Female Archetypes, Alive!

Jane and Kimberly speculate on the larger impact of women bringing their private, inner experience of female archetypes into public view in everyday life and art. They call it “Looking For Something New.”

JAS and KC: Before we begin, a squib about archetypes.  Archetypes are conventionally thought of as actualities but C.G. Jung saw them as patterns in flux, drawn from an ever-changing collective unconscious and affected by the evolving consciousness of individuals.  Making up our lives, we are important contributors to what we’ve inherited. 

KC: We talk a lot about the archetypal here at Double Mirror.  Especially about how historical feminine archetypes shape us as human beings and our gender influenced identities, the way we see ourselves and the way we’re seen. Recently, we’ve been asking ourselves some big questions about how artists enter into that process. 

KC and JAS: What are the consequences of contemporary women artists being inspired by historical archetypes? We see them taking from the past and reworking feminine images like mother, wife, daughter, etc. to reflect a modern sense of themselves. Are they also evolving the line between the old and the new, shaping fresh cultural archetypes as well as individual female identities? As we’ve been talking, we’ve been on the lookout for artists who are working the line, merging their art-making with the making of identity and then, possibly, evolving female archetypes as well as a personal sense of self.

KC: One brilliant find has been the African-American artist, Kenyata Hinkle. When I finally found a photo of Kenyata Hinkle, I was delighted. She LOOKS like one of the subjects of her own work. She is not only pulling from past influences and female ephemera that excites her enough to make art, but she’s also becoming the woman that she creates in her paintings. She is not presenting the imaginary and the ideal, she is presenting us a version of her world, her experience, and stepped into that world. Rather than just processing through her artwork, she is living her work and being her work. She isn’t looking in the fashion magazine for an eye-shadow to wear, she is painting that corner of her eye a striking fluorescent green because it carries a line for her that weaves all the female influences she’s pulled on throughout her life and it has become a part of who she now is. Yet she is entirely contemporary. She isn’t mimicking a “type” of woman; she’s proudly becoming and unfolding every moment before us. How fun is that! And how liberating!  

JAS: As an artist, Kenyata is merging history with today and bringing that alive for us, exactly addressing the archetypal as well as the personal. We’re seeing women like Kenyata Hinkle not only making hidden aspects of their own personal identities visible but also influencing the female archetypes you and I are living with. When artists like Hinkle and actresses like Daisy Ridley playing modern female characters like Rey in Star Wars enter the cultural zeitgeist, it’s likely they are injecting a new feminine presence into the culture at large. They’re feminizing the world in which we live, enlivening a feminine presence and, we’re guessing, bringing us more into balance with the masculine.

Also, can’t we imagine that an Internet visualizing new female images so quickly also brings them intensely into our lives and adds new dimensions of the feminine affecting the culture? The activation of a feminine identity created by women in touch with their core female sense of self may be changing feminine archetypes and adding a more clear, less elusive feminine presence to everyday life.  Seeing, listening to and reading women’s stories emerging from “her” experience rather than “his” perspective on a regular basis holds promise for a balance of what is symbolically referred to as yin yang, feminine and masculine forces in the universe.  It’s a lot of speculating, I know but I love exploring this with you.

KC: We can watch what Kenyata is doing.  She’s using archetypal figures drawn from the black female culture and superimposing her personal life on them in such a way that they blend and form a new vision of black female experience. For example, in one series, she paints detailed drawings of herself on top of photographs of ancient women in the jungle. In another, she merges historical fiction capturing the story of a woman of color who was a pivotal figure during the Salem Witch Trials with her own pregnancy experiences. She transforms the two into an embodiment of conflict between the foreignness and familiarity of being a woman in which a woman’s life and body have been heavily co-opted by the perceptions and projections of others.

JAS: As women have become aware that their own interior views of themselves have been co-opted, artist or not, they’ve turned their attention to the process of making themselves up as they go along. They’re deliberately drawing from within themselves now, using something like C.G. Jung identified as active imagination to create art and themselves. Like Hinkle who is changing her appearance in real time to be more in accordance with her inner discoveries, women are creating more self, less persona. As Kenyata experiences flux and potential in herself, she is finding ways to express a very complicated experience.  Persona is known as a mask covering, an adapted presentation of self, not expressing a woman’s true self. If we’re on the right track, what women artists, writers, filmmakers, etc. like Hinkle are doing is a very big thing.  Their visions of a deep interiority is coming forward and establishing a new base line. What we may be seeing in the created characters and stories of women by women is an infusion from the true woman’s self into female personhood that hasn’t really happened before. Think of a woman’s experience that’s been ridden with shame from being shamed being transformed in visceral detail. Kenyata Hinkle certainly seems like an example of an artist dismantling a mask into multiple expressions of herself.  

