The Archaic and “Masculine” Beauty: A Review of the Film ‘White Silk Dress’ (Áo lụa Hà Đông) by Tini Ngatini

Image of Vietnamese schoolgirls wearing white áo dài from a postcard

“My mother said a white silk dress is a symbol of Vietnamese women’s immense suffering as well as their generosity. Through traumatic hardship, through horrific destruction caused by countless wars, the Vietnamese white silk dress still maintains its beauty. The beauty of a Vietnamese woman cannot be characterized by white skin, rosy cheeks and red lips; but by the elegant laps of a white silk dress.”

 

Embedded in the above closing statement from the film White Silk Dress  (Áo lụa Hà Đông) is an illustration of how sacrifice, which Keenan said in the Question of Sacrifice, is understood in our society as necessary passage to, in this particular case, beauty and a new life in general. While it alludes to the popular idea of beauty which rest its criterion on physical appearance, the idea of beauty the film tries to convey is the one I call archaic and masculine, which we tend to forget for one reason or another.

The White Silk Dress (2006)

Set against a backdrop of poverty, the film offers a demeaning portrayal of female education, women’s rights and woman in general. Although the film is set in during the late French colonial rule of Viet Nam, such issues continue to persist during the film maker’s time and nowadays, and doubtless spurred Director Luu Huynh; a Vietnamese-American who is known to advocate the rights women and other disadvantaged groups, to make this film. In this film he clearly urges the public to be mindful of the plight of the under-privileged groups, while at the same time rejecting a narrative of  inescapable victimhood by reminding those groups that they are; despite their societal disadvantages, capable of changing the course of their life histories.

The film focuses on three women: Mrs. Dan and her two daughters, Anh and Flood; and much of the narrative portrays their struggles to maintain the precious áo dài, a white silk Vietnamese national dress. The dress is precious for several reasons. Firstly, it is an historical embodiment of Vietnamese values, especially modesty, which is often signified in some religious traditions through the form of dress code. Secondly, in the case of the film, the dress was a gift for Mrs. Dan from her boyfriend Gu, a fellow servant who asked her to marry him in front of a Buddha statue. It was on that unconsecrated wedding night that Gu gave Mrs Dan the white silk dress. Not long after their unofficial marriage, Gu’s master was assassinated by anti-French mobs. Worried for their lives, they fled to the South of Vietnam and resided in the city of Hoi An, where they raised their daughters. At this point, the dress now constitutes the only precious property of the family.

The journey to keep the dress began with Anh and Flood’s teacher who asked them to wear silk dress to school just like other students. Not having money to buy the dress material, Mrs. Dan tried to borrow money from a wealthy lady in their neighborhood. Instead her request was rejected and Mrs. Dan was insulted for her poverty. She then received and accepted an offer to breastfeed a very wealthy elderly man. This plan did not work either; her husband found out and deplored it as a “whore-like” act. Finally, Mrs. Dan sacrificed her only white silk dress, cutting it up to make a new one for her daughters.

The challenges, however, did not stop there. The family needed to risk their lives twice to save the dress from fire when American troops bombed the city. They lost her daughter Anh in the war and later Mrs. Dan drowned  when the river where they look for snails to sell flooded.

The film ends with the end of the war, with Flood wearing the dress and uttering her experience of living the philosophy behind her mother’s remark that their countless hardships and horrific experiences resulted in the maintenance of the beauty of that dress. Through traumatic hardship, through horrific destruction caused by countless wars, the Vietnamese white silk dress still maintains its beauty.

Struggle is what make these women beautiful, even in the absence of the ability to whiten their skin or to redden cheeks and lips, which remains the popular trend in South East Asia to this day. The beauty of a Vietnamese woman cannot be characterized by white skin, rosy cheeks and red lips. But to Mrs. Dan, beauty is not only defined by such external qualities. Instead, her idea of beauty is rather Hegelian; in that it is understood as the ability to engage with life’s difficult moments and yet find oneself stronger at the end. Thus, it comes as no surprise that she sees the dress as a tangible symbol of Vietnamese women’s immense suffering as well as their generosity, which resulted in the elegant laps of a white silk dress. This vision of beauty through suffering, and an unwavering belief that toil and hardship can, or should produce something of beautiful is optimistically applied to her children, who she believes could attain a better social situation if only they can strive to gain an education.

This idea of beauty through cathartic struggle is implied in Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit. In the preface of the Phenomenology of Spirit, Hegel alluded that life [or beauty] emerges as a result of “looking the negative in the face, and tarrying with it.” The negative can loosely be understood as things which potentially refrain us from achieving our ultimate goals, ranging from concerns as seemingly trivial as procrastination to other more significant obstacles to happiness. Tarrying with it, then, means defeating such stumbling blocks, or simply sacrificing short term goals for the sake of long term one. Thus, once we have defeated this negative, we can expect a glow that emanates from us as the result of being-ness, or life that has manifested itself in us, as Hegel would say. In this light, we can see that beauty, as it is presented to our eyes is actually a result of a herculean battle against those things [the negative] which prevent “beauty” from entering into our lives. Even for the most delicate flower, its beauty [or life] comes from its wrestling with the fear of pain inherent in blossoming, as Anais Nin puts it. At this point, it’s safe to say that Hegelian beauty is very much characterized by struggle or “tarrying with the negative”; indeed, Hegelian beauty is predicated upon, and cannot be achieved without this painful exertion of effort and will.

This “tarrying with the negative” as the precondition of existence is also what our ancestors believed to be the way to freedom from the private life of the household & family, as discussed in Arendt’s The Human Condition. According to Arendt, the ancients thought emancipating oneself from private life is important because this private realm is ruled by bodily needs, essential for individual maintenance and survival of the species. Accordingly, everybody within this realm is constantly enslaved by labor, either to meet others’ need, or their own. Also, to achieve these corporeal ends, the use of violence and force is acceptable. Thus, the ancients advised people to move on to the political life of public sphere which is reserved for equal and free folks. This move is also characterized by Hegel’s tarrying with the negative.

To the ancients this “tarrying with the negative” means making sure that one has mastered their own bodily needs already, so that they might be capable of ascending to higher planes of consciousness and being. For those who have the means to meet their bodily needs without labor or toil, as in the case of those born within propertied family or people who receive external financial support this end is of course more readily attainable.

Nowadays of course, as my sounding board friend Fitzpatrick reminded me, many people have escaped the tyranny of those bodily pressures of “private life” described by Arendt (the need for food, clothing and shelter) by getting a job and surrendering much their free time to corporate wage slavery. To him, this modern alternative offers for most of us; in addition to protection from starvation and death from exposure, a shallow (albeit demeaning) imitation of “public life”, in so far as we are able to work hard and potentially move up within the capitalist system towards a role that entails a decision-making capacity. However, he added, this piecemeal form of “mastery” creates new problems that mirror those that faced our ancestors in surprising ways. For example, a skilled subsistence farmer could be in control of their own destiny, only to have their designs scuppered by drought or flood; similarly, an obedient wage slave may find that the fickle winds of the market, or other economic fluctuations have left them homeless and hungry. Even when capitalism has consistently provided one with the means to live comfortably, consumerism in turn provides us with a galaxy of seductive products to literally consume the fruits of one’s labor, which might otherwise allow one the time to focus on things, other than bodily needs, such as self-realization through art or education, which supposedly benefits the doer and other people.

Unfortunately, as we have seen, the mastery task has never been easy – especially in our days. Therefore, it’s no surprise that character Mrs. Dan in this film did not fully escape from private life herself.

Yet, I see it as no reason to dismiss Mrs. Dan’s achievement as not fitting the category of Hegelian beauty, although my former professor argued otherwise. I assert that Hegel would have agreed with calling it Hegelian beauty; as he himself stated that the course of spirit [being/life] to itself is not a straightforward matter; it is instead a gradual process. In each stage of development, one does achieve something meaningful [or beautiful].

Yet, Hegel warned, one must expose that transitional achievement to constant examination and revision so as to keep moving. Only by doing so, we can get closer to the final goal: full self-manifestation. If we ponder on our own journey to become somebody we desire to be, we could see this gradual nature of this process. Before we can complete each transition, for instance, in the case of physical beauty and self-development, we must ensure that we have managed to address all physical beauty flaws and psychological baggage we have been carrying. Yet, as we grow, we keep examining what else to work on; what cosmetic beauty could we use to address, for example, our wrinkles; what psychological technique might help with newly discovered issue. Another example of the often difficult struggle for self-development come from the figures of Jain women, as anthropologist Whitney Kelting documented in Heroic Wives Rituals, Stories and the Virtues of Jain Wifehood. They are similar to the character Mrs. Dan in that they occupied and attempted to be free from private life. Yet, they did not make it. Nonetheless, their fellow Jains see [Hegelian] beauty in their existing achievement and, in turn, built temple as remembrance of their attempts and achievements. They worship these women for those achievements, and now these women serve as a reminder for others that the struggle towards self-manifestation and the attainment of spiritual beauty is a never-ending one.

Improved social status, or even having temples built in ones honor (like those Saint women of Jainism) and other more humble forms of life comfort were indeed sometimes the reward one could gain for the herculean struggle of renouncing private life, which required “courage” and, was thus considered a “political virtue” back then. In the past, supposedly most of them who were able to make it to escape private life and move into public realm were men and, thus, the life [or beauty] that comes out of it is often characterized by traits of masculinity. In addition, as my professor reminded me, patriarchy invariably defined women’s social roles “as enslaved, and thus defined female beauty, and for that matter courage, as submission to and acceptance of that enslavement.”

Nonetheless, the thought that beauty is closely tied to pain is far from new, because even the beauty defined by outer appearances is built on hidden foundations of pain and sacrifice. This includes the pain inherent in waxing, manicures, pedicures and other beauty care today, including exercise and body sculpting or wearing foot-numbing spike heels. Furthermore, as my professor recalled, in the past feminine beauty has required such practices as foot-binding, tight-laced corsets, and poisonous cosmetics. Supposedly one cannot fully escape from the economic idea that everything has its price; and more generally one must be willing to sacrifice short-term gains for any kind of long term or final progress we desire to attain in the course of our lives.

In White Silk Dress (Áo lụa Hà Đông), we see the character Mrs. Dan willing to put herself through difficult situations: giving up her desire for her own material beauty, accepting the humiliation of breastfeeding an elderly man, and ultimately sacrificing her precious dress. This is because she sees being educated as one of beauty’s essential features, something that can potentially change her family’s life in future.  Of course, her conception of beauty is subjective, much influenced by her life circumstances. Yet, the fact that beauty requires elements of sacrifice is pervasive; and this moral of “No pain, no gain”, in whatever capacity, is doubtless applicable to our own individual journeys towards self-manifestation and “beauty.”

 

 

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20/20 at the Carnegie Museum of Art by James Carraghan

20/20: An exhibition at the Carnegie Museum of Art in Pittsburgh, PA, July 22nd through December 31st 2017

REkOGNIZE: An installation by Bradford Young at the Carnegie Museum of Art in Pittsburgh, PA, June 16th through December 31st, 2017

When you explore the Carnegie Museum in Pittsburgh, it’s easy to become overwhelmed by the sheer number of images on display. That this museum connects to others—scientific and historical—and a grand library—filled with books with images as well—only adds to this effect. One knows as well that there is always more. In this sense of the museum as a collection of horded paints and statues, it is easy to miss the little contexts that ascribe the material place behind the unworldly image in focus. In particular, it is easy to look over the smaller squares of text in small-caps on the identifying tags and museum guides that explain how a particular piece came to the museum. A women’s collective raised the money to place a Greek statue of a naked, male torso in the museum in the early 20th century, a time in which female artists would be denied access to male nude models for life study. Dozens of paintings appeared in Carnegie International shows and were bought for the permanent collection, with a yellow tag to indicate the year they appeared. (Marie Cassatt’s Young Women Picking Fruit [1891] is an interesting example, having been featured in one of these shows but not purchased until several years had passed.) Many pieces offer a history in which the art was an exchange in which the artist was personally involved and had a notion of what was going to happen to the artwork once it was purchased. In a small area of the museum dedicated to African and pre-13th Century art—a deep red, narrow hallway—the identifiers become more elliptic. A large sarcophagus covered in carvings of gods in sensual pleasure scenes offers no information on where exactly it came from, though it is clear that this was removed from a grave site. What has happened to the body? The Asian, Egyptian, and Roman art contains identifiers that tell the story represented in the images, naming the gods and their relationships to each other. The African pieces—several of which are from the 20th century, and are mingled with little to distinguish from older works—often are described only as headdresses, masks, or sculptures. There is only mystery, not mythology. A 20th century mask from the Bamileke culture, Cameroon, is just “Mask,” followed by a list of materials that it’s made of, including human hair and shells which were weaved into the hair to create a beaded cloak. The description of the way it got to the museum is as follows: “Gift of Walter Ogrodnik, Peace Corps Volunteer, 77.16.” There is no volunteering of information.

