I met Maya in Hungary’s National Gallery. We could be sisters except that Maya’s wooden, with multi-layered wrappings of sheer, linen-like, fabric.
But she looked like I felt – open and vulnerable to the world. She stands motionless on a dark pedestal, eyes closed and arms tucked neatly under her gossamer layered clothing and a floor length veil. The deep gash slicing the middle of her abdomen accentuated her composed resistance and beauty. Maya’s beauty is her impassive resolve; not some sexualized social construct or aesthetic definition of female power.
Maya is the 1978 creation of artist Gyula Pauer, whose surrealist and theatrical sculptures have undertones like the performance art of Marina Abramovic. I featured Marina in an earlier WomanScape article about “Tearing Down Walls.” Both artists invite audiences into an illusionist world, inviting us to identify more personally with the social concerns of our time.
Despite her age, Maya is a relevant and timeless social commentary. She precedes New York’s Fearless Girl on Wall Street art (defiant Latin girl in the face of a charging bull) by Kristen Visbal. Fearless Girl made headlines in early 2017 yet both Maya and the girl capture an attitude and the complex ways we are affected by society’s shortcomings. They also speak to our perceptions about our place and role within this broader society, especially with issues like gender parity and stereotyping.
In this way, Pauer’s figure is purposefully misleading and ageless, when you consider the deceptively badass power of women.
When I first saw Maya in the National Gallery in Budapest, I was staying at the Greshem hotel where Melissa McCarthy filmed parts of the blockbuster hit, Spy. I could see the National Gallery in the top left corner of this photo that I took from my hotel room; it had a spectacular view overlooking the Danube River.
Maya’s exterior mirrors that of Melissa’s character, Susan. Susan is a homey, secretary-type CIA agent who is forced to work behind a desk. Her appearance suggests she is weak and incapable of being a field agent. Movie watchers learn, however, that Susan was a stellar CIA rookie with amazing performance results in the training program. Her true physical strength and agility are kept hidden under her intelligence, and Susan is rewarded by making agents in the field look good. That is, until her unassuming character is forced to reveal her humble but kick-ass self. This same quiet feminist statement rings true in our modern world for fear we’ll be labeled.
Maybe our progress has stalled? My vision of Maya’s psyche and the duality of our existence in the world seems to be moving mainstream. I’m not so sure this is a good thing, even though it helps build awareness for and among women. Companies and organizations realize the power of their advertising messages that target our status, but they’re also utilizing this emotional pull for increased sales.
Just look at the popularity of Dove soap or Pantene hair product campaigns.
Dove soap appeals to the #MyBeautyMySay and Pantene hair products say #ShineStrong when they tell us it’s time to stop worrying and apologizing. They recognize women want to be seen as attractive and confident, even if society labels them provocative and bossy. Nothing new here.
Unlike art, however, these ads also commercialize our emotional frustration. I’d like to know how many of these companies are investing profits from these campaigns to improve women’s status and social practices of discrimination? Sure, it’s good to know someone is listening when companies like Always sanitary napkins tell us they understand, but what are they actually doing to help women? You can bet someone is making money when 64 million people watch #LikeAGirl champion stereotypes or the #WhipIt Pantene commercial seen by over 1 million viewers. Pantene is even segmenting its female audience to improve their target marketing: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_xYsvcKfq8E
Looking back two years to the day that I met Maya, and the impression that she made, I am more powerful. The old me who walked through the marketplace in Budapest, admiring pictures of Margaret Thatcher, would not be so startled by the uniformed woman who tapped on my shoulder in rapid morse-like code when I started taking pictures of Maya.
Today, I would not apologize to the guard questioning the sticker pressed to my chest. My sticker gave me permission to take pictures for a few extra Forints. The new me would say nothing. I would simply stand like Maya, self-assured and stoic.