Interview: Maria Gonzalez
Can you start by telling the readers a little about yourself? (Family, career, blog, etc.)
There is really nothing exceptional about my childhood or family. I belong to a typical Spanish family and I grew up in a working class neighborhood in Madrid. Maybe this, along with being the youngest of four children plus having two sisters and my mum around at all times, very much influenced my life.
When I was at secondary school, I hated math and economics. I was very lost until the Philosophy teacher started a small class to teach Greek Mythology and history of art. That was when I felt passionate about something for the first time, and I decided to study History of Art, even after the ominous warning of one of the Headmasters, who said, “You will starve!”
At university, I studied History of Art and afterwards Social and Cultural Anthropology. So I guess this helped me to develop on the one hand my sensitivity for aesthetics and on the other a curiosity for the many facets of the human being. Later on, I specialized in art and education, as I discovered that art could be a powerful way to educate, communicate ideas and initiate conversations about almost anything.
But I’ll tell you now about my first moments in London! When I moved to this eclectic and amazing city, life was tough. The fact of not living out my passion was killing me softly, so I decided to leave for India and run an art project in an orphanage. Then, when I came back, I decided I wanted to start an organization. I asked two friends if they wanted to join my project and Lon-art was born! I was at the start of my thirties and that decision involved many sacrifices. I promised myself that no matter the struggle, I would dedicate and give my creativity and passion to this organization whose motto is “creative learning for all.”
Looking back, co-founding an organisation has been an incredible adventure that has enriched my life in many ways, both professionally and personally. Lon-art is a reflection of my love for the arts but also of my commitment to social and political causes and people with fewer opportunities. I think art is a beautiful way to express ideas and feelings, but the world of art, culture and heritage can also be a very exclusive, classist and racist environment that doesn’t always reach the people who need it the most.
If you look around at the demographic in major museums and galleries, you will most likely find mainly white middle class visitors. And when it comes to the artists whose work is hung on the walls, women are pretty much removed from the equation.
My little drop in this vast ocean is to contribute towards changing this by raising my voice through art exhibitions and workshops, and fighting inequality and injustice through education.
You do a few things, including working as an art educator, correct? What got you interested in that?
I also work teaching Spanish and French in primary schools in London. I teach languages with the hope of opening children’s minds to a more tolerant world. I think languages open many doors and encourage incredible encounters. I would like children to understand that learning languages is not just about talking in a different way but about communicating and learning on a different level.
I am dedicated to education in its many forms, whether this be teaching in schools or through my organization, Lon-art. What got me interested in teaching and being an educator is the fact of investing my time and energy in people (children, women) and society. For me, anything else would feel like I was wasting my time and knowledge.
As part of Lon-art, I guide tours at the National Gallery alongside my colleague Jessica. We talk about women in the history of art: their bodies, their roles in society and their (apparent) absence in the art world. I also create workshops in collaboration with artists and other educators and I co-curate exhibitions, among other things.
But the most important part of the amalgamation of my personal and professional life is the people that surround, work and hang out with me. Without all these powerful, creative, clever and funny women, the results wouldn’t be anywhere near as stunning and special.
Most recently you worked on the SHEROES exhibit. What inspired that?
Last year marked the release of the Hollywood movie Wonder Woman. London was covered with posters advertising the film, and its new-look ‘super heroine’: independent and powerful but yet again, white, pretty, sexy and young. (And yes, I am aware of the story behind Wonder Woman and how it changed over the years.) But I was talking with a friend about how heroines were suddenly a trend in popular culture and the media, and I couldn’t help asking myself: Are these the roles models we really want and need for young women? Why do these heroines all seem to reproduce or complement the role of the male hero? Why do women even need to look up to the heroine ideal, which yet again was created by a male imagination and gaze? And so it was decided: let’s organize our next social exhibition based on powerful herstories, let’s question what a real heroine is and what role models future generations might want to look up to, and let’s not surrender to patriarchy on this any longer!
On 8 March - International Women’s Day - we opened Sheroes, an exhibition that was attended by more than 800 people over three days. We invited 28 artists to reflect on the figure of the heroine and demonstrate to society that women are powerful in many ways. The exhibition included artworks inspired by activists and politicians, including Melina Mercouri, Carla Antonelli and the Suffragettes, and historical heroines such as Viking women and Grace O’Malley. However, it also gave a voice to silenced women and anonymous sheroes also making changes in the world - from mothers to victims of FGM, domestic abuse and sexual abuse. We wanted to offer the public the opportunity to see a large and diverse array of artworks by women, as despite this being London, it is difficult to find an occasion or venue where you will be presented with so many women artists in the same space.
The exhibition was made possible thanks to the hard work of many people, each committed to the cause of justice in a world that doesn’t give enough respect to women. We made this show happen without receiving any local authority funding, which in my opinion is a reflection of the fact that no matter how much we are celebrating suffrage and women’s rights this year, the fight is still on.
What is something you learned from studying women in art?
I studied History of Art for six years but I can more or less count on one hand the women artists we looked at. The official ‘History of Art’ was first written in the 19th century by... yes, you guessed correctly: men! So we always tend to think that there were not women artists to write about. Instead I always tell people that there can be an alternative history of art that includes women artists who are still hidden but who really do exist!
