . and intrigue me.

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Lili Almog is an Israeli-born artist based in New York whose work in photography and video investigates female identity. Her exhibition and book, The Other Half of the Sky, portray women in rural China. Beginning in 2006, Almog traveled to remote Chinese provinces to document women of diverse backgrounds and societal functions such as members of the Muslim minority, tile factory workers and farmers. She produced portraits in six distinct geographic sections: mountain, lake, factory, street, backyard and land. Recent solo exhibitions of her work include The Art Museum of Lexington, KY; the Emmanuel Valderdorff  Galerie in Köln, Germany; and Andrea Meislin Gallery in New York.

Feminist Poetry, Exhibits, Performance Art, Academia, Publishing, and Laundry

When I first set out to find Native American writers to participate in So to Speak interviews, I aimed high. With my first tentative emails, I received warm and positive responses from the two poets I contacted. I couldn’t believe my luck!

Our first poet, Heid E. Erdrich, was raised in a large literary and academic family by parents who were boarding school teachers for the Turtle Mountain Ojibwe. Her father, from a German immigrant family, and her mother, a member of the Turtle Mountain Ojibwe tribe, were “precise namers of things” who  encouraged their children to pay attention to the details in life. Her mother sewed handmade books for her then elementary school children to fill with their own creations.  These early lessons in observation and creativity stuck: three of the eight children went on to achieve literary success.

Heid has published four collections of poetry and one book of nonfiction, written plays, and curated over a dozen exhibits. A four-time nominee for the Minnesota Book Award, Heid received the 2009 award for her collection National Monuments. She has been a finalist for the Montreal International Poetry Prize and the recipient of the Minnesota State Arts Board Fellowship.  And she has received awards from the Loft Literary Center and the Archibald Bush Foundation.

In addition to writing, Heid has taught at three universities (Johns Hopkins University, Augsburg College, University of St. Thomas), run writing workshops, and curated visual art and community literary events. Her latest creative endeavor is Artifact Traffic, a collaborative, multi-discplinary exhibit and performance. Heid also runs the Wiigwaas Press, an Ojibwe language publisher.

Heid’s poetry integrates the everyday world with the mythical; her poems blend universal themes of life, death, and spirituality as easily as a baker sifts together flour, salt, and leavening. Whether discussing laundry on a clothesline, her grandmother’s hands, or the sounds of nature, she creates powerful images that connect unlike experiences in surprising ways. She has described her poems as conversations and views her thoughts and feelings as not just belonging to herself, but rather to her readers and community.

Recently Heid has begun collaborating with other Native American artists, creating visual performance works of art that include her poetry. Her poem films have been screened at the Imaginative Film, Headwaters Film and Co-Kisser Poetry Film (where she won an award) Festivals, as well as the 2013 Native American Literature Symposium.

Wherever there are lines dividing literature or art (even dance), Heid challenges our assumptions:

Sheryl: You’ve been described as a feminist poet, professor, scholar, and playwright. How would you describe yourself?

A tad less than 5’8” and quite round. My hair is long and just a little gray.  There is something bear-like about me, of which I am proud.  I laugh a lot.

I am also a feminist poet, professor, scholar, and playwright—also a curator of visual arts exhibits and multi-disciplinary performances for the past seven years. And a publisher of the world’s only mono-lingual Ojibwemowin press. AND a laundress.

Sheryl: Tell us about the Ojibwe language and Wigwaas Press. Did you grow up knowing Ojibwe? How does the Ojibwe language inform your poetry, written in English? What projects are underway with the press?

Heid: Indigenous languages were much disrupted, deliberately, by the U.S. education system and by the churches. My grandfather spoke and understood several indigenous languages, but he spoke Ojibwemowin only with his sons as they worked in the field.  My mother did not learn her language, although she understood conversations as a child.  I began studying Ojibwemowin as an adult.  My studies coincided with the births of my children, so I created an entire book about language acquisition, The Mother’s Tongue.  Many of those poems are selected in Cell Traffic.

