Two new exhibitions at RMIT Gallery explore the ways women continue to feel culturally conditioned and socially obligated to seek male approval.
In her stunning installation he loves me, he loves me not, RMIT alumnus Dr Elizabeth Gower painstakingly writes the phrase 21,319 times.
Transcribed on 20 lengths of semi-transparent drafting film suspended from floor to ceiling, the words symbolically represent a lifetime of seeking approval, permission and sanction from the generic “he”.
The number of phrases represent the number of days Gower has asked herself the question calculated from the age of five to the date of the exhibition opening.
On one level, “he loves me…” is a childhood game played out by so many women over the generations, plucking a daisy and wondering if the object of their affection returns their desire.
For the celebrated artist however, this repetitious phrase has a darker, more sinister meaning, and one in which she seeks to expresses her persistent unease about the unequal status of women.
The Master of Fine Art alumnus - whose work blends the personal and political - has held over 30 solo exhibitions throughout Australia and in New York, Paris, Sharjah and London, and is represented in notable public collections.
While the award-winning artist is committed to her teaching, her art practice and to feminism, she says despite these achievements, she, like so many other women, is still conditioned to seek approval from men.
“The ‘he’ referred to in the phrase ‘he loves me, he loves me not’ is representative of male presence in the form of the father, the brother, the boyfriend, the lover, the husband and the son, as well as the various concepts of a male deity,” Gower said.
“The ‘he’ can also be read more generally as the colleague, the boss, the critic and the audience.
“The phrase ‘he loves me, he loves me not’ can also have more negative connotations that signify the trauma of domestic instability and violence.”
The exhibition was opened by Dr Leslie Cannold, an ethicist, educator, researcher and author, who said that the mere idea of Gower’s exhibition moved her greatly and asked her to question why it was that women asked “does he loves me” rather than “do I love myself?”.
“Standing among the suspended panels, seeing the words repeated over and over again in the gallery space, I am even more moved by Gower’s work when I see it in the flesh,” Cannold said.
RMIT Gallery Director Suzanne Davies said it was no coincidence that Gower’s exhibition - and the complementary exhibition Quiet Voices by internationally renowned artist Mithu Sen and emerging film maker Pushpa Rawat - opened just two days after International Women’s Day.
Quiet Voices, which was opened on the same night by The Age opinion editor Sushi Das, poetically addresses issues women in India face with obligation, patriarchy and the inter-generational dynamic.
Das, author of the memoir Deranged Marriage, said the exhibition strongly addressed how women were conditioned to seek approval not only from their parents, but everyone, including their husband, bosses, even their children.
“We might not understand the language in these films, but instinctively relate to them and see within them the seed of women’s potential, no matter when that decision to break free from expectation finally comes, and for some, it isn’t until menopause or when they become grandmothers,” she said.
For her multimedia installation I have only one language; it is not mine renowned Delhi-based artist Mithu Sen spent time at a Kerala orphanage to experience first-hand what life was like for these marginalised young girls.
Nirnay (Decision), the debut film of director Pushpa Rawat, explores Rawat’s journey and that of her young, educated women friends on the outskirts of Delhi, who feel powerlessly obligated when it comes to taking any major decision regarding their future.
“In fearlessly questioning society’s expectations of young women, the film explores whether they have a say in the most important decisions in their lives,” Davies said.
A free panel discussion on women's power struggles and the ways the arts and the digital sphere provide an arena for women's voices to be heard will be held at RMIT Gallery on Thursday 7 April.
Seeking Approval will feature Dr Elizabeth Gower, Dr Leslie Cannold, Sushi Das and Dr Meagan Tyler, RMIT Vice-Chancellor’s Research Fellow and editor Freedom Fallacy: The limits of liberal feminism. Register online.
Gower will also present a free floor talk on her exhibition on Friday 15 April.
Elizabeth Gower: he loves me, he loves me not and Mithu Sen + Pushpa Rawat: Quiet Voices are at RMIT Gallery, 344 Swanston Street, until 23 April.
Story: Evelyn Tsitas