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Mask. Carnegie Museum (Photograph by the author)

There is an uneasy relationship between Western museums and non-western—or “not-white”—art. The praise brought about for artistic representations from non-white cultures has often focused on the “primitive” or “unrefined” aspects of a piece of statue or a mask, rather than focusing on the merit of the image itself. The primitivist craze of early 20th century modernism had the effect of both creating new space for artists of color within the white gallery space, while at the same time compounding and reinforcing racist and eugenicist ideas about intelligence and development in those who wanted their ideas validated. “Whiteness is a kind of cultural canvas upon which American existence is depicted in myriad artful visions of the possible,” Patricia J. Williams writes in a preface to Maurice Berger’s White: Whiteness and Race in Contemporary Art (2004). “And blackness has been for too many generations whatever was left over” (19). The space allowed does not offer much room for movement, and the tolerance that can proclaim and justify Duchamp’s readymade can, in the same paragraph, damn artworks made from found material by contemporary Brooklyn artists as “not art.”

The 20/20 exhibition at the Carnegie Museum of art, a collaboration with The Studio Museum in Harlem, is a means of addressing the schism between “white art” and “not-white art,” specifically black art. Inspired by a portrait of the young Lincoln by Horace Pippen from 1944, the exhibit attempts a fractal portrait of representations of blackness through the last century. The artworks are varied and travel in subject matter to address centuries of misinterpretation and the voluntary ignorance of assumption. Artworks in this exhibit have a tendency to lean towards the simultaneous depiction of multiple histories, commending on past and present in equal measure, occupying two spaces at one time. As the title implies, one of the aims of the exhibit is the correction of vision: not only the images of the black body in art, or what these images lack, but the black artist—particularly in their previous absence.

The photographs of Gordon Parks are so clear and crisply constructed that his images have the feeling of movement, emotional development, and existential resonance the longer one looks at them. Emerging Man, Harlem, NY, is a 1952 photograph taken to represent a deleted passage from Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, a literal representation of the protagonist’s return to the surface after descending into the sewers. Even with the sense of motion in the early day rising behind the subject, his eyes do not blink; nor do they break our gaze. The viewer breaks contact first. This image is contrasted with images taken for the Pittsburgh Courier by Charles “Teenie” Harris, documenting the lives of Pittsburgh’s black community. The subjects of Harris’s photographs look out at the viewer in many cases, looking out at our looking. I was reminded of a passage by bell hooks, from “Representations of Whiteness in the Black Imagination”:

In white supremacist society, white people can “safely” imagine that they are invisible to black people since the power they have historically asserted, and even now collectively assert over black people, accorded them the right to control the black gaze. As fantastic as it may seem, racist white people find it easy to imagine that black people cannot see them if within their desire they do not want to be seen by the dark Other. […] An effective strategy of white supremacist terror and dehumanization during slavery centered around white control of the black gaze. Black slaves, and later manumitted servants, could be brutally punished for looking, for appearing to observe the whites they were serving, as only a subject can observe, or see. To be fully an object then was to lack the capacity to see or recognize reality. These looking relations were reinforced as whites cultivated the practice of denying the subjectivity of blacks (the better to dehumanize and oppress), of relegating them to the realm of the invisible. (168)

In the Harris photographs as well, the range of expressions and “looks” is worth mentioning. A woman looks out from a distance as she mounts a motorcycle. Another woman, looking tomboyish and ambiguous, rests against the front door of Kay’s Valet Shoppe. This pose is mimicked in one of the last images of the exhibition, Untitled (Gallery) by Kerry James Marshall, which features a stylish black woman posed in front of a gallery wall. In both cases, the look is a challenge, demanding attention and asserting the subject’s own attentions directed at the viewer.

