THE DEATH OF THE SHAYKHA

A Eulogy for Louise Bourgeois

While I was drawing in my studio in the early hours of June 1 2010 with the radio on, the last item on the news stopped me in my tracks. It said that on the day before 31 May 2010 the great – and oldest – artist Louise Bourgeois, had departed life peacefully in her sleep from a heart attack. And before I knew it, the newsreader finished his paragraph by saying that Louise Bourgeois was an inspirational figure for feminism and feminist art.

I felt a bit upset for two reasons, firstly and mainly of course, the fact that Louise Bourgeois was dead, I would not draw for half an hour, or I didn’t want to. I felt personally that the death of Louise Bourgeois deserves that we all put down our pens and brushes and bow our heads for a few minutes.

The other thing that upset me slightly was that final statement about Louise Bourgeois and “Feminist” art and “feminism”. Louise Bourgeois herself refused to accept the label in her lifetime. As well, I felt that the statement somehow denied me (and other male artists) Louise Bourgeois’s influence. I also felt offended for Louise Bourgeois, when the BBC managed to reduce her 98 years of life and work into an “ism” that came into being so late in her lifetime.

What made the whole thing much more painful came later on the 10 pm news. In reporting the death, the BBC decided to choose Tracy Emin to mourn Louise Bourgeois, despite the existence of many female and male artists whose life and works could actually be related to that of Louise Bourgeois. Artists such as Paula Rego, or the sculptors Nicola Hicks or Cornelia Parker to name a few….

Yet out of all British artists they picked Tracy Emin. Now I personally know 3 things about Tracy Emin: I know what her bed looks like, I know the names of some people she slept with and I know that she’s one of the most artistically talentless individuals in this business, yet who has been pumped up by 21st century media branding.

Actually, I digress; I don’t want to talk about Tracy Emin.

To be honest with you I hate the notion of art associated with any type or sect. Terms like “feminist” art, “Black art”, gay art etc – what do they actually mean (and by the way, I write this as someone who is not “white”) ? To me art is art and there are only two kinds: art, and bullshit passed as art.

Art is one of those things where the identity of the artist and the identity of the audience really is totally irrelevant. Do we really when we look at a Bacon or a Michelangelo, think “How gay or straight is that art work?” Even though sure, we know that both artists were gay.

The power of artists such as Louis Armstrong, Ray Charles, James Brown and Stevie Wonder is that they made people from different colours dance together in the same room, defying the social segregation that existed at the time. But it was their work that did it; it was powerful enough to move people.

But enough of that; I really want to talk about Louise Bourgeois. On the night Louise Bourgeois died, I found myself jumping to Google images and typing “ Louise Bourgeois”. I found enormous numbers of pictures ranging from a very young Louise Bourgeois in her early years of studying, copying a classical Graeco-Roman head, right through to portraits of Louise Bourgeois the shaykha, the Witch-In-Chief, the woman with the scary eyes that only someone like Picasso had. Eyes that say “I know it all; I’ve seen it all; I’ve done it all. And you will never know what I know, unless you work as much as I’ve worked, and live as long as I’ve lived.” I did a right click and saved this picture as my desktop background.

I just called Louise Bourgeois a “shaykha .” (Arabic: شيخة‎). What is that? In the part of the world where I come from, it’s a word coming from the root “shaikukha” which means “old age.” It’s an Arabic word used to mean the eldest member of whatever social group, a person that all the community highly respected. It’s part of a broad “eastern” tradition of elder wisdom that stretches all the way to Japan. It’s important to understand that the concept of Shaykh (male) or Shaykha (female) is not associated to either religion or gender. The shaykh of the fishermen is the eldest of the fishermen, etc. The main thing that makes the expertise of the shaykha special is that they have seen too much; if you make it to 90 for example you’ve witnessed several whole generations – that’s a lot of wisdom.

Officially, Louise Bourgeois was the shaykha for all artists on the planet.

This morning I started to talk to my partner about the subject and I couldn’t help but bring up the subject of the BBC bringing Tracy Emin. We both agreed that it was inappropriate. That’s when my partner (who is a feminist) started to tell me her memories of seeing the Louise Bourgeois exhibitions at the Tate. Unfortunately I didn’t see them as I wasn’t in London at the time, but she did (she also saw one in Berlin), lucky her. I’ll bet that seeing an artist like Louise Bourgeois filling the Tate was such an inspirational and life changing experience to any female – and male! – artist. Even more, knowing that the work on show was much of it produced by a woman in her 90s would make any decent artist feel a mixture of aspiration, humility, jealousy and shame. The same kind of feeling you get when you see Michelangelo’s David and you learn that he made that when he was just 26 years old. Aspiration, humility, jealousy and shame.

My partner told me about some of the works she saw at the Tate which made a strong impact on her.

“I didn’t go the show because Louise Bourgeois was female, I went because she’s a great artist, but yes I was fascinated by her explorations of the female world and female point of view. I also saw that she struggled with this and its relevant dichotomies throughout her life and that’s something I can relate to. Woman as nurturer and woman as also needing to be nurtured. Female sexuality and the fact that women can be evil and betray one another.

I loved the most her perfect marbles, the infinitely smooth works that she polished and polished until they became something celestial, yet they were all sculptures connected to the body, to life in all its messiness. Such a wonderful transformational of stone to flesh and back again.

I was particularly interested on one piece, called Filette.

Filette by Louise Bourgeois 1968

At first I saw that it was a penis and balls and I thought, ‘Oh no, not dicks’ since I had seen that done to death – either laughing at penises or execrating them – and was frankly sick of it and I thought ‘when will women grow up?’ but then I looked again and it was marvellous. Monumental yet fragile; proud yet vulnerable. Then I read the accompanying text (I rarely do this but was glad I did) Bourgeois talks about how she considered “the masculine attributes to be extremely delicate; they’re objects that the woman, thus myself, must protect.” She also noted that “everything I loved had the shape of the things around me – the shape of my husband, the shape of the children [all sons]. So when I wanted to represent something I loved, I obviously represented a little penis.” (Bourgeois, Tate catalogue 2007) It’s amazing but this piece is the “other half” of all the “phallic” architectures and attitudes that we see around us. It’s the “other half. Instinctually, I think, Bourgeois understood Jung’s idea of the anima and animus and her work really explores that.”

My partner also noted that one thing about all the Louise Bourgeois shows, was that the widest gathering of the public was there. Louise Bourgeois, like Picasso, brings everybody regardless of race, age and lifestyle. Everybody is there, paying a ticket. Unlike the narrow slices of “arty” audience you see in most galleries, especially in London.

That’s because real art is like water. You need it. It’s not elitist anymore than water is elitist. It’s needed by everybody, all humans. Culture is not elitist. Elites can use it, and abuse it, but art itself is not elitist.

Louise Bourgeois could be an inspiration to a lot of women, who identify themselves as feminist or not. But she’s an artist who is inspirational full stop – inspirational to everybody regardless of gender.

An artist is always an open potential, right up until the artist dies. So now with the death of Louise Bourgeois we have been handed a sealed and complete portfolio with the face of Louise Bourgeois on the cover pointing at us and saying “Which one of you, man or woman, can match THAT?”

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About nazirtanbouli

British-Egyptian artist Nazir Tanbouli works in drawing, painting, book art and mural. He is based in London.
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