Waiting, by Thuraya Al-Baqsami from Kuwait

(WOMENSENEWS)–If you asked a woman from every country around the globe, “What does it mean to be a woman?” you might easily get 180 different answers. It is that same eclectic spirit that curator Claudia DeMonte celebrates in the traveling collection, “Women of the World: A Global Collection of Art,” at San Francisco’s Presidio Officers’ Club through April 13.

Exploring the theme of women’s roles incontemporary society, the exhibit, sponsored here by the International Museum of Women, features many examples of traditional arts, made by women for generations, for little money and no acclaim. Although the show does not manage to offer an example of woman-made art from absolutely every country in the world, it does come up with a representative piece, hand-picked by DeMonte, from each of 177 countries. The artists employ media that range from paint, wood, photography, textiles, needlepoint, knitting and even shells to depict their role in the world. The women’s museum here paid for related educational materials to be added to the exhibit, as well.

Opening first in Manhattan in 2000 and traveling since, the exhibit will go to Alabama, Georgia, and then Iceland. In 2004, the installation will be featured at the summer Olympics in Athens, Greece. After the exhibit ends, the pieces will be auctioned off in New York, with proceeds going to help immigrant women coming to the United States.

All the artists donated their work and DeMonte hopes that the exhibit will highlight the unsung and often anonymous female artists around the globe. “The fact that these women donated their work speaks volumes about their generosity,” she says. “Many of these artists make less than $300 a year.”

Organized alphabetically by country, the pieces provide a broad-spectrum impression of what it means to be a woman on this planet. “I didn’t want the most famous artist in each country, but instead the artist that fit with the theme of the exhibit,” says DeMonte, a professor at the University of Maryland and an artist who, in her own work, explores the roles of women in contemporary society. She embarked on the Women of the World project–the first of its kind–after visiting a textile factory in Tibet in 1996.

“I am a minor player in a very big vision,” DeMonte said. “I’m honored to be a part of it.”

Many Works Anonymous

Many of the works chosen by DeMonte are anonymous, including a Laotian tapestry that is representative of the traditional weavings of silk and cotton made by women throughout the Southeast Asian country. Other examples of traditional arts include a straw weaving from the South Pacific island of Palau, a shell mat from the Marshall Islands in the North Pacific and a gold-beaded necklace from Mauritania in Northern Africa.

Themes emerge naturally from the works, including those of motherhood, politics, personal experience and spirituality.

In one evocation of motherhood, a woman encircles her child in a wood carving by Ugandan artist Lillian Nabulime in her piece “Maama.” In another, English artist Pat Derrick knitted a steel wool baby smock tied with pink bows. “The steel wool vest symbolizes a mother’s anguished attempt to shield her baby from harm,” Derrick writes in the description.

Women’s inferior social status is reflected in works from such Muslim countries as the Sudan, Afghanistan, Kuwait and Bahrain. An untitled charcoal drawing by an Afghan artist named Ghatol depicts a woman begging in the street with her two children. “I raise the cry of the forgotten and oppressed women of Afghanistan,” the artist writes. The piece was smuggled out of Afghanistan during the Taliban rule by Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan.

Other artists chose more personal expressions. Iraqi painter Suada Al-Attar, for instance, offers an emotional untitled painting of a man, woman and child with heads close together, surrounded by flowers. It is a vibrant swirl of yellows, greens, reds and orange.

Cambodian artist Theoung Mim paints a woman whose face is split in sections to show the kind of generational strains that women can experience in her country. “Being a Cambodian woman means having to maintain two identities,” she explains. “One is my parents’ expectations and the other is who I really am.”

DeMonte thought collecting one piece from each country in the world–180 in total–would take six months. It took three and a half years to reach the final 177.

Surveying New York Taxi Drivers

She says she started by sending letters to United Nations attaches representing each of the 180 countries. She got one reply. She then moved on to other channels to search for artists: the Peace Corps, The New York Times’ bureau chiefs around the world and the U.S. Navy. She even took to asking New York City cab drivers where they were from and if they could give her names of any female artists in their native countries. She found that no one way to find the artists worked for every country. Often, it meant spreading the word through existing local programs for women.

Meanwhile, the search was extended because the Soviet Union was breaking up and adding a number of new countries to the global list.

Once DeMonte contacted the artists, getting hold of the pieces was another chapter in daunting logistics and costs. “Overnight express from Palau costs $80 and takes five days,” she laughs.

The project was funded by a start-up grant from The Museum of Modern Art in New York, the New York Foundation for the Arts and an anonymous donation of $7,000.

North Korea is not included in the exhibit, DeMonte says, because country officials demanded payment for the art. And despite $300 in phone calls to Chad, a civil war stymied efforts to find an artist to represent that country.

Rebecca Vesely is a health care reporter for The Oakland Tribune.

For more information:

International Museum of Women:

Women of the World: A Global Collection of Art:

At the Presidio: