The monumental quilt, She Called Herself Olympia, is a contemporary ode to the Odalisque figure with an empowering twist. This project speaks to women’s bodies as socially and politically contested spaces amidst the context of the Trump administration and also the powerful voices of the #metoo movement.
Historically, the word odalisque was used to describe a chambermaid or female servant. As the history of the word evolved and travelled through Europe it came to mean a concubine or mistress. Throughout art history, it is usually seen as a white, often fleshy female nude, reclined with a coy offset gaze or a direct gaze of seduction. This figure is an object of consumption for the intended straight, male gaze.
The composition of She Called Herself Olympia directly references iconic composition of painter Édouard Manet’s Olympia. Manet empowers the figure by giving the odalisque a sense of agency in her confident air and more protective hand gesture. The painting shocked French critics and the public when it was displayed at the 1865 Paris Salon, not because it was a depiction of a prostitute but because she confronted the assumed straight, male viewer. This type of female power continues to threaten accepted structures of power.
The figure in Fox’s quilt itself is a collage of gender and biology—a male chimpanzee, mushroom breasts, a lion’s roaring face, and shells, all signifying her complex gender. Her posture and expression indicate a female in total control and comfort in her own body. She seduces herself on a bed of gemstones and is no one’s object. Her body and sexuality are reclaimed.
The figure to the left is also a reference from Manet’s Olympia painting. She is transformed in this work from servant to observer. An angelic figure with shell wings and folded hands, she is a young girl unsure of her future in the world.
The hanging, shelled spiders tie in with San Antonio’s own history of prostitution. In 1817 the first recorded instance of prostitution took place in San Antonio, when nine Spanish speaking prostitutes were expelled from San Fernando de Bexar (what is now San Antonio). The word “araña” literally means spider, but is an old Mexican slang term for prostitutes. Groups of working women on a street might have been referred to as a group of “arañas” or “arañitas.”
Through a series of workshops led by the artist, community members will add embroidered elements to the quilt, serving as a gesture of empowerment for everyone who participates. The materials, execution, and placement of the quilt are of great importance to its feminist message. The piece is embroidered and quilted—materials and forms traditionally the domain of women. Considered craft, these skills have been given less importance than painting historically. These boundaries have been broken down by artists like Tracey Emin and Ghada Amer, but are pushed even further by the mural-size scale of this piece.