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  • K. Johnson Bowles

My Love/Hate Relationship with Lace

No Accident (Power), 2020, mixed media assemblage, 18 x 18 x 3 inches. (by K. Johnson Bowles)

When my Masters-in-critical-gender-studies degree-holding daughter wants to insult me, she’ll say, “Mom, you’re so first wave.” Her in-joke effectively cuts me to my core. Whatever the argument was, I’ve lost it. The reference to suffragists of the 19th and 20th centuries calls me out on old ways of thinking. I have to laugh at her clever slam.

After I admit to her being right, I can’t help but deliver a mini-lecture on why I’m a late second wave, early third wave, and late-comer fourth wave feminist. I was first female to do this or that in the 1970s and 1980s. Exhibitions of my artworks about gender, sexuality, and religion were met with protest in the 1990s. The list continues. My motherly, feminist duty is to tell the story of the past, push forward, and encourage the next wave.

A part of my story as a feminist artist is a love/hate relationship with lace. Yes, lace. I hate it for second-generation reasons: Equality was expressed by what we wore (or didn’t wear). It signified access to roles and leadership. I love it for third-generation reasons. Again, equality was expressed by what we wore (or didn’t wear). It signified sexual politics, expression of identity, and sex-positivity. I also love lace for fourth wave reasons as a vehicle to speak out against the abuse of power by the privileged. Straddling waves of feminist thought is fraught.

Through the eyes of a second-generation feminist, being a woman for my mother’s and my former mother-in-law’s generation meant playing a particular role as passive, soft, compliant, chaste, and subservient to the patriarchy. They wore clothing restricting movement (girdles, bras, dresses, high heels), symbolizing a lack of opportunity and freedom of movement in socio-economic terms. Covering the body in modest and discrete ways was a reminder of a woman’s dehumanization as an object to be owned. Frilly, flowery, and pastel-colored fabrics were assigned to women to signify expected comportment. As a girl, I remember my mother wearing lace veils to church and insisting I wear dresses, patent leather shoes with lace-trimmed socks. It annoyed me. I wanted to play outside, run through the woods, climb trees, and play sports with my sister. These attitudes made me furious, and, thus, I equate certain materials with the performance of a gender binary. Lace annoys me. I loathe lace.

On the other hand, lace’s association with women’s sexuality endures. During the third wave, I subscribed to the anti-pornography, anti-sex worker philosophy, believing it signified subjugation and objectification. This belief led to an even greater hatred for lace and its association with sex for hire, prostitution, and the male gaze. I spent a great deal of time considering identity. What roles are women permitted to play relative to the body? Were there only three? Saint, mother, whore? My artwork in the late 1980s and 1990s was about sexual empowerment and owning one’s body. It was the kind of art that included imagery of me giving birth to myself, enshrining birth control as an indicator of individual freewill, and exploring how clothing associated with cultural rituals assigns identity.

By the fourth wave (and thanks to fourth wavers like my daughter), I’ve come to champion sex-positivity by eschewing the practice of shaming women through terms like slut, whore, and bimbo. I also lament what I didn’t know but know now, including the failure of the first wave to be inclusive and the failure of the second and third wave to fully embrace and champion LGBTQ+ rights. Through these complex dialogues over the decades, I continue to learn, seek a greater understanding of intersectionality, and continue the work we all need to do for greater equality. It fuels me to be even more focused on calling out abuses of power and privilege.

Using lace is the perfect vehicle for what I convey in my latest body of work, Veronica’s Cloths. While this body of work is not about a particular religious belief or canon, the series title takes its name from the St. Veronica legend. It is said Veronica wiped Christ’s face with her veil during his journey carrying the cross. The image of his face miraculously left an impression on the cloth – a haunting of trauma and pain. Veronica’s Cloths explores the residual nature of physical and emotional trauma in the contemporary context of my experience as a cisgender straight woman. The works represent flashes in the mind’s eye and suggest a drama of violation, loss, anger, grief, pain, and shame.

Several years ago, I experienced threats, assault, and discrimination in the workplace. And after reporting these experiences, I was met with retaliation and defamation. I’ve been fighting back ever since. During a long grueling legal battle that continues, the experience is trauma on top of trauma as I have to tell my story over and over again and, thus, relive each painful moment. It is a bloody war of words as cutting as swords piercing flesh. Make no mistake about it; in cases like this, the defendants want to destroy and wear-down the plaintiff. On this battlefield, I’ve often wondered if I had the strength to go on – physically, emotionally, and financially. But I found strength and resolve in lace; that is, making art that incorporates lace. Art is my suit of armor; lace is my chainmail.

Works in the series, Veronica’s Cloths, are assemblages hand-sewn on to vintage handkerchiefs. On the one hand, the incorporated lace appears pretty, happy, and appealing, but lace in my work also functions like chainmail’s deceptively strong metal mesh. Lace visually lures the viewer into looking closer and closer. After all, lace is seemingly delicate, fragile, and represents no danger as a female stereotype’s performance. Then, with piqued curiosity, the viewer is ambushed in my work’s uncanny valley. I reveal the ugly truths about sexism and discrimination by juxtaposing lace with unexpected images, words, and phobia-laden materials. The work’s content and materials may seem silly and funny at first glance, but there’s always truth in humor. These works are a survivor’s bitch-slap, a wake-up call, and a demand for justice.

The work pictured above, No Accidents (Power), represents a statement about gender performance, existence, power, and consent. The piece argues via the embodied lace (as female) does not exist to be touched and kissed by the embodied penis-shaped series of lips (as male). The snake represents temptation, and the false logic of the defense “boys will be boys.” The hummingbird (as male) and the flower (as female) also represent the faulty logic of nature being void of agency and consent. No person “asks for it” by simply existing and being in the world. The wasps represent the sting of pain, as well as a call for waking up to abuses in power. Assault is about power, subjugation, and violence—not sex and attraction. The letters “FU” have both real meaning (as a curse used to express anger during conflict) and the implication associated with font style (an abbreviation for an institution or place). The lace also literally and figuratively frames the drama of inequality and an imbalance of power.

And now, for all the reasons I once hated lace, I love lace. For me, lace symbolizes the continuum of identity, empowerment, agency, and defying stereotypes of gender performance. Lace is not a part of a dualism – good or bad, weak or strong, female or male, passive or aggressive, pretty or ugly. It defies a particular performance. In fighting with lace, I fight for lace. Lace is my shield, weapon, and armor of choice in the fourth wave battle.

Words by K. Johnson Bowles

Art by K. Johnson Bowles

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