Wiigwaas Press publishes mono-lingual Ojibwe-language books for use in language revitalization efforts.  We are about to publish our fourth book.  We are pretty much alone in our field.

Sheryl: When did you first know that your path was that of a writer and teacher?

Heid: Books were always magic to me and both my parents were teachers, so it seemed like the ideal life.  I taught college English for twenty years, left to work in the community in 2007, and I am returning to an MFA program in 2014.

Sheryl: In addition to being an accomplished scholar and writer, you are a mother. How does motherhood affect your writing?

Heid: The secret about Moms is that they do not mess around!  My writing comes faster, is more sincere, and is much more a focus of my day than before I had kids.  I have to make it count, because I know it is taking away time I could use to, say, wash their socks.

Sheryl: You’ve recently begun experimenting with poetry expressed in video form. How did this come about? Tell us about your experiences using this form.

Heid: A few years ago I started to see book trailers in which the poet read a bit from the book—just like a movie trailer.  You’ve probably seen them.  It occurred to me that one could make a film of a poem—and I have often thought of my poems as little films or exhibits.  The fit seemed natural and I knew filmmakers, actors, animators—all Native American artists—so I knew my team. I got a grant from the Minnesota State Arts Board and was able to give everyone involved a little fee. It was a joyful creation and I want to keep making these films now.

The poem films feel like they give my poems reach in a way I never could have imagined.  Students who “don’t get poetry” are more interested in poetry after seeing the films, and the films have gone to other countries—most recently Brazil.  We’ve won awards and spots in competitive film festivals, so obviously, the quality of the artists I worked with (R. Vincent Moniz, Jr., Elizabeth Day, and Jonathan Thunder) shows through.

Sheryl: Writers can often find themselves isolated, but I’ve read that you strive to create community with your writing. Can you tell us more about that?

Heid: Creating community is what my curatorial efforts and my playwright work is about. I needed to get out of my box and feel connection to others to expand my audience and my understanding of my work.  It has been wonderful work and my love of visual artists has really grown.  Performers are a bit too, well, too dramatic for this introverted poet.  I might be done with that part of my community work!

Sheryl: Tell us about your writing process. Where do you find the most inspiration? When do you write and what is your revision process like?

Heid: Usually I write in the morning, just get down to it with coffee and as much quiet as I can get.  Sometime I write after a nap. I write to and with voices I have read from a variety of sources, often sciences articles.  When I am creating and revising, I like to walk.  If I can find the beat of the poem while I walk, I can memorize it a bit and get it on paper in a more complete form than if I just try to dump it out of my brain on to a page.

Sheryl: Who do you feel are your greatest writing influences? Personal influences?

Heid: There are so many.  Adrienne Rich, Joy Harjo, Gwendolyn Brooks, Kimberly Blaeser, my teachers at Johns Hopkins, my teachers at Dartmouth.  Roberta Hill was my mentor in the Twin Cities and the novelist Jonis Agee really mentored me, too. But my friends who write are my biggest influences: Eric Gansworth, Leslie Adrienne Miller…I will get in trouble if I name more than two and leave anyone out. Of course my sisters influenced me.  Both Louise and Lise always wrote, so I thought it was normal and did not get any romantic notions about the process.

Lyrics to songs are a huge influence on me as well.  David Bowie, Laurie Anderson, Patti Smith…the usual suspects for women who came of age in the 1980’s.

Sheryl: What are you working on now?

Heid: At the moment, a multi-disciplinary show with “poem skits” and poem films, including at least one starring my sister Louise.  The show is called Artifact Traffic and it is about collaboration between artists, the traffic of ideas as artifact, and contemporary Native American art.  My next two books of poems are begun and should be done in 2014—hopefully published in 2015. First I have to do PR for my books of stories and recipes on indigenous foods, which just came out from Minnesota Historically Society Press.  That was a labor of love, for sure!

