Once, I was told that I didn't seem like I went to a private girls' school. I took it as a compliment, kind of. I think that quite often, as a generally rage filled person, people expect me to talk about my school with feelings of hatred and regret and thank-God-I'm-Out-Of-There. And like, I am glad I'm out of there. When I think about it I'm glad I no longer have to wear a veil to go to a chapel service and that I can wear any colour of hair accessory and that I never have to see any of my PE teachers again. If you ever read this, Ms Chong or Miss Townsend, you are fucking bitches and it actually is your fault that I broke my leg. Thanks for the lifetime of trust issues and I hope you have a fulfilling career in your snap pants. But if I can put aside these embarrassingly-raw-after-six-years emotional issues about my broken bone, some parts of my school were really great. There were no hair gelled teenage boys with the mental capacity of a YouTube commenter, for example. Now that I am sitting at the kitchen table wistfully thinking about being at school; vaguely stoned and drinking tea and while my girlfriend is listening to The Books, I also can't seem to get past how good the satay sandwiches were in the school cafe, but there is a high possibility that I may be romanticizing these in my brain. Or maybe it is some kind of You-Don't-Know-What-You've-Got-Til-It's-Gone situation, and that I have finally realised I will never eat this sandwich, that I haven't thought about for at least four years, again. Or maybe I'm just stoned. But, smokable substances aside, what was best at my school was my teachers. I remember always getting taught whatever the women were doing in the Vietnam War or in Ancient Greece or in the Restoration period or in Othello, and it was provocative and interesting and relevant and about nine hundred times more stimulating than any paper I took in first or second or probably even third year. I remember once telling my friends about how we learnt a lot about the ladies at my school, during one of those conversations you have quite often during your twenties where you make up your mind about controversially thorny moral and ethical issues you haven't yet had to face, while eating whatever round of brie was on special at Patels. Or New World. But never Moore Wilsons. But during this conversation, my friend R asked me if I ever felt I had missed out on learning anything because of my female focused education. I was vaguely outraged. No R, I said. It's not like by learning about the female soldiers that I never found out who Ho Chi Minh was, and I definitely don't feel like by learning about what HALF OF THE WORLD was doing at any one time I was missing out on anything.
One of these lady projects was in Art History in Seventh Form with a teacher called Ms. Newman. Ms. Newman had grown up in communist Czechoslovakia and if we spent an entire lesson listening to her talk about foreshortening she would tell us stories about how everybody had to wear the same coloured track suit but that they got free dental care and we would sit there, enthralled white girls, fascinated by the idea of a place that wasn't Christchurch. The project that Ms Newman cannily assigned was for us each to study four different female self portraits, and it was actually the perfect thing for a group of restless and emotional and hysterical and intelligent and frustrated teenage girls to think about. It was an awakening through the brush strokes of Artemisia Gentileschi and Paula Modersohn-Becker and Jenny Saville and Frida Kahlo and Alice Neel and Judith Leyster. It was an assignment about the importance of feminism and the female nude and the male dominated art world and self expression, without it actually having to be. I discovered the Guerrilla Girls, and I at once felt furious, included and empowered to make a change. But, most importantly, I discovered this photo:
It is called Nan After Being Battered and Nan Goldin took the photo in 1984 to remind herself how badly her boyfriend had beaten her. I think Nan is amazing, and she took heaps of photos of her relationship with Brian in her collection of photographs The Ballad of Sexual Dependency as well as looking at heaps of sweet gender stuff and drag queens and abuse and relationships. Some of her work looks almost tired now because the fashion industry took her aesthetic and ran a heroin chic soaked marathon with it, but this blog isn't about that and it also isn't about what I can quote from Nan's Wikipedia. This blog is about this photo and what it means to me. This photo taught me about the ugliness of domestic abuse. It taught me about bravery and about private and public moments. It taught me about feminism and how make-up can be used as a weapon and as a crutch and as a declaration. It taught me why some women can't leave and why relationships are really complicated. It taught me about self expression and catharsis. Maybe it didn't teach me this stuff when I first saw it, but it definitely made me really, truly, properly think.
Thanks for the photo, Nan. It meant a lot to me when I was seventeen, and maybe it means even more to me now.
(Somehow, for a second, this almost turned into some kind of photo blog where I posted a whole lot of moody photographs from an artist that I like without crediting any of them properly, because obviously as a lofty art appreciator I would expect all of my friends to know the precise and exact history of each photograph. But no, I am obviously far more meaningful than that, so just look at Google images.)