Kara Walker is represented by four large images taken from her larger series, The Emancipation Approximation. These shadow pictures revise the myth of Lela and the Swan, placing it in the context of both narratives of enslavement and narratives of reconstruction. These images recontextualize mythical sexual violence within the too-real history of sexual violence in slavery. Walker’s work is exceptionally difficult to address. Working primarily with the high-contrast of black silhouettes against a stern white backdrop, the details of these delicate pieces contrast with the subject matter. By Any Means Necessary, by Tim Rollins and K.O.S., takes pages of the Autobiography of Malcolm X and places the pages side by side on a giant canvas, covers them with a thin layer of white paint, and then creates a new signature across the surface with the M and the X coming together on a downward slope to spell his initials. Once more, the high contrast of black on white addresses the phenomenon of binary existence, in which all other racial identities are subsumed by the dialogue of race relations as a black/white thing. In the same way, this piece also makes a comment on the revising—the whitewashing—of black figures after their deaths by a white narrative.

Ellen Gallagher
Deluxe by Ellen Gallagher (Photograph by the author)

Ellen Gallagher’s 60-print series DeLuxe, presents a collage of images featuring beauty products marketed towards black women, mostly from the 1940s to the 1970s. Gallagher covers the advertisements with paint, clay, even pasta, to heighten surreal undertones of the images, turning these ideas of how beauty should-be into a different kind of beauty, one that questions the audience of the original advertisements. The scale of this work adds to the overwhelming sensation it produces: there are many ways in which one should “do” beauty; the advertisements proclaim that this product will make you look more white, this product will make you look less black, this product will make you look “authentically.” Beauty is beholden, and the contradictory messages about whether or not to embrace a sense of black-as-beautiful create a tension around the receiver.

Meleko Mokgosi’s text installation, Walls of Casbah, is a reflection on the way in which art historians and curators have perpetuated the cultural subjection of non-white cultures in both the gallery space and academic discourse. An exhibition catalog from the 2009 exhibition Walls of Algiers: Narratives of the City becomes the basis of this work of critical theory and artistic engagement, in which the artist’s hand-written notes on the catalog—ranging from questioning word choices and sentence structure to pointing out the demeaning attitude behind particular words—are reproduced and enlarged on several canvases. In one example, Mokgosi’s notes break down and meditate on this sentence:

“Seen from the sea, European Algiers is nothing but crumbling walls and devastated nature, the whole a sullied blot.”

Focusing on “sullied,” Mokgosi’s commentary works from the definition of the word in order to express its impact and the general attitude it conveys:

“defiled or damaged integrity

‘soiled’

Shat on or shat on themselves

Blot (dark stain)

A region “belonging” to Africans (whatever this means) and associated with colonial rule—had been soiled—shat on—made into a dark stain.

Dark stain in the dark continent that only Le Corbusier could fix—bleach out and purify.”

This is a seminar of graduate theory represented in a few pages. It directly addresses issues of appropriation and the frequent missteps white audiences have slipped into when discussing non-white art. The legacy of colonizing attitudes and racist assumptions of superiority are very hard to erase, even when the white writer is attempting to demonstrate how they are “enlightened” to the problems of racism. Mokgosi’s engagement with the exhibition guide is a scene of reassertion not only of the artist’s power over those who write about them, the ability and the need for artists of color to respond to misappropriations of historical narrative, and the necessity of making black art that documents, invents, and cites the lives of the unspoken.

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Walls of Casbah by Meleko Mokgosi (Photograph by the author)

Untitled (Mlle Bourgeoise Noire) [Miss Black Bourgeoise] was a performance artwork by Lorraine O’Grady, documented in this exhibition by four photographs of her in the guise of artist-as-Miss America. These images contrast the notion of glamour in beauty pageants and the frequently racist (or racially-based) ideals of beauty remarked upon in Gallagher’s piece, while also calling attention to the relationship of black artists to the history of art. A successful beauty contestant is, by and large, not expected to be known for their ability to speak, but rather, to become a representation of vague ideals such as “beauty” and “purity.” In appearing as this fictitious representation, the artist is embodying a concept of tokenism as well as questioning the importance of patronage in the art world.

Basquiat is represented by a collaboration with Andy Warhol, a portrait of a dollar sign featuring Warhol’s signature silkscreen techniques and Basquiat’s devotion to graffiti and folk/traditional art techniques. The inclusion is mildly confusing to me, not because of Basquiat, but because his work with Warhol is, by comparison to his own, so slight. At the Warhol Museum, for many years these collaborations—which included videos, sculpture, and paintings—were represented by a large canvas (a commissioned portrait of a car that looked as though it was abandoned halfway through) and a sculpture piece of punching bags with each artist’s designs on them. Warhol, who in many respects represents the whitest of white artists, seems detached from Basquiat’s connection to lived experience; Basquiat seems detached from Warhol’s antiseptic and clinically repetitive late-80s work. The disconnect between the two artists, as well as their closeness, shattered by Warhol’s sudden death, was one of the few redeeming aspects of the otherwise troublesome bio-pic Basquiat. (Jean-Michel would die of a heroin overdose less than 18 months later.) Their collaborations feel often like two artists arguing with each other, rather than playing friendly, although this does not seem to be the biographical case. This is, perhaps, the reason that this collaborative work was included over a solo work of Basquiat’s, to represent the black artist’s engagement with the (then as now) majority white art culture and art establishment.

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Dollar Sign (Don’t tread on me)  Basquiat & Warhol (Photograph by the author)

Experiencing 20/20 before walking through the remainder of the Carnegie’s collection produces a (perhaps unintended) side-effect of refocusing the white viewer to the pervasive entity that is whiteness on a museum wall. It is, by and large, only with the movement towards 21st century art that we witness an increased range of representations in the visual arts, not just of the subjects on display, but also of the artists themselves. REkOGNIZE, by Bradford Young (June 16-December 31), a visual installation project running concurrently with 20/20 explores documentary photography and the history of violent images in American racial history. Many of the images I saw do not contain explicit violence as the center point, but the cutting between images and the pieces of computer code used to translate the images into a film creates a sense of violence in every moment. To the left and right of the main screen, footage of a streetlamp, barely demonstrating the motion that comes with the passage of time, contrasts with the central images and the score. The score, which is inspired by and modeled after the “raw data” that makes up the images, builds into a cacophony on the level of late Elliott Carter. The effect between the photography, the lines of code flashing on the screen, and the music, is such that the viewer is pushed to the point of having to leave the work within a few minutes. This is a cumulative artwork, a representation of the stress and emotional drainage that comes from violent histories and histories under erasure. The viewer leaves not because they do not want to see what is happening before them, but because the viewer can no longer stand it. It is interesting to contrast this with Howardena Pindell’s video piece, Free, White and 21, in which the artist discusses her experiences with institutionalized racism, starting with her mother’s being burned by a babysitter through to her experiences with institutionalized racism in the art world. The piece ends with a white-faced figure pulling a cream-colored stocking over her head and obscuring their eyes with large sunglasses. What should I care for all of these stories, the figure speaks, for I am free, white, and twenty-one! The declaration of not having to care, of the ability to deny attention, sympathy, and indignation to Pindell’s history, serves as a cruel reminder of the distance an observer can place between themselves and the oppressed.

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Screenshot from Free, White and 21 by Howardena Pindell (Photograph by the author)

When looking through the Carnegie Museum of Art, after the experience of 20/20, the temptation to inverse the portraits became very strong. It was not a question of parity—to say that for every white artist, a black artist should be included; for every man, a woman, etc. It is not just a question of numbers, and including art for the sake of meeting a quota often results in the inclusion of disjointed and frankly just bad art. The drive to include a range of artistic representations seems often to be derided as a political stance, rather than an aesthetic one. (I have not noticed in the discussion of Charlottesville a great many people point out that treating whiteness as the norm is also an inherently political stance.) That-which-is-not-there in the gallery space remains a powerful force to be reckoned with. Whether this exhibition marks a start towards including a wider experience of artwork, or whether this is, like the rages of experimentation plucked by modernism, a moment for reflection before it is dropped for a new object, one does not know.