Sheryl: What do you feel it means to be a feminist in today’s world?

Heid: Such a hard question.  At a recent book festival, I was lucky enough to sit next to Susan Dworkin, the author who wrote reviews for Ms. Magazine back in the day—not Andrea, who also worked at Ms..  Susan was wonderful to meet and very interested in my generation of feminists—the little sisters of the First Wave. We talked a little about early feminism and today.  There’s an easier feminism today that looks at work mostly, and ignores everyday life.  There’s less risk in talking about work and politics. I’d rather talk a bit about every day life. We have a feminist marriage and it is hard. My husband is a researcher, his name is John Burke. We are really 50-50 in our domestic work. But since most women do 100% more than they need to domestically, or feel they should do more—always more—it is hard to let 50-50 stand.  Stuff does not get done.  Housework is not a priority. We have issues, but they are minor. Most women writers who talk to me about their marriages or partnerships have taken on way more than the male partner or even their female partners.  There’s an imbalance that comes from early training, but also from being the lesser-wage earning person as most writers/teachers end up being.  I see that easing with my younger friends.  They expect more from a partner in terms of the work of the home and relationship—and they sometimes get it.

My poetry continues to have a feminist bent—it is always about the body, the way we relate to the world, and increasingly about women’s relationships to the natural world and the Ojibwe woman’s role as water keeper.  I may not take a traditional woman’s role, but I hold sacred that women protect and relate to the waters of the earth.

Check back soon for Poet Sarah Winn’s review of Heid’s Cell Traffic. Still to come on StS, an interview with Poet Joy Harjo and fiction writer Shelby Settles Harper’s review of Harjo’s award-winning memoir Crazy Brave.

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Heid E. Erdrich received degrees from Dartmouth University and the Johns Hopkins University (Writing Seminars). Visit Heid on her website to keep up with her latest creative endeavors! Discover Heid’s books at Birchbark Books.

 

Less Than One Week Left for Contest Submissions!

So to Speak is accepting submissions for the Spring 2014 issue until October 15th.  The Spring 2014 issue of So to Speak will feature our poetry and nonfiction contest winners, as well as fiction and art.  Submissions for all genres are accepted through our online submissions manager.

The contest judge for the Spring 2014 Poetry Contest is Beth Ann Fennelly, who teaches poetry and nonfiction writing at the University of Mississippi. Her first book of poetry, Open House, won the 2001 Kenyon Review Prize and the Great Lakes College Association New Writers Award, and was a Book Sense Top Ten Poetry Pick. It was reissued by W.W. Norton in 2009. Her second poetry collection, Tender Hooks, and her third, Unmentionables, were published by W.W. Norton in 2004 and 2008. She also published a book of nonfiction, Great with Child: Letters to a Young Mother (Norton), in 2006. The Tilted World, the novel she has cowritten with her husband, Tom Franklin, will be published by Morrow in the fall of 2013.

The judge for the Spring 2014 Nonfiction Contest is Jana Richman, the author of a memoir, Riding in the Shadows of Saints: A Woman’s Story of Motorcycling the Mormon Trail, and two novels, The Last Cowgirl, which won the 2009 Willa Award for Contemporary Fiction, and The Ordinary Truth. Jana’s provocative prose has been compared to that of Pam Houston, Barbara Kingsolver and Pat Conroy.

Winners will receive prize money and publication in the magazine; other finalists will also be published.  The contest entry fee of $15 includes a free copy of the Spring 2014 issue for all entrants.  Full submission guidelines are available on our Contests page.

If you’ve been putting off submitting, be sure to enter your piece in the submission manager this week. We look forward to reading your submissions!

 

3rd Annual Summer Online Issue is HERE!

The 3rd annual So to Speak Summer Online issue is here! Our editorial staff is proud to showcase the work of these feminist writers and artists in the Summer 2013 Issue. This issue includes all of the genres you’ve come to expect from So to Speak: extraordinary fiction, nonfiction, poetry, and visual art!

