Who where your foremothers

Guðrún Erla Geirsdóttir
Catalogue in conjunction with exhibition "Patterns of the family" at Reykjanes art museum, Keflavík, Iceland

The works in Erla’s exhibition are mostly paintings, inspired by old photographs. In her exhibition Patterns of the Family, she works, in part, with old photographs taken during a roughly forty year period. The earliest photographs in the collection were taken in 1910, with the latest ones from the mid 1950s. In the photos ladies from her family pose, wearing the Icelandic national costume. The background used in the works refers to a cultural heritage of women from South Africa, namely, Ndebele patterns, that are solely created by women. Patterns that have taken on very few changes throughout time. Thereby the artist bases her work on the cultural worlds of women from very different places – the far north and south are put in juxtaposition. Other works by Erla show patterns and images from Íslenska teiknibókin (2013), a book that displays drawings used as models for embroidery patterns by Icelandic ladies in a bygone era. In these, the subject embraced is the world of women; images of women, letters and drawings women used in their handicrafts.

Erla has lived in Berlin for over a decade. She grew up in Sweden, where she studied art, along with her art studies in the United States. Throughout her career Erla has spent time in art residencies at different locations in the world, including South Africa. The works on display were produced, in part, because of Erla Sylvía‘s interest in looking at her roots; studying her foremothers and female relatives. Exploring the images, the viewer gets an opportunity to study the family likeness, comparing facial features, noses, eyes, etc. The South African patterns found in many of the works serve the purpose of introducing the cult-ural heritage of women from different continents. They also remind us that presently we belong to a world village where it is essential that different cultural spheres can work in unison. By showing images of her foremothers in Icelandic costumes Erla refers to her origin. In images presented by travellers in Iceland from the 18th and 19th century one often sees ladies wearing costumes that are beautifully decorated with embroidery. During this time, contact with the outside world increased, which had the effect that styles from abroad took over and the local style of clothing began to disappear.

In the fight for independence it was essential to give the nation a sense of the national and the sublime. The idea being that this would lead to the self respect of the nation and an understanding that the Icelandic nation had a duty to gain independence. In order to spread the national pride, women began wearing costumes strongly resembling clothes worn by their foremothers and thereby visibly took part in the fight for independence. Ever since that time the Icelandic national costume has remained the pride of Icelandic women and an important symbol of the national self-image. Even though women were able to make their mark on the battle for independence, they were lagging behind men when it came to equality. In her essay (A room of one’s own, 1927) Virginia Woolf makes the claim that men and women have different value systems. Men look down on the value system honoured by women and consider their artistic work and the subjects that interest them to be inferior. She points out that many women devour this masculine attitude towards women. Woolf’s writing was a contribution in the battle for equal rights of men and women, a battle that has since been broken down into waves. By the end of the sixties a second wave of feminism rose. At the forefront were women who considered the legal position (autonomy, the right to education and the right to vote), won during the first wave of feminism at the turn of the 20th century, to be insufficient. Women were being held down by their gender, and the roots of inequality lay in the construction
of society – women were disrespected and invisible in society.

An investigation into the contribution of women in society was needed, so that it could be made visible. This investigation included a study of women’s art and crafts, with a focus on feminine values. The outcome of the study showed that a wide variety of works had fallen outside the art scene, methods such as textile, ceramics and various other decorative art forms, and now finally achieved their deserved platform. The slogan of the second wave was the personal is political and in keeping with that slogan the distinctive experience of women inspired the works of many female artists. Over time the particular experience of women in the world has been accepted as a subject to be studied and valued. Certainly a lot of the source material used by Erla would not have been valued by the art scene before the second wave of feminism. Erla’s use of colour is personal, and in her work she applies methods shared by other conceptual artists, such as instructions, when making her art. Her methods are not dissimilar to what the artist Yoko Ono puts forth in her book Grapefruit (1964), instructions for specific conceptual works. The game rules Erla applies when creating figurative paintings are ambiguous, yet, they influence the final outcome on the canvas and the impact her works make on the viewer.