By Rima Abdelkader
Tuesday, March 16, 2010
A plywood construction wall in New York is papered with 99 blown-up photos of pedestrian crossing light icons from around the world. They feature a number of interesting life-size men. Only three of the icons are clearly female.
NEW YORK (WOMENSENEWS)--In and around Berlin, his name is "The Ampelmann," or little traffic light man. He wears a hat.
In Fredericia, Denmark, he is known as the foot soldier and carries a rifle. In another part of Denmark, he's the silhouette of Hans Christian Andersen, the beloved 19th century author of fairly tales, and he wears a top hat and carries a cane.
In Utrecht, the Netherlands, the image changes gender and goes by the name of "Sophie," sporting a ponytail and heels.
Joachim Rossberg, who has produced traffic lights with female images in Germany, said the Netherlands adopted its female icon "Sophie" from his country, according to the U.K. news site Ananova. Pedestrians pay more attention to female icons because the curvier form reflects more light than sparer male figures, Rossberg said on Ananova.
Pedestrian traffic light icons, it turns out, can have male and female traits and a diversity of identities, including being in a wheelchair.
A photography mural "Walking Men 99"--on the wall of a New York construction site at 99 Church Street, right across from the Women's eNews office--makes that clear with a display of large-format photos of 99 traffic icons from cities around the world.
The art installation went up in January 2010 and will last through the year.
The idea for the project came to Maya Barkai, a 29-year-old New York-based Israeli freelance photographer, from the various traffic icons she encountered at intersections around the world.
"I paid attention during my travels a lot, and I saw that it's different here and it's different in Jerusalem," she told Women's eNews while walking around the project. "It's different wherever I went, and I started to collect."
She photographed some of the icons herself and asked friends to email what they came across through her Web site. Her files now contain about 150 images.
One signal she hopes to add soon is a female pedestrian icon now being substituted for male icons in intersections around the parliament building in Wellington, New Zealand. The figure steps out in a knee-length dress, arms in a static swinging motion and a pageboy haircut straight above her shoulders.
Barkai says she also likes Sophie's ponytail and heels, as well as the female icon adopted by the Spanish city of La Coruna, who wears a knee-length skirt and ponytail.
However, she says she hadn't noticed the scarcity of female pedestrian signals--three out of 99--in her project and that she didn't intend to make any statement about an apparent preference by city traffic light administrators for male figures.
Lisa Wade, assistant professor of sociology at Occidental College in Los Angeles, has commented on gender aspects of the traffic light signal images on her Web site, Sociological Images: Seeing Is Believing, and viewed the mural online.
"The 'Walking Men 99' exhibit really illustrates something we take for granted in nearly all arenas of life: the use of men to symbolize humanity," Wade said in an e-mail interview. "We tend to feel comfortable allowing men and masculine things to represent everyone, but women and feminine things are seen as just for women."
Wade said the exhibit privileges manhood as the human experience through its name and the preponderance of male figures.
Wade, founder and co-editor of the Sociological Images Web site, says the artist was merely reflecting the reality of the material she's collecting.
"Still, the choice of title suggests that she is not problematizing the centering of men and marginalizing of women," Wade said. "Can you imagine the exhibit being titled 'Walking Women 99' and having the same content? Probably not."
In her native Hebrew language, Barkai says, the masculine name of the show, "Walking Men 99," could be seen as gender-inclusive and used for a group of people, like "guys" in spoken English.
The Downtown Alliance, a local business district group, chose the project as part of an effort to mask construction sites throughout its area with murals. Wire fences, concrete barriers and plywood walls are now covered with everything from fabric evocations of rainbows to black-and-white graphite sketches.
All four of the 2010 muralists featured on the group's Web site are women. The four murals from 2009 still on the site are also all by women.
Whitney Barrat, director of special projects at the Downtown Alliance, told Women's eNews in a recent phone conversation that she took issue with the "Walking Men 99" title of the mural when the project was presented to her because it didn't accurately represent the female icons and the one wheelchair icon that isn't walking.
Barrat said in the end the title "Walking Men 99" reflected the artist's original thesis "Walking Men Worldwide."
The project is "primarily meant to improve the look of construction in lower Manhattan," she said.
Barkai said she would have liked to include in the exhibit more traffic signals from different parts of the world, including from the West Bank and Gaza, as well as images from cities such as Baghdad, Tehran and Bombay. She said it was challenging to get images from India and Africa because her network of friends and volunteers didn't reach there.
Organizers of "Images 10," a biennale art fair in Vevey, Switzerland, have asked Barkai to bring the installation there this summer.
Barkai said her required service stint in the Israeli army, where she worked as a military photographer, boosted her interest in photography. But art has always been a central part of Barkai's family life, as her father owns art galleries in Jerusalem and one sister is a fashion designer while the other is a photographer.
She left Israel in 2002 to study photography in New York at the School of Visual Arts, from which she graduated in 2005.
People she met through her school helped her retouch the images, including Chris Ritchie of Coa Design, who worked on the graphic design of the project.
Israeli photographer and artist Elinor Milchan and Israeli art curator Ayelet Danielle Aldouby introduced Barkai to The Downtown Alliance, and served as the curators for her art installation.
Barkai said her fiancé Alon Hadas, a student at City College's School of Architecture, supported her throughout the project by patiently stopping as she photographed crossing lights, even when they were green and signaling go.
Rima Abdelkader is a multimedia journalist in New York City who can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and @rimakader on Twitter.
Downtown Alliance, Re:Construction: