April 30, 2008

Safe Beneath Her Roof

To explain logical aggregates in Chinese language, when I teach that subject, I often refer to the Chinese character for “safety” or “peace” - a woman underneath a roof. “A woman is safe underneath her roof,” I would explain, while drawing the bao zi gan, the roof symbol, with the symbol for woman underneath.
Although my explanation helped students remember this character and the system of logical aggregates, I was never entirely comfortable with the logic of that explanation. Surely, in many cases, domestic violence for instance, a woman is assuredly not safe under her roof. Still, the symbol is a powerful one, if not for its hope, than at least for its irony. I therefore used this character in one of my mosaic works, “Safe Beneath Her Roof.” I created the mosaic shortly after hurricane Katrina, which brought a portion of my work into the permanent collection of the Gulf of Mexico. Disappointed at the loss, but feeling ambivalent about verbalizing my sorrow at losing art work when others lost so much more, I made a visual memorial instead of a verbal complaint. The mosaic features a small handmade ceramic bowl with the Chinese character an, or “safety” etched in sgraffito on its interior. The bowl is placed underneath a roof-like structure punctuated with debris such as a rusted spike and a broken bottle.
I discussed the mosaic “Safe Beneath Her Roof” briefly during my presentation last Friday at the American Comparative Literature Association conference in Los Angeles. I was almost going to eliminate this work from my presentation because it did not dovetail well with the other works in the “Archaeology Series” that I was discussing. It turned out to be fortuitous that I had not left the work out, however, because it resonated well with another panelist’s topic. Professor Victoria Reid, from the University of Glasgow, gave a scholarly yet moving presentation, “The 2003 Heat Wave in France: Representations of the plight of the elderly in literature and film.” The heat wave caused the demise of 19,000 people, most of them older people who died in solitude under the roof of an apartment without air conditioning. Although this is ten times the number of deaths from Hurricane Katrina, the hidden dispersal of the victims led to a surprising silence in the press. The art of literature and film is now beginning to fill the vacancy of that void.
After hearing Professor Reid’s excellent paper, I came to a revelation about the Chinese character for “safe” as I now understand it. I had neglected to realize that the language was a male invention and spoke for the impressions and concerns of a patriarchal society. It is not the woman under her roof who is “safe” therefore, but the posterity of the man to whom she belongs. A wife, slave, mother, or daughter who always remains within the confines of the four walls beneath a roof does not pose a threat. The wife or concubine cannot wander into the arms of a competitor - the genetic and social standing of the man of a household is therefore protected. And in more general terms, both ancient and modern, the woman who is sequestered away cannot harm us. We are all safe from our collective guilt when the woman - especially the elderly woman - withers and dies in a place we can neither see nor hear. We are safe when she is alone under her roof.

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