Let me give you a few facts about women in Western art history:
-Women were not allowed to take the same art lessons as men - anatomy, for example - and therefore they were relegated to painting domestic scenes, still lifes and landscapes. The most exciting themes - like history and mythology - were left to men.
-Women artists were working with their fathers or husbands and often their work and talent was kept hidden behind the signatures of these men. Remember the Tim Burton film Big Eyes? It was based on a true story, and the history of art is full of these stories.
-Women weren’t generally admitted into the prestigious art academies, and if they were, their votes were restricted (see, for example, Elisabeth Vigée Le Brun and Angelica Kauffman).
-There were many women artists who founded academies for women, especially in Bologna, Italy, meaning that there is art by women out there to exhibit, but there is not a will to show it. The Advancing Women Artists Foundation are doing an amazing job to try to rectify this.
People would love to believe that contemporary art has changed all this and that women now have the same opportunities as men. But unfortunately, the facts and figures regarding contemporary collections, commissions, commercial gallery shows, artist books and biennale representation prove otherwise. There is still much work to be done!
We are never really done growing up. What do you hope to do in the future?
Indeed, the more you learn, the more you want to know. For starters, I would love to watch all the documentaries on my list and read all the books that I’ve accumulated, not aware of how long they would sit unopened.
If I could live another life, I would like to be an anthropologist, psychologist or sexologist, as I am convinced that most gender and sexual abuse stems from people not getting their sexuality in the right place.
And in this life, I would love to be part of the education and cultural programs within local authorities and try my best to make a difference on a larger scale.
What gets you out of bed in the morning?
Deadlines and the excitement of new projects. Also a sunny day: a rare commodity in London. When the sun is out, you just want to make the most of your day!
Do you have advice for girls growing up today?
I have few pieces of advice for them:
-Embrace your emotions and sexuality, while respecting your body and desires.
-Never give up on whatever dreams you have, as there is always a way to achieve things. The struggle gives you self-awareness about what you can be and achieve, and it gives you an added value.
-Question the norm. A woman can be many things, and sometimes the norm is just a burden that confuses us and stop us from going down the right path for us.
-Don’t listen to those who always say you can’t, but listen to those who say ‘come on, you can!’
-And last but not least, always look to women who inspire you in some way, because if we always look towards men, we will find ourselves in a much more challenging position.
Do you have any female figures that you look up to? (real or fiction)
I’ve had different females figures to look up to throughout my life. In my early years, of course, it was my mum and my sisters, who made me believe that when women work and collaborate together, they are invincible. I think what I like about women is how most of the time they don’t focus on their ego but on their objectives.
However, I personally think it is wrong to idealize individuals. In fact it is very interesting to see in our current climate how one-by-one the ‘great men’ are being toppled. I guess I don’t need to mention examples... well, just #metoo would be enough. I personally prefer to look at women and men’s skills or particular achievements instead of admiring them as a whole without questioning other aspects of their lives. For example, I got very passionate about Coco Chanel’s life story, with her experience of struggle and unique creation, but then obviously the dark cloud of Nazi collaboration is also present in that story, and I would be stupid to ignore it. The same goes for the great artist Elisabeth Vigeé Le Brun and her support of Marie Antoinette - or even Marie Antoinette herself: so cruel, ignorant or both, but then at the same time one of the leaders of female arts ‘matronage’ in Europe, supporting many women artists who today are well known thanks to her support.
I admire women of integrity, who have put themselves in difficult situations in order to be consistent with their principles. There are so many inspiring black women, who have struggled against the double stigma of gender and race. Nina Simone, Harriet Tubman, Olive Morris and Marsha P. Johnson are some examples of tough and incredibly inspiring women who remind us that we need to continue carrying the struggle forward.
Why do you think it is important to tell our stories?
I think it is very important to have role models as references to inspire us and keep us raising our voices. When we were planning the Sheroes exhibition, we kept in mind American activist Marian Wright Edelman’s famous assertion that ‘you can't be what you can't see’.
When looking for inspiration and guidance, we need to be able to refer to a diverse range of people who represent our diverse society, and we need to hear herstories from women across the spectrum of culture, ethnicity, sexuality, age, class and ability. Giving a platform and visibility to our stories helps us to be aware of the fights, rights, support and struggles in women’s contemporary experience. It is very important to highlight women’s hidden herstories, for the benefit of us all, regardless of our gender identification.
What is something in life that you are most proud of?
Looking back and seeing that the sacrifices were worth it. Sheroes made me proud. I am also proud of making people passionate about something, whether this is my team in Lon-art, my niece and nephews or the children I teach. Making people happy through creating art and expressing their thoughts and views makes me infinitely happy and proud.
Do you have a favorite:
Frankenstein by Mary Shelley: she is the boss. Also A memoir in correspondenceby Emma Reyes, the Colombian painter.
Valerie JustineMercedes Sosa (especially her beautiful version of ‘Gracias a la vida’) Kate TempestAnohniNina Simone
This year in the UK we are celebrating the centenary of the Representation of the People Act, which gave the first British women the right to vote and stand for public office. Twenty-five years earlier, in 1893, Kate Sheppard and her colleagues in New Zealand won the first battle for women to have the right to vote. Her words remind us the importance and impact of our individual acts:”Do not think your single vote does not matter much. The rain that refreshes the parched ground is made up of single drops.”
What is your life motto?
In Spanish, ‘si no fluye, huye!’, which I would translate as ‘if it doesn’t flow, just go!’