A Nubian woman is sitting in a rowboat with her knees drawn up. Water ripples under the bows in Arabic script. I wonder where she is going with her few goods tied in a cloth bag and a weight on her shoulders.
I’m standing in a gallery of Fathi Hassan’s paintings at the Williams College Museum of Art on the one night of the month when the museum stays open past 8 p.m. A young guide has just asked 10 of us whether art without meaning has a purpose, and I am at the farthest end of the spectrum saying “no.”
I explain, when she asks, that I want the artist to think and feel — that’s part of making — and give me something to think and feel. I don’t mean these paintings should make sense to me, but to the man who made them. If they mean something powerful to him, they will become powerful for me, and these are powerful. I would say the same thing about Georgia O’Keefe’s abstract “skunk Cabbage” flaming orange and blue across the hall.
Does the guide agree? I’m wondering now as I write this, because she is part of the Art Hack team, independent guides here to take us digging in the museum. And from where I stand, giving meaning is what they do.
I can hear the people around me that night saying “Really? In a risque Broadway-style send-up of Franz West with Mad libs? A pipe-cleanered wearable homage to tin-can telephones? An ugliest-selfie-with-early-American-portrait contest?”
Yes. Because the burlesque came along with a conversation about what it was like for West to live in Vienna after World War II, knowing that most of the people around him had probably supported the Nazis in silence if not in action. He grew up across the hall from his mother’s dentistry practice, where they didn’t use anaesthesia. Think of being a child with that kind of dislocation and tangible pain on all sides.
Our tour guide in this room said West wanted to protest against what he saw as rules in the art world: art had to mean one thing, and it was made by a genius who was usually male … But he is male, and his work is also frankly, comically, glaringly male. (I know what people in North Adams call those tall, bulbously pink pillars at Mass MoCA.)
He didn’t want people to feel distanced, confused and out of place when they saw his work, she said. He didn’t want to baffle people in galleries. But what he did was baffle people in galleries. He made shapes that had no meaning at all.
If I want people to feel connected to my work, I don’t give them meaninglessness. That’s exactly the arrogant, distancing tactic he disliked. I would give people something in the work to think or feel. I would give them something that meant something to me. In fact, I would want to give them what the Museum Hack team were giving me in their stories and games and music — and sheer excitement.
It felt good to laugh and banter with hashtags, and to have a lithe woman with dancing eyes and a you’ve-got-to-see-this excitement pull the group over to a miniature scene. I am still baffled by Franz West’s work, but I will remember the glimpse of him as a scared boy in a dingy hallway. And I’ll remember even more William Michael Harnett painting onions and a wooden pipe with a cream and amber bowl on a table top in Munich next to a folded copy of the Deutche Presse 1882. He painted with a photographic precision in the days when impressionism was hot. No wonder he liked newspapers.
The enthusiasm among these intelligent, laughing people filled the museum. And it gave me ways to slow down and absorb the artwork. In Fathi Hassan’s exhibit, paintings on paper glow with writing, black against white, gold against black, filling and forming shapes of distant hills, water falling over high barriers, a crescent moon.
In a silent kind of charades, I moved a group of people by touch into a tableau to suggest a word. A beautiful young woman with thick dark hair falling about her shoulders stood in the center, hands on her hips and feet planted firmly.
As our guide told us about Fathi Hassan’s childhood, growing up in a Nubian community respectful to women and at the same time in Egypt, in a city where women are hassled and shamed in the streets, I thought about our word — it was “matriarch.” It comes from the Latin, “mater,” mother, and Greek, “arkhes,” to begin, to command. A matriarch is a woman at the head of a family who descend from her, who grew in her.
In the beautiful flowing script on the wall I could trace a powerful woman guiding her family. She walked in the streets of Cairo past hissing men. She left her home when the Aswan dam flooded her village and had to resettle in a stone-paved Italian city. She was a student Facebooking angry, hopeful messages at the beginning the Arab spring.
As the guide talked I thought what a great job this is, to find these stories. Imagine having someone set you loose in a museum exhibit to find these solid, beautiful things, to fall in love with a painting and get people talking about it. What a great job. And then I thought, it’s mine too. Maybe they can teach me to do it better.