KC: The true self lies below and is knocking on our doors to let it out. It doesn’t surprise me that the female artists would be the early adopters of opening that door. But what I like the most is that this idea of women being and presenting their true selves to the world is becoming more accepted. I love our archetypes but I think they may have been limiting in the past as we saw so much of our culture turn into a forum for stereotype: the jilted lover, the mad woman, the sexual temptress, the prostitute. Yet, what is exciting me about artists like Hinkle, are the possibilities they open up to remind us that we are complex and convoluted beings and ever-changing in our very own femininity.

JAS: Good point. Look at the singer Madonna. She co-opted the culture’s view of the female and put it out there and, in effective, said, ‘listen, if this is what it is, then let me benefit from it’. She walked down the street naked for that Sex book, becoming the nymph waif. She symbolically embodied the beloved Madonna and fascinating Whore archetypes and turned them inside out. She’s acted out various tropes for us in a very radical way very early on in the conversation about what women want. But now, women are breaking away from traditional archetypes, breaking away from even acting out their opposites. They’re presenting a new sense of being female.  When I wrote about Clarice Starling as a feminine hero in The Silence of the Lambs, I showed how she used her deeply feminine qualities – intuition and relationship sensitivities for example –as strengths that were up to the greatest challenges of evil in the universe.  I was pointing toward a change in the archetype of Hero as the feminine became active in society.  It wasn’t just a shift in gender from male to female but from solely masculine to a mixed feminine-masculine symbol of Hero.

Reclining Figure 1939 Henry Moore OM, CH 1898-1986 Transferred from the Victoria & Albert Museum 1983 http://www.tate.org.uk/art/work/T03761

KC: I am reminded here of direct carving; a genre in art history that I have been writing about lately. In the 1900s, sculptors were used to the complicated planning of a sculpture, a team of assistants to carry it out, lots of strategies, and mathematics. But artists like Gaugin went to exotic locals and fell in love with the primitive art they found and they began to introduce direct carving into the art lexicon. Basically, they championed the idea of taking a piece of wood and intuitively carving it to see what emerged. It was about feeling the material from within and coaxing its truth out from within. That’s what I like about what artists like Hinkle and others are doing. They are looking around for what they like, they are retaining what called to them as women growing up in this world, they are combining all of this for themselves and discovering their own expression and what it looks and feels like.

JAS: Carving a sense of self has a nice ring to it. For sure, women carve, create music and dance as well as paint themselves into truer selves. Made by hand takes on new meaning. Seriously, I think you’re referring to core qualities being brought forward in a piece of wood or in a person and, in particular regarding what we’re talking about, in a woman.  Our perspectives of the archetype known as Woman are changing from outside to inner, from being seen from the outside as object or projection to seeing with women as we see ourselves.  It’s an evolving, interactive process.  The more women do it, the more they’re seen and the more their inner view affects the outer view in the culture, the more whole becomes our vision of women. For instance, the changeability of women that has so long been judged as a problem is being reframed as a resourceful ability to be adaptive.  Like in the movie, Maiden, the all female crew shifted their tactics on the basis of intuition and won two segments of the Whitbread Round the World Race in 1989!  In terms of what we’re talking about, a cultural shift was set off by the unheard of act of women entering the race and furthered by their amazing accomplishment being turned into a movie. We could say they changed the female archetype to include ‘competitive spirit’. The idea of women expressing so many different, unexpected aspects of themselves is – almost – no longer a surprise.

KC: We have lots of different sides and cycles.

JAS:  The acceptance of multiplicity as a healthy characteristic in personal identity is new. Women have traditionally been blamed for their mutability but now that we’re owning it, consistency is being questioned as a norm and increasingly being seen as good for some goals, not so good for others.  It’s becoming a characteristic, not a definition that disqualifies women as viable members of a society that – again as I end with in my Feminine Hero of The Silence of the Lambs essay – desperately needs them. 

KN: Yeah, who made that rule anyway?

JAS: Well, we know who did. But now, we are getting to choose who we are, what we say, and how we act in the world. It’s a big step forward for women and a huge step into the unknown.  I guess that’s why I liked the ending of Zhang Yimou’s film, Shadow, where the wife of the deposed, patriarchal King and Commander, is peeking out through a crack in the door to see what will happen as the new Commander, to whom she has taught her secret of feminine power, takes over as King.  

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