Original Sisters: 365 Portraits of Tenacity and Courage

Paintings by Anita Kunz
TAP Centre for Creativity
London, Ontario, Canada
November 3, 2022 – January 14, 2023

What an amazing experience to have at TAP, encountering 365 portraits of women from ancient history to our era. All of them contributed in significant ways to life at the time they lived, and into the future, but their stories were erased from history after they died. (Well, I thought, what else is new?)

The paintings, each one measuring 13 x 17 inches (painted in soft body acrylic on illustration board), are installed across the gallery walls. Tucked in beneath each portrait is explanatory signage, providing an account of her achievements.

Image Credit: Madeline Lennon

At first, I stood transfixed. How to take in these walls of women, all of them looking at me. Where to begin? Finally, I just walked up to one, looked carefully and read about her, and then went on to the next. Of course, it was impossible to read all the women’s stories, because there are so many – 365 women and all presented very directly in appealing half-length portraits. This certainly conveys a message about how history has been written, consistently including only about 50% of human achievements (no women included).

Image Credit: Madeline Lennon
Baronese Elsa Von Freytag-Loringhoven. Photo Credit: TAP Centre for Creativity

Eventually I focused on several women, for example, Baroness Elsa Von Freytag-Loringhoven (1874-1927), a German born avant-garde artist. Much to my surprise, it seems that it was she who created the urinal Fountain, not Marcel Duchamp. The signage explains that Duchamp claimed in a letter to his sister that one of his women friends had adopted the masculine pseudonym Richard Mutt (as the urinal is signed) and sent a porcelain urinal as a sculpture to a New York art exhibit. It may be that she created the work because she believed her mother died due to her tyrannical father failing to treat his venereal disease. The uterine shape of the upside-down urinal is likely the concept behind the work. However, Duchamp later took full credit for her sculpture and he became known as the ‘father of modern conceptual art’, rather than Baroness Elsa. Why did I not know this?

The artist Anita Kunz explained that during the pandemic she was searching for inspiration, and decided to research women in history who had shaped our world. She had heard some amazing stories about remarkable women and wondered why she did not know about them. Doing the research, she found references to hundreds of women from all backgrounds and cultures and decided to commit their stories to paper. With more recent examples she found photographs or drawings to use for the portraits, but for many women there were no representations. In these cases, she worked from descriptions, or her imagination, and dressed them according to the times in which they lived.

Cecilia Payne Gaposchkin. Image Credit: TAP Centre for Creativity

Kunz brings her talents as an illustrator to bear on these representations, giving each woman a remarkable individuality. There is a liveliness that distinguishes one from the next, encouraging us to see them as individuals acting to make their world a better place in so many different ways.

A Canadian artist, known as the creator of cover art for magazines such as The New Yorker, Rolling Stone, and Time, Kunz has been recognized with many awards including appointment as an Officer of the Order of Canada, and induction into the Royal Canadian Academy of the Arts.

She has also pointed out that this is only a beginning in documenting what women have achieved, so there is much more to be done in excavating women in history.

I cannot help but note a few other exceptional women depicted here. Cecilia Payne Gaposchkin (1900-1979) was a British-born American astronomer and astrophysicist who wrote in her PhD thesis that stars were composed of hydrogen and helium, not heavy materials such as iron, which was the current belief. This was a startling conclusion that turned the world of astronomy upside down. She was the first person to earn a PhD in astronomy from Radcliffe College of Harvard University, and in 1956 was appointed a full professor at Harvard and became Chair of the Astronomy Department. Until then, women were barred from becoming professors in that department.

Pauli Murray. Image Credit: TAP Centre for Creativity

Then there was Pauli Murray (1910-1985), a civil rights activist lawyer, lesbian, and the first African-American Episcopalian priest. She was the only woman and first in her class at Howard University Law School where her treatise on “States Law on Race and Color” laid the groundwork for her civil rights work. In 1996 she was the first African American to receive a Doctor of the Science of Law degree from Yale University. She cofounded the National Organization of Woman (NOW) and was a trailblazer for equal rights for all people.

It is tempting to go on, citing Maria Teresa Mora Iturralde (1902-80) the Cuban chess champion; or Anahareo (1906-86), the Algonquin and Mohawk writer and animal rights activist from Ontario, Canada; or Hayat Sindo (1967- ), the Saudi Arabian biomedical scientist and inventor, the first Saudi woman to attend Cambridge University earning a PhD in biotechnology, who developed an important device to easily detect disease, saving many lives. Each one is fascinating in the portrait and the information encapsulated in the signage below the image.

These were among the many women I did not know about, but there were a number of others who are familiar to me: Gloria Steinman, Isadora Duncan, Belle da Costa Greene, Joan Didion, Hedy Lamarr and Hilma af Klimt—to name just a few.

Standing in the TAP space, surrounded by these impressive portraits of remarkable women, I was grateful to the team at the gallery who brought this work to town. This was the first time all 365 portraits were exhibited together – what a perfect opportunity to recognize the reality of women’s work, and make it visible!

Madeline Lennon has written for both national and international arts publications, and is a Professor Emerita, Visual Arts, Western University.
Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *