Domestic Responsibility: Anita Powell's Resplendent Eloquence

By Welch, Adam | Ceramics Art & Perception, December 2008 | Go to article overview

Domestic Responsibility: Anita Powell's Resplendent Eloquence


Welch, Adam, Ceramics Art & Perception


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I have, I believe, the courage to doubt everything; I have, I believe, the courage to fight against everything; but I do not have the courage to acknowledge anything, the courage to possess, to own, anything. Most people complain that the world is so prosaic that things do not go in life as in the novel, where opportunity is always so favorable. I complain that in life it is not as in the novel, where one has hardhearted fathers and nisses and trolls to battle and enchanted princesses to free. What are all such adversaries together compared with the pale, bloodless, tenacious-of-life nocturnal forms with which I battle and to which I myself give life and existence.--Soren Kierkegaard (1)

THERE IS AN APPARENT CONFLICT BETWEEN STEREOTYPES and reality, which Anita Powell's dress-form sculptures subtly articulate. Powell adds minute details to contradict her otherwise overwhelmingly happy and glamorous display of the lifeworld. The 1960s idealization of the 1950s notion of domesticity pretty much laid the basis of the currently prevailing concept. Whether or not it reflected or reflects the reality is arguable. We find varying degrees of psychological effects and cultural values within the messages conveyed through the advertising apparatus. The sharpest expression and idealization of our cultural values are embodied in advertising. What is particularly striking is that these contemporary forms of propaganda pass with relatively little notice or commentary.

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The propaganda suggests that at some point in the history of Western society, a woman was judged by her home and more specifically, the interior of the home. Domesticity and all of its trappings were regarded as the focus of her life--her sole purpose in life. Today the basis for reaching that same judgment is not drastically different. We still judge others by a combination of what appears both inside and outside their homes and persons. All of us are guilty to some extent of continuing this superficial pursuit. This practice reflects a psychological tendency having more to do with envy and desire than gender equality as the perceived roles for males and females become more ambiguous. There are remnants of the past that carry over into present, manifesting themselves in more subtle tactics that are less obvious to the undiscerning eye. To the credit of the advertising organ, this is the ideological point. Anita Powell's dress-forms, in all of their many splendid variations, examine those devices, dressing them up, so to speak, for our recapitulation.

Capitalism is clearly the impetus, as advertisements target our subconscious with manufactured wants and created desires. Despite the fact that stereotypes like the hardworking and compliant wife were emphasized for profit and the creation of a brand image--albeit by famous women's magazines with famous women editors--it was not long before such conventions took on negative connotations in the national consciousness. Initially, these messages reflected the reality to some extent. In the 1950s, only one in three women was part of the labour force, implying that two of those three women were not 'working'. (2) We have to remember that our society is governed by an underlying meritocracy where our worth and contribution is evaluated by how much money we earn, while raising children and running a household is not considered work within this ideology. The media succeeded in convincing society that it was the norm for women to stay home to rear children and attend to their domestic responsibilities. These images, like those found in 1950s Good Housekeeping magazine, instructed women on both fashion and behavior. These are the same iconic images Powell appropriates in some of her work.

Like advertisers, Powell is conscious of the powerful persuasiveness of images. In a recent review about a group exhibition in which Powell had one piece, I wrote: "Anita Powell's 5 of 4 is rife with exquisite retro pop culture references. …

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