Read the new issue HERE or click on the cover art to the left. Later this summer, be sure to check our blog for posts by our contributing writers and artists, as well as guest writers, on craft and their views on feminism. Our blog offers a continuous dialogue on feminism, which can be found in surprising places! Be sure to engage with the contributors by commenting on their blog posts and offering further ideas in the comment box.

Happy Reading!

The StS Staff

Summer 2013 Online Issue

Fiction

Katya Kulik

Dawn Corrigan

Nonfiction

Jennifer Arin

Michele Leavitt

Lauren Banka

Poetry

Michelle Lee

Kendra Bartell

Karen An-hwei Lee

Jane Otto

Lauren M. Plitkins

Alexa Doran

Gail Woldstein

Ruth Williams

Christie Collins

Jacqueline Kolosoff

Rebecca Morgan Frank

Visual Art

Launa Bacon

Marcia Weisbrot

Stephanie Sauer

Duat Vu

Anna Helm

Adsilen Reyes Pino

Camden Richards and Alessandra Echeverri

Sue Leopard

Nikki Thompson

Ying-Chieh Liu

Leilei Guo


Perfect People are Boring: Monica Marier from Tangent Artists speaks out

Monica Marier
By Day: Mother of Two and Freelance Artist)
By Night: Writer, Character Design, and Pencils for “The Knights of Leviathan”

First of all, I’ll state, for the record, one of the first rules of writing: Perfect people are BORING.

Every character, in order to grow and create an interesting story, needs a flaw— sometimes more than one! With my male characters, I can heap on the flaws— pile ‘em on with a big spoon. It’s easy to write for men; it’s comfortable, and I can get away with most of bad stuff I invent for them. People don’t ask why this guy is a former-alcoholic liar with anger issues, or a blatantly racist skirt-chaser pedophile. It’s given that it’s his character and this might be important to story.

When I create flawed female characters however, something weird happens: everyone asks why I did it. Why does this character have body issues? Why does this character hate her mother? Why is this character a callow bitch? Why did I choose to represent women this way?

I get confused by questions like this, especially because my answer is always, “Because that’s her character. That’s who she is.”

When a woman sees a female character in a male-dominated story, we tend to suddenly latch onto that character and say, “This is me. This is all of us.” And when we see her do something we don’t like, we collectively groan.  “She’s let me down. She’s made me embarrassed to be a girl.”

I do this with my favorite female characters. I do it constantly, which is why there are so few female characters in comics and books that I actually like.  I’m often too terrified to make female characters of my own. I’m scared of letting us all down.

I’m gradually getting over my fears; Skeleton Crew has no less than five female characters from a range of ages and backgrounds. We’re also introducing a female villain shortly and she’s loaded with flaws. I have to credit my awesome brother and co-writer for this, who was the first to invent all these girls before letting me run rampant with their dialogue and designs. To his credit, he never stopped to think, “What if I get this wrong?”

In the end, I just do what I do, not because I want to give traditional comics the bird, or to create the ultimate girl character. I honestly forget the fact I’m a girl—a lone skirt in a field of slacks. That’s not important. I do it because I love it, and if no one read my comics/books, I’d probably keep doing it anyway.

I write what I write because I have stories to tell and I think you would like some of them. I want to create characters who you relate to no matter what your gender, race, orientation, or lifestyle might be. I want to create people that feel real to you with enough seeds of truth in them that you can say, “I get that. This speaks to me.”

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Tangent Artists is a predominantly female-owned and operated webcomics and publishing company in Northern Virginia. They run three weekly webcomics: horror comedy series Skeleton Crew; Swords & Sorcery & Sarcasm series CRIT! ; and nerd-life comic, Donuts For Looking. Monica Marier is a co-founder and working artist/writer for all three series. She has also published three fantasy novels through Hunt Press, including the much-lauded first book in The Linus Saga, Must Love Dragons.

 

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