The Space to Create: the pandemic’s burden on female artists

By Shivani Sambhare

Painting in the Time of Corona, Dhruvi Acharya (Images courtesy Chemould Presscott Road.)


In 1968, artist Nasreen Mohomedi wrote in her diary:

The empty mind

Receives

Drain it

Squeeze the dirt

So that it receives the sun

With a flash


I have thought about this entry often this past year. In 2020 when the world went into a global crisis, and like many women, I found the emptying of the mind difficult, if not impossible to do. Would the pandemic with its long periods of isolation have allowed Mohomedi the quiet contemplation she needed to create, or would she, like me, have been so overwhelmed that her delicate minimalism would’ve fallen out of balance?


In early 2020 when the pandemic struck, I had just stepped down from my role as Creative Head at a multinational media company, a move I wouldn’t have made had I not had a baby the previous year. The constant push and pull of meeting my daughter’s needs while delivering my creative best at work finally did me in. I was burnt out and exhausted. Time was meant to allow me to refuel creatively and get back stronger. Instead, in the light of the pandemic, I found myself taking on the role of a full-time mother at home.

I wish I could say that my position was unique.

The Gendered Burden

All images belong to the artist. Images courtesy Chemould Presscott Road

A few weeks ago, I came across an urgent appeal by Tara Books for artists who have been affected by the pandemic. In doing my bit to help, I ended up speaking to Swarna Chitrakar, a traditional Patachitra artist based in West Bengal’s Naya village. Her helplessness was heartbreaking. It wasn't so much the financial strain placed on them due to the pandemic, she said, but not being able to travel to handicraft expos or exhibitions to sell art was a loss of community. ”All we did was cook and make art, but there was no one to buy it, no place to go." In Chitrakar’s recent paintings, the pandemic appears as an ugly monster, towering over ordinary people.


The pandemic, while troubling for most people across the board, has been a particularly difficult time for women, as they straddle work and home, step in as teachers and primary caregivers, many even giving up their jobs to meet the needs of their families. The statistics on this have been alarming. A paper titled “Down and Out? The Gendered Impact of the Covid-19 Pandemic”, that was released by Azim Premji University, found that of the 10% of working-age women in India who were employed pre-pandemic in 2020, only half remained employed or returned to work when the lockdown was lifted later that year. WeTransfer's Ideas survey of creatives across the world outlines the problem more specifically with regard to creative women. The survey states that of all the 35,000 respondents, it was the women who were coming out of this pandemic with feelings of doubt, incapability and uncertainty with regard to their creative futures.


With the unequal burden placed on women, the pandemic also brought to the forefront much more clearly an issue that has affected creative women all through history - a lack of unrestricted time, the kind that serves as an ideal breeding ground for creativity. In 2019, award-winning writer Bridget Schulte wrote a marvellous essay in The Guardian examining the daily routines of male writers, artists and musicians, attributing their greatness in part to the women in their lives who minded their children, stuck to exacting routines and played muse endlessly. Time away alone, without these worries, was a luxury that was traditionally awarded to men. Creative women on the other hand have always had to make the time, working not in long stretches but in slivers of it, a fact that was never truer than during the pandemic.


Time as a Luxury

How much has this 'time lost' affected women over the years? I think of all the art that could have been made with this time, the books that could have been written, all the great creative women that could have been. And now, the pandemic with its unequal load placed on women also threatens to take away the bits of time women have fought long and hard for. In fact, the WHO recently warned that the pandemic could set back women's rights by decades with a real risk of 'reverting to a 1950s stereotype.'


London based Lebanese artist Aya Haidar says that for her, the time to create has always been fragmented. “Unfortunately, as a full-time mother to 3 young children under 6, a wife, caregiver and full-time artist, I do not have the luxury of separation of time. My day to day involves getting up at 6 am with the kids, devoting my whole day to the children, activities, food shopping, household chores, supporting with homework etc. Then at 7 pm when the kids go to bed, that is when my studio time begins where I work solidly until about 1 am or in between when my child naps.”

Image courtesy Aya Haidar

In Haidar's show ‘Highly Strung’ that opened in April, she takes ordinary objects found around the house - a dishcloth, a t-shirt, and a burp cloth, and then records on each of them an act of ‘invisible labour’ she performed as a wife and mother, one for each day of the past year. “Cleaned fridge”, “produced milk”, “changed nappy” the statements read, seeming ordinary, obvious even. But by carefully embroidering them on cloth, Haidar takes away their ephemeral nature, making them tangible enough to finally be acknowledged.


