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Initially, Giselle Amantea worked in ceramics. She then began creating large installation works best described as mixed-media tableaux, combining ceramic objects with tables, shelves, flocked wallpaper, found objects and fanciful architectural elements. In her 1988 essay, Jamelie Hassan described Amantea’s studio as being like an archaeologist’s lab, “… piled with boxes upon boxes of fragments of history awaiting the laborious, time-consuming processes of repeated activities: cleaning, sorting, identifying.” (Hassan, 1988)
The materials that Amantea chooses come from everyday life, often referring to the domestic arena, which is the site of family life. Her feminist art practice is concerned with memory and with exploring and questioning the social and cultural norms that have defined femininity.
One example of her interest in personal histories of women is her installation A Daily Record. For this work Amantea scanned, digitized and printed pages from a series of notebooks written by a woman who had lived in an industrial city in southern Ontario. Her children only discovered the notebooks after the woman’s death.
“The beauty of the hand-written page,” Amantea wrote in her artist statement for the show, “including the crossing out of duties and events, is moving and strongly connotes labor conducive to a woman of her age, social class and cultural circumstances in Canada.” (Amantea, 2006)
With Mabel k., from the MacKenzie Art Gallery collection, Gisele Amantea presents us not with hundreds of notebook pages, as in her installation, A Daily Record, but one page of a handwritten letter.
The letter, written in red ink, with a red-flocked border, is about a quarrel between two women. The writer of the letter, Mabel, doesn’t articulate the precise cause of the quarrel. “I hear that you was angry on me and I didn’t do nothing …” it begins. The quarrel is apparently a difference of opinion over someone named Alfred, although what this difference of opinion refers to is difficult to tell.
In Mabel k. Amantea has given us a glimpse into a very private matter. She uses red flocking and reproduces the letter in red ink, alluding to the anger of those involved. By framing this decades-old letter she also raises a private quarrel between two people in Delisle, Saskatchewan, into a commentary about how anger can be found in all places, and in all eras of history.
What is written in the letter, however, leaves us hanging. We are left to imagine our own scenario for the meeting of the two women on Saturday night, and what might result from that encounter. Amantea also leaves it up to us to fill in the details of the relationships involving the letter writer, the woman the letter is addressed to, and Alfred.
In titling this work, Amantea left the first letter of Mabel’s surname in lower case. We capitalize the first letters of names to indicate that names are important and unique.
- By using lower case letters, do you think Amantea was suggesting Mabel’s situation is more universal?
One of the ways we understand any creative work is by how and whether we “connect” with the work; that we care about what the work is about and take the time to explore its meanings.
- What does your reaction to Mabel k. tell you about your estimation of the work?
The following words have been used to describe Amantea’s work: narrative, women, class, history, memory.
- How do these words apply to Mabel k?
- Does this artwork tell us something about the state of women’s education in 1940s (the date of the letter)?
In many cultures, women were often forbidden to read and write, as well as restricted from participating in higher forms of education (such as university). This still occurs in some parts of the world.
In the 19th century, women in China invented a secret language to communicate to each other. The language called Nushu stayed secret between women for thousands of years. Women hid messages and poems as part of embroideries on clothing, fans and special bridal cloth books. To read more about this secret language, explore the following websites:
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