The Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art praises Dame Paula Rego as “one of the most important artists living in Britain today”. The current exhibition ‘Obedience and Defiance’, open until the 19th of April 2020, invites visitors to get to know the unique and singular artwork of a woman whose work was described by Sir Gerald Kelly (a man, of course) in 1955 as modern art that he could not understand.
Rego uses real stories, newspaper reports and events from her life as a source for her art. On behalf of her own imaginative power, she creates alternative perspectives to look at events and topics. By doing so, she takes the spectators on a journey through which she dismantles and toys around with the symbols and stereotypes manifested in people’s minds.
She herself states: “I can turn tables and do as I want. I can make women stronger.” Women and the obstacles many had to face over the past decades are a frequent component of her work. After the referendum in 1998 to legalize abortion in Portugal failed, she published a series of artworks in which she connected her own experiences as a witness with her explicit critique on the failed attempt to gain more rights and recognition for female citizens. Elsewhere she depicts topics as female genital mutilation, violence against woman and female oppression by (mostly) male authorities.
Rego establishes herself as a voice through her art, and makes use of the power this provides her to exert influence in various forms. In 2007, when the topic of legalizing abortion was taken up again in Portugal, several newspapers printed her works. When, in 2019, heated discussions were held in the US regarding the topic of abortion, The Art Newspaper wrote about the persistent relevance of Rego’s art.
Rego plays with the dualism of power and powerlessness. The women she draws are not victimized or oppressed human beings: she gives them expressive faces, powerful positions and appearances. They are not specifically chosen idolised icons but, rather, the women she herself knows from her daily life, women every one of us encounters on the streets.
By using this imagery of the day to day, she underlines the strength and bravery of every single female in the face of constant oppression. One of my favourite pieces shows a wife with her husband on her lap holding him tight; her muscular, widespread legs and her eyes, glinting with power, present her as the dominating figure – in control of herself, her husband and the world.
As every piece of art contains a part of the person who has created it, this exhibition is not only a collection of illustrations about strong women who defend themselves against male oppression, but is also the presentation of one specific woman who has been standing up for her own rights and the rights of her female fellows for several decades, who uses something as unique as art to address universal problems. A woman who is a true feminist hero.
Image: Yann Caradec via Flickr