On my first viewing of Haidar's show online, the sheer magnitude of these small daily tasks took me by surprise. Did I really spend a whole year doing all of that? After a while, the surprise was replaced with deep discomfort, a feeling of being exposed almost. From working a fully loaded corporate job where I was my own person separate from being a mother, a year at home isolated, also came with a sense of disappearing self.


In Dhruvi Acharya's, ‘Painting in the Time of Corona,’ a series that captures this specific period, female figures, are gagged, and masked, gasping for air. The thought bubbles and voices around these figures are sometimes insistent and chaotic and sometimes empty, conveying the psychological state of her characters. Those women are me, you and so many others, struggling to keep ourselves afloat in the light of this horrific pandemic. Acharya paints herself too, a brush and palette in hand, masked, with an empty speech bubble above her head confronting a pile of assorted objects, her own acts of invisible labour perhaps. When I asked Acharya, a mother of two, how she was able to make the time to create, she says that she has accepted that straddling these multiple roles is something she has to do. “Being a single mother and raising my sons, working as a professional artist, managing our home and finances, I think of it all as different parts of my life. This has affected my work both positively-experiencing motherhood- and negatively-time lost in managing the mundane.”

Images courtesy Chemould Presscott Road. (All images belong to the artist.)

In another similar testimony, artist Varunika Saraf who lives with her parents says in trying to keep them safe, she took on more responsibility of mundane work which then took her away from her studio. “People felt that the pandemic presented an opportunity to cut out the noise, to put the head down and work. But this has not been the case. While at times it seems there are endless empty days, in reality, there has been so much work, that one never realises where the time goes,” she says.


Finding New Avenues


Whilst all these artists faced different challenges over the pandemic, their stories are an all too familiar tale for both female artists and non-artists alike, highlighting the additional hurdles in a woman’s career profession and work-to-life balance. Many of us know how the scales are tipped. But in overcoming these challenges, many artists carved out new spaces to create by utilising online networks and platforms. As the year dragged on, I slowly found myself building an alternate life online by writing about art. I connected with artists and practitioners saw a lot of art and joyfully shared all that I loved. I wasn't too different from Swarna, in that I craved a feeling of community and connection and by sharing a part of myself on social media, a part of me also returned.


Saraf, who routinely makes watercolours from pigments as part of her practice, too found herself for the first time, sharing her process on social media as “a subconscious way to start new conversations and engage with people at a time when loneliness had begun to creep in.” As crisis after crisis began unfolding around the country, she started to feel "an urgency of sorts, to question and try and deal with the multitude of issues we are now facing." Saraf’s practice engages critically with the past analyse of the antecedents of contemporary social and political issues. At a time like this, she says "How could I stop thinking, expressing, making...I was after all searching, as Eduardo Galeano advised, ‘for the keys in the past history to explain our time’.” From her furious sketching during the pandemic emerged some of the most powerful images of the past year, including the CAA protests and the migrant crisis.

Images courtesy Offset Projects

Photographer and founder of Offset projects Anshika Varma observed that practitioners seemed more malleable to sharing their work online and thought about how she could use this period to generate conversations on issues that do not get enough focus. Varma, whose practice is concerned with “developing intimacies over a period of time with people and communities,” says as many as four projects that she was working on came to a standstill due to social distancing rules. The time offered by the pandemic in Varma’s case was a privilege, one that she knew she could not take lightly. In a series of virtual talks titled ’Guftgu’ she focussed on amplifying the voices and work of the larger South Asian arts community.’ The talks recorded specifically the ‘processes behind a growing visual language within South Asia and the South Asian diaspora.’ By the end of the year, these conversations that happened very simply over social media platforms had turned into a very significant book.

Image courtesy Aya Haidar

Indeed, despite the distress of the pandemic, female artists have produced a significant body of work. Examining only the artists in this piece, Saraf's drawings became part of her Citizen Z series, Acharya produced two series that have been lauded as some of her best work yet, Chitrakar created a large body of Patachitra paintings and songs that for the first time reference a pandemic and Haidar's series has been a key piece of her practice. However, what makes their art even more important at a time like this is that it is made under the burden of societal pressures, mental anxiety and pressing family needs - a truly unique female experience of this very significant time in history.


To borrow Galeano's words, if the past indeed holds the key to the present, what lessons will the creative women of the pandemic hold for us tomorrow?

The women, those that worked only once their children were asleep, or in the bits of time between meeting the needs of their families, stand in silent sisterhood with the rest of us, filling us with a pressing need to 'do something,' urging us to find those bits of time and make them count. Their battles of the year past were hard-won, as ours will be, but when we look back at images from this period, it won't just be the distress and anguish that they will stand for, but their triumph in being able to create that will stay with us.

About the author

Shivani is an independent writer and art advisor and runs @the.artinsider.

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