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Artist Revisits Classical Paintings, Transforming Women From Eye Candy To Heroes

The women in Angela Fraleigh’s paintings are facsimiles of the painted muses rendered by the so-called “old masters,” specifically those who created Baroque and Rococo paintings in the 17th and 18th centuries.

Most often, these painted women are culled from the depths of Greek mythology, from tales including “Diana After the Hunt,” “The Rape of Europa,” and “The Allegory of Fertility,” where they appeared not as heroes or even protagonists but objects of desire or targets of violence. The dearth of stories revolving around women, both in ancient tales and the annals of art history, was both troubling and intriguing to Fraleigh.

“Since my earliest adult paintings, I’ve been interested in how meaning is made, how we construct the stories we come to believe over time, and how this affects power dynamics in terms of race, gender and class,” the artist told The Huffington Post.

In 2013, while on sabbatical, Fraleigh delved deeper into the relationship between gender and myth, hungry for a space when women drove narratives, made choices and became heroes.

She was dismayed to learn about an incident in which author Maureen Murdock asked her professor Joseph Campbell, a mythologist and author of the influential book The Hero’s Journey, why women were never the ones to embark on the literary voyage. “Women don’t need to make the journey,” he told her. “All she has to do is realize that she’s the place people are trying to get to.”

Fraleigh did notice, however, one domain in which women appeared as primary characters with diverse and complex attributes: fairy tales. Not the sanitized Disney versions, but the tales passed between generations of otherwise voiceless women ― stories full of sex, violence and feminine power. 

For example, the earliest iterations of Little Red Riding Hood vary greatly from the version we know today. Circulated orally by French peasants in the 10th century, the story features gory details that were later omitted, such as when Little Red unwittingly eats her grandmother after the Wolf prepares her body as meat. In the end, Little Red escapes due to her own instinct and cunning; no male figure saves the day. It wasn’t until the Grimm Brothers printed the story in the 19th century that the character of the Huntsman ― the male father figure ― intervenes to save her.  

“You see a lot of fairy tales being addressed in cinema now,” Fraleigh said. “And there are all these alternative narratives popping up.” She cited “Frozen” and “Maleficent,” both of which feature strong, self-determining female characters. “I started thinking, what if I were to turn the same alternative narrative lens to art history?” 

Fraleigh is knowingly following in the footsteps of feminist artists who have exposed the dominion of the male gaze over the history of Western art, devoting their life’s work to subverting it. “Looking at art history, we see a bunch of naked, passive female characters,” she said. “But what if we go back and look at those passive figures as subversive female characters?” 

Another major influence on Fraleigh’s practice has been writer and mythographer Marina Warner, who deconstructed early fairy tales in relation to the historical silencing of women. In medieval times, when fairy tales were orally exchanged, Warner wrote, there was a preponderance of propaganda broadcasting the danger of women congregating in large groups, sharing information and gaining power.

Through her artistic practice, Fraleigh wanted to uncover such instances ― when women’s voices become dangerous. 

Perhaps unsurprisingly, such moments are rare in classical paintings due to the lack of women-driven narratives. The few instances Fraleigh could find ― depicting myths like “Diana at the Bath” and “The Rape of Europa” ― featured women as eye candy, or what the artist called “a pervy version of a locker room.”

Fraleigh’s mission was to keep the content but flip the tone. “What if these characters were up to something?” she said. “What if these were intelligent, able-bodied women? Not giggling little nymphs that are vapid visual feasts but thinking, breathing characters that are at work plotting?”

While the characters in Fraleigh’s painted interpretations remain for the most part faithful to their Rococo origins, they are subsumed in a backdrop of ornate abstraction, allowing the viewer to focus her attention on the figures in play. “I want to expose the body language ― the intimacy among women that isn’t necessarily sexual,” she said. “It’s just tender sharing amongst female characters in a utopian feminine space.”

Along with the backdrops, Fraleigh also modified the paintings’ sizes, augmenting them to a heroic scale. Many of the original works served as boudoir paintings, meant to stimulate in the bedroom. Through adjusting the size, Fraleigh gives intimate moments political import while also giving the viewer ample chance to study every detail of the female characters’ expressions and body language. 

In one image, based on François Boucher’s “The Rape of Europa,” Fraleigh zooms in on the chorus of women in the background, removing them from their previous context and plopping them into an enchanted forest. “They are colluding in the darkness, like witches in the woods,” she said. “Before, they were just on the sidelines of another rape story.”

Fraleigh’s interest in re-contextualizing the corners of art regarded as feminine and discriminated against accordingly extends to her interest in the Rococo period as well. Notorious for its hyperrealistic sensuality, unbridled opulence and privileging of the canvas’ surface, the movement is often shoved to the sidelines of art history and regarded as being frivolous, superficial and ― yes ― feminine. 

Through reframing the love interests, nymphs, chamber maids and chorus girls, Fraleigh conjures art historical moments that never were, where women once relegated to supporting roles are endowed with agency, freedom and momentum.

“I am really fascinated by how editing literally changes the course of history,” Fraleigh said, referencing the sanitized fairy tales that continue to inform children on how the world works. Perhaps her edited takes on art history will have a similarly powerful effect. 

“Angela Fraleigh: Between Tongue and Teeth” is on view until Dec. 31 at the Everson Museum in Syracuse, New York.


