Cross-cultural commenalities: women working collaboratively to create art that speaks to multiple identities – a discussion with Anne Babson and Su Lian Tan about their opera Lotus Lives
Friday, September 20, 12:15 pm, Chellis House, Middlebury College
Some notes by Anne Babson
In Orientalism, Said offers an archetype of exploitive and propagandistic writing by white writers representing the so-called orient in the encounter between Gustave Flaubert and the artisan/courtesan known to him only as “Kuchuk Hamen.” In this encounter, Flaubert, as French feminist scholar Christine Belikowski has noted, only notices her sexuality and vulgarly exoticizes it, remaining forever ignorant of the woman as artist. Imagine, however, if instead of Flaubert, this Kuchuk Hamen encounters one of his contemporaries, a woman writer also working under a pseudonym as a way to divert the patriarchal agenda in her craft – George Sand. Instead of sex, the two of them split a bottle of wine and discuss their lives as women artists. Instead of the European writer determining what will be said about her colleague unilaterally, they agree that they should collaborate, with Kuchuk providing the music and dance, and George providing the words. They decide that what they share in common as women artists operating under a patriarchal system far outweighs what divides them, and together, they communicate with the world about their shared conditions, much as second-wave feminists decided to hold consciousness raising sessions to identify shared political goals, only their consciousness raising strategy is expressed through the excellence of art.
If orientalism reduces the non-eurocentric to “other,” then perhaps it is in collaborative feminisms cross-culturally harmonized that the world might resolve the problems in discourse between cultures. After all, as Simone de Beauvoir points out, women, in fact, occupy an “othered” position in every culture, and this geography, distorted as a fun-house mirror, in fact unites women across boundaries held fast by patriarchal institutions. Perhaps such collaborations between women in the arts may provide a model for the dismantling of the very kind of falsehoods that orientalism and patriarchy promote.
It is in this spirit that Su Lian Tan and Anne Babson united to create Lotus Lives, a truly cross-cultural and truly feminist opera, using the symbology of both Chinese folktales and European operatic tropes to deconstruct the obstacles that patriarchy places in the path of women from many cultures. This discussion will examine the aesthetic shared by both artists, each in her own idiom, the methodology of this collaboration, and the multiple uses of deconstructive strategies to speak to peoples of multiple identities in order to promote – yes, just like Miss America might say -- world peace.