History Historical Badasses

Gertrude Stein, the queer feminist at the centre of the art movement

I first encountered Gertrude Stein through her avant-garde poetry in Tender Buttons, an evocative series of short poems that forced writing to its breaking point with sentences like: “Dirty is yellow. A sign of more is not mentioned.” I met her blindly, only through her words, yet I already fell for her eccentricity. I knew there was something wonderful behind the mind that put down on paper the bold tongue-in-cheek yet unbelievably serious statement, “A rose is a rose is a rose is a rose”. I just had to explore her art further. So I began scouring old journals and artist profiles to learn more about her. 

Little did I know that the radical art Stein created could almost be rivaled by the art that she nurtured in the artists around her. I found multiple sources that called her the ‘mother’ of modernism, but after getting to know more about her, I am sure that she would scoff at such a title. After all, she left the United States in 1903 to flee the pressures of gender norms. She was also bored with medical school and seeking an outlet to express her eccentric point of view, she settled down in Paris, where she intended to pursue a life free from heteronormativity. She opened a salon in her home for the world’s creative mind, including some of the world-renowned names such as Picasso, Matisse, Hemingway, and Fitzgerald. She was the voice of this ‘Lost Generation, the group of American expatriates flocking to Paris– and even coined the term.

The way I see it, she brought together these esteemed artists and in many ways, elevated them through her no-nonsense critique of their work. I had always internalized that a woman inspiring other artists (typically male artists) was a muse. That term is loaded, as there were often sexualized or romanticized elements typically tied to a muse. Instead, what I admired about Stein was that she was a mentor to the ‘greats’. I see her as a woman that had an undeniable presence in her time, respected by those around her. 

Nothing about her was conventional and she embraced her own strangeness, something that drew me to her further. Stein deserves the title of a trailblazer of the modernist period and of queer identity at the time. Stein’s essay Miss Furr and Miss Skeene were among the first story to be published about homosexual revelation, containing the first noted use of the word “gay” in published works to refer to same-sex relationships. She also hosted one of the first avant-garde exhibitions in the United States, funding it with the money she collected from her art dealerships. I have no doubt that every piece of art in the period has her fingerprint.

And she didn’t hesitate to acknowledge her accomplishments either. Stein didn’t believe that women must be modest, proudly proclaiming “I have been the creative literary mind of the century.” She never sold herself short, a habit I found myself doing as I presented my own poetry or other writing. I was still working with my own feelings of inferiority, belittling my stories as ‘just’ relevant to female-identifying communities. While she wrote about women and her partner, she didn’t restrict herself to writing women’s stories. I found it so refreshing to see her unabashed pride, as it reminded me to take hold of my own achievements and to be confident. No matter how unconventionally and ‘weirdly’ I experimented with my creativity, I learned that I could (and should) still demand to be taken seriously. 

Regardless of all this, I don’t think she should be idolized. I often like to give powerful women in difficult situations the benefit of the doubt, as do most of the historians and writers that grapple with creating a retrospective of Stein’s life. I witnessed a trend in the way that they wrote about her, that she was ensuring her safety as a Jew in Nazi-occupied France by making these questionable alliances with Nazi figures. As much as I respect her as a feminist and as the backbone of the Lost Generation of artists, I cannot excuse her political affiliations and ironic, confusing pro-Nazi expressions. 

At the end of it all, Stein didn’t strive to be accepted or allow herself to be molded by the society around her. She carved her own place into history and I believe it is important to commemorate it, lest she is lost in the shadows of her male counterparts. As a woman in the art world, looking at Stein as an example liberates me and allows me to embrace subversive expressions of creativity. 

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History Forgotten History

An ode to two forgotten generations of Sri Lanka’s history makers

I first heard about Minnette de Silva a couple of years ago.

She was a pioneering architect of Sri Lanka, forgotten long before her death. This appears to be the buzzword when it comes to Minnette – “forgotten”. It’s in the title, or at the very least, the first paragraph of every article about her published twenty years after her death.

She’s not the only person to be forgotten by the world, not the only woman, or Sri Lankan, she’s not even the only one to be forgotten in her own family. There are many people left out by “official” histories and public discourse. Minnette de Silva, and her mother, Agnes de Silva, are not the first.

Nor will they be the last.

What I find most unsettling about their stories, however, is that in wildly different ways, they each dedicated themselves to their country and achieved great things in its name. Yet, until very recently, I had never come across their names or achievements at school or in my daily life. 

Agnes was a suffragette who fought for women’s right to vote in Sri Lanka, and she got it. She was instrumental in the foundation of the Women’s Franchise Union of Sri Lanka (then known as Ceylon), fighting for the rights of Indian Tamil women, and granting a franchise to women above thirty. Not that she stopped there, she went on to fight for Ceylon’s independence from British rule, which was achieved in 1948. 

Minnette, based on her story, seems to have shared her mother’s drive and passion.

She was the first Asian woman to be appointed an associate of the Royal Institute of British Architects. She was the first representative of Asia in the International Congresses of Modern Architecture. She pioneered the modern architectural style of Sri Lanka (years before her contemporaries caught up). She made it a point to incorporate local crafts and styles into her work, giving local artisans employment and recognition in the modern age.

She was also the second woman in the world to open an independent architectural practice under her own name. 

Her worldly social circle included Picasso, Homi Bhabha, Le Corbusier, David Lean, and Mulk Raj Anand. It paints a vibrant image of her early life that seems to only emphasize the tragedy of her much-talked-about lonely death. 

What little there is to be known of both Minnette and Agnes has already been saying. There is some poetic irony about being remembered as a forgotten pioneer, but my takeaway from them both is that I should have known about them earlier.  

Sri Lanka is in the Guinness Book of World Records for having the first female Prime Minister in the world – Sirimavo Bandaranaike. Her daughter Chandrika Kumaratunga was (briefly) Prime Minister before being appointed President of Sri Lanka, a role she held until the end of 2005. 

In 2018, Sri Lanka reimposed a law that had for the most part been forgotten. The law makes it illegal for women to purchase alcohol from, or work at, a bottle shop.  

As a country, we forget to remember the people who fought for it to be better, who returned home to establish themselves in Sri Lanka and let their home, and their people, benefit from their hard work and talent. It makes me wonder how much more both Agnes and Minnette could’ve achieved if they were appreciated, and celebrated by the country they clearly loved. 

It also makes me wonder how many more Minnettes and Agneses there are out there that I didn’t learn about in the classroom. It’s time Sri Lanka showed more pride in the stories that can inspire their young women to follow in the footsteps of the women who came before them and paved the way. 

In 2018, the World Bank concluded that 51.97% of the Sri Lankan population were women, more than half the island’s occupants. 

What would my country look like if we heard more about the Minnettes and Agneses, and fewer justifications about why we shouldn’t be allowed in bottle shops? 

We don’t have to turn elsewhere for role models or vehicles for our ambitions and dreams; they’ve been sitting right under our noses all along. Rubbing shoulders with Picasso and creating the architecture of the island as we know it, fighting for the rights we take for granted every day….and in sarees, no less. 

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