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Meet ‘Beirut’s Banksy,’ The Artist Who’s Transforming The City One Wall At A Time

Artist Yazan Halwani peels political banners and posters off Beirut’s walls to make room for his murals. Born in the Lebanese capital, Halwani, 22, grew up against the backdrop of political logos stenciled on city walls and faded posters of politicians plastered on street corners, some left over from the civil war that lasted from 1975 to 1990.

In Lebanon, “people usually identify with sectarian or political symbols,” Halwani said. Frustrated with the political fragmentation and sectarian strife on and off the walls of Beirut, he decided to draw the public’s attention to cultural figures that “reunite Lebanese, and Arab citizens, without any divisions.” On walls and buildings in East and West Beirut (which were separated during the civil war), he paints large-scale portraits of Arab poets, musicians and actors, encircled by intricate Arabic calligraphy.

Born a couple of years after the war, Halwani is part of a generation of Lebanese youth pushing, in various ways, for greater unity in Lebanon. With his artwork, he strives to offset decades of political polarization that has resulted in cultural divisions and “a weakening of national identity.”

Referred to as “Beirut’s Banksy” by Arab media outlet Al-Arabiya, Halwani has also produced artwork for international street art events, and his work has appeared in Germany, Singapore and Paris. By taking his calligraphy outside the Arab region, Halwani says, he wants to instigate “cross-cultural conversations” and to inspire a “positive view of the Arab world.”

But it’s his work in Beirut that’s garnering the world’s attention.

Political paralysis is nothing new in Lebanon’s government, which is tenuously balanced according to the country’s religious factions. But it has reached new heights: The country’s parliament has failed to pick a president for more than one year, and its inaction and corruption leaves much of the country without regular access to services like electricity and water. This summer, more than 20,000 tons of garbage has accumulated on Beirut’s streets after a major landfill closed and the government failed to agree on an alternative dump or a new contract for its garbage collection company.

Residents began to protest, resulting in the YouStink campaign decrying their officials. Public frustration peaked last month, with the recent wave of protests in the capital being described as “the biggest show of civil disobedience” in a decade. 

Halwani marched in a mass YouStink rally in downtown Beirut on Aug. 22. 

“I think the current problem and the main motivation behind my artwork stem from the same reason,” says Halwani. “Sectarian political forces that are working in their own self-interest.”

Halwani won’t write political slogans on Beirut’s walls, though. By painting much less polarizing figures, he subversively proposes an alternative cultural and political narrative: one of unity and harmony.

“I think that what needs to be done on a political level cannot be summed up with a wall tag,” he says.  

Along the side of a building in the vibrant district of Hamra, Lebanese singer-actress Sabah peers out onto the street, smiling disarmingly, surrounded by a halo of interwoven Arabic letters that look like snowflakes from afar. Across an orange wall in the lively residential district of Gemmayzeh, Halwani painted beloved musical icon Fairouz, in black, white and grey.

“I want to replace corrupt politics with more positive cultural elements that show the real face of the country,” he says.

Halwani’s street art hasn’t always been propelled by such lofty ambitions. At the age of 14, he was drawn to French hip-hop songs and gangster films. “Everyone wanted to grow up to be a soldier or an actor, but I wanted to be a gangster like these taggers in New York,” he says. He started tagging his name on Beirut’s walls, in bright colors and big letters. Later, however, he experienced what he calls a “critical response” toward his own work. “I realized that what I was doing did not have a shred of identity. It had no relationship to Beirut. That’s why people ignored or destroyed it.”

Around the same time, Halwani borrowed a calligraphy book from his uncle. He quickly discovered that there was a discrepancy between the essence of calligraphy and that of tagging; the former was less about the artist and more about the words (often Quranic verses or folkloric proverbs.). “I was no longer interested in writing my name,” he says.

In fact, he was no longer interested in writing anything at all. The Arabic letters he places around his portraits often don’t make up legible words; they’re more like ornate crossword puzzles. “What I try to do is I try to evoke meaning without having to use the actual word … I use calligraphy to create an Arabic visual language which can be understood by Arabic and non-Arabic speakers alike,” he noted.

Often, he seeks to paint murals that start conversations. On one of the walls in Concord Street is a portrait of a gray-haired man, his eyelids on the verge of caving in, his gaze despondent. His creased forehead is crowned with tufts of white and grey hair. The portrait is of Ali Abdullah, a homeless man who for years had set up residence in the nearby Bliss Street. In January 2013, Beirut’s harsh weather reportedly led to his death. The incident mobilized hundreds of Lebanese youth to launch initiatives to help the homeless.

“After two weeks, everybody forgot about him,” says Halwani. “I decided to repaint him, just to tell people that you do not need to help the homeless only when you hear a tragic story on the news.”

As Halwani was standing in a shopping cart, with blotches of black paint on his shorts and T-shirt, a worn out taxi pulled up by the curb. A teary-eyed driver called Halwani over, and said, “When I saw what you’re doing, I was really touched. I used to see this homeless man on the street.”

Three years later, Halwani is still touched by what happened next: Desperate to give something, anything, back to the artist, the driver offered him a ride. “All I have is this car. If you need to go anywhere, I’m ready to take you,” the driver told him.

— This feed and its contents are the property of The Huffington Post, and use is subject to our terms. It may be used for personal consumption, but may not be distributed on a website.

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