Ria Vanden Eynde on the power of socially engaged art

As a socially engaged artist I source my work and inspiration from news media coverage of societal phenomena, political policies, and systems, such as religion, capitalism, and globalism, that cause unjust, discriminatory, and violent consequences. I then visually process this information from a personal, feminist viewpoint - that is, I’m interested in matters of ethical consequence with respect to health, science, law, and leadership in both the public and private lives of women. My paintings function as a social commentary from a feminist angle, visually raging for gender equality.

A painting usually starts with a moment of anger and frustration, about women experiencing discrimination, sexism, violence, etc. I channel this feeling by translating a figurative vocabulary into a visual social critique.

The painting/image takes shape in my mind while I do research. For research I turn to literature; social justice, women’s studies in anthropology, gender studies, the UN Women annual reports, and feminist art theory- a method I also used during my MA in Applied Ethics.

Other artists also inspire my practice. To mention a few; Nancy Spero (Torture of Women), Leon Golub (Raw Nerve), Ana Mendieta (Silueta Series and Untitled-Rape), Philip Guston (Riding Around). To me, these artists bear witness - their work sheds light on phenomena that impact people’s lives unjustly or violently.

I work in series:

For the #OBJECT! paintings, I reflect on the media’s representation of women and their stories about everyday sexism, inequality, and gender-based violence. Some of the paintings, conceived as political posters/pamphlets were available online for download to use in the public space all over the world (Posters for Progressives).

I also designed a set of postcards from my paintings, which I sent out to feminist institutions and clandestinely placed in library books and postcard displays in museum shops.

The Dying of the Light series is a visual reflection of our societies’ hardening and the darkening of our times. This series focuses on issues of human rights violations,- terrorism, the refugee crisis, climate change, and recently the pandemic, how those issues affect people inequally, and how we seem powerless against them.

My most recent body of work; The Anatomy Lesson, is a reflection on the way art and science approach the female body and in particular the gender bias that still exists in biomedical research.

The first triptych panel is a further development of ‘Pre Existing Condition’, an #OBJECT! painting about the controversial 2017 Trump Care Bill, aimed at stripping away women’s fundamental rights to control their own bodies and economic futures.

The painting turns out to be relevant worldwide today. Just recently, Turkey withdrew from the Istanbul Convention, which was set up to protect women and to prevent, prosecute and eliminate domestic violence. In Europe, abortion rights are frighteningly at stake in some member states. In Poland, women protest the new abortion law which is nearing a total abortion ban! In Belgium, the revision of the abortion law was dragged into the 2020 federal government formation talks.

The monochromatic diptych, also titled ’Pre Existing Condition,’ organically grew from that first painting and expresses that same idea. It is as if I’m hammering the same nail over and over again- refusing to let women’s rights infringement issues move into the blind spot of culture - to paraphrase Olivia Laing (Funny Weather, Art in an Emergency.)

My thinking about art’s functioning in society is consistent with that of authors like Olivia Laing, Siri Hustvedt (Living, Thinking, Looking and A Woman Looking at Men Looking at Women), and philosopher Martha Nussbaum (Poetic Justice).

Laing is adamant about the political, active role art can play in people’s lives. For her, it has to do with art’s capability to conjure feeling. She argues that artworks that take you deep into the reality of another person’s life are offering themselves to the viewer’s empathic capabilities. Laing thus believes in art as a creative, active, and generous cultural force through which both the viewer and the artist can reflect and learn, catalysing social justice. In this way art is essential to civilization.

Her idea of a ‘reparative* reading’ of a work of art resonates with me. At the core of the ‘reparative’ lies the motivation to make something that ‘gives’ to somebody else who you don’t know and you might never meet. In other words, it can offer compassion - a reasoning Martha Nussbaum expands to literature; reading, through imagination, can open up our emphatic, compassionate capabilities.

I agree with these thinkers that art has the potential, as a (latent) emancipating, emphatic force, to touch people - to open the viewer’s world to other people’s experiences, their suffering, their issues, their reality, and maybe this may lead to other ways of being with each other. I believe it can make us reflect differently on the way things are.

These times, bombarded as we are by the news, social media, images, reports of violence, wars, pandemics, etc, it is easy to become numb, to look away, to feel impotent, unable to resist. Art can help us question the status quo - channel, process, and point to blind spots. Maybe this has to do with the ‘viewing space in which time is stilled’, in which the viewer looks at a painting - a quiet space outside of the turmoil and rushing real-time media - a force to create a different frame of mind.

(*Definition “reparative” according to Capable of effecting or tending to effect repair; restoring to a sound or good state; tending to amend defects or make good: as a reparative process. Pertaining to reparation or the making of amends. noun That which restores to a good state; that which makes amends.)

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