Women, fire and dangerous objects

Friday, 07 February 2014 13:22 Written by Carla Rippey
I recently read that in the endangered language of an aborigine group in Australia, one of the genders consists of women, fire and dangerous objects. This appealed to me because it comprised all the elements I have explored in my production. Women are indeed a constant presence in my images, and though they generally look vulnerable, at times they appear brandishing dangerous objects, notably a half-naked woman-child with a whip and boots, which I drew when I was five years old. In another drawing, when I was 30, a women in a bathing costume is shooting Guernica, to the consternation of certain admirers of Picasso. For many years I have collected images of volcanoes and immolations (both self-inflicted and by lynching), as well as scenes involving persons with fire (such as young Palestinians with Molotov cocktails) I then learnt about the aforementioned language, and began to use this collected material to create artist books.
I then realized that it would be interesting to work with the implications of grouping those three powerful words, and carry out more systematic research into women, fire and dangerous objects. I always work with archive images, generally archives of my own invention, but this time I decided to use the immense archive of the Internet and therefore made Google searches using the words “women”, “fire” and “dangerous objects”. The result was some very interesting and unexpected material.
‘Dangerous objects’ included references to meteorites and a series of X-ray images documenting the hazardous and unusual objects found in both human bodies and animals. Among the women that it produced was one of a young Chinese woman suffering from chronic pain, in whose body were found over 20 needles that her grandparents had stabbed into her since she was a child, wishing to kill her so that a son could be born to replace her. I also began to ask friends and relatives for suggestions on possible dangerous objects, and look for the objects that they suggested on Internet.
In the case of women and fire, I found endless evidence of a practice in India of using the open stoves of traditional kitchens to burn unwanted daughters-in-law or wives, to then secure a better dowry. In my collection of persons immolating themselves, which features both men and women, there were cases of monks who set themselves alight for political reasons, but those that surprised me most were those that resorted to it after being denied permission to open a business or oppose an eviction. Whenever I was asked "What are you preparing?", my response produced other possibilities, such as self-combustion, of which I have just found a case in the novel Bleak House by Charles Dickens. I am now listening to an audio-book version, one of my strategies to avoid boredom when working.
Until now I have been working with very limited information regarding the source of the concept of women, fire and dangerous objects. I suddenly received on my blog, on which I had spoken about my project, a comment on the linguist George Lakoff, who published in the 1980s a book called Women, Fire and Dangerous Things, apparently related to this Aborigine language. I searched for the book (online, obviously) and discovered in its preface (courtesy of Amazon) that it indeed dealt with the same language, called Dyirbal. According to another website, in that language each name is preceded by one of four classifiers: Bayi, Balan, Balam, or Bala. Balan includes women, fire and certain kinds of weapon, such as lances, the sun and stars, peculiar animals such as the platypus, certain insects such as scorpions and glow worms, some snakes, dogs, almost all birds and water. In R.M.W. Dixon’s analysis, the categories can be simplified as follows: Bayi applies to man and the majority of animals, Balan to women, water, fire and fighting, Balam to non-meat food and Bala, to everything not included in the other categories.
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