Thursday, August 29, 2013

Our Lady of Perpetual Exhaustion

Cynthia Farrel Johnson,
Our Lady of Perpetual Exhaustion, mixed media 2012

When Cynthia Farrell Johnson gave us her mixed-media piece, Our Lady of Perpetual Exhaustion, at the end of her year as Artist-in-Residence, all I could do was laugh. Here was a woman with downcast eyes, a serene expression, and her hands in a position of prayer, but her hair was standing on end while all around her little girls played and cried, pages ran out of the copier uncontrollably, and one man stood expectantly behind her with a wry, amused smile while another proffered flowers with worried, apologetic eyes. Meanwhile, offerings of canned goods and fresh fruit piled up on the table in front of her, along with boxes that might contain cake or chocolate or some other sweet surprise. Who in our busy, multi-faceted, multi-tasking society hasn’t worshipped at the shrine of Our Lady of Perpetual Exhaustion?

For Cynthia, just one artwork wasn’t enough, however. Along with her friend, Helen Zughaib, she proposed a collaborative effort with the Watergate Gallery, a commercial gallery and frame shop in the notorious Watergate complex on the banks of the Potomac River. For the next few weeks, through early October, artists’ interpretations of the patron of all who work too hard and rest too little will be on display in the Dadian Gallery and at the Watergate. Since the Watergate part of the show doesn’t open until September 7, I will have to wait to see it before I can say anything about what  gallery owner Dale Johnson has put together. Today, I will just say “congratulations” to Dadian Gallery curator Trudi Ludwig Johnson (I don’t think Trudi and Dale are related!) for this group of strange and wonderful embodiments of our collective fatigue.

As much as I would like to write about every single piece in the show, I will show you only one more piece, since I hope to entice you to come and see the rest for yourself. Perhaps the loveliest, and certainly the most enigmatic, is Helen Zughaib’s Veil of Dreams. In 2005, the Dadian Gallery exhibited Helen’s poignant, precise, and vibrant paintings exploring her father’s stories. As the curator of that show, I wrote

Helen Zughaib’s complex, jewel-like, gouache-on-board paintings, selected from her series, Stories My Father Told Me, reveal a world of memories and dreams in which horses and cattle graze near old men telling stories, maidens bear water jugs on their heads, and children carry candles as tall as they are in the Palm Sunday procession. The traditions and customs of this world, that of Orthodox Christian Arabs, are unfamiliar to most Americans, but are the stuff of Zughaib’s own childhood memories as well as her father’s tales. The flattened perspective and dense patterning of these narrative images remind the viewer of Persian miniatures or magic carpets, evoking a sense of loss that colors the bright, joyful sweetness with sorrow. []

Helen Zughaib,
Veil of Dreams, gouache on board, 2013
Veil of Dreams, like these earlier works, is painted in gouache on board, but is much more restrained. Here, the bright eyes and forehead of woman peek out through a thin scrim, the rest of her body entirely hidden beneath a veil of pink, white, and purple dots. On closer inspection, the veil reveals itself as the flowering branches of a single tree which glows against the flat, black background, and the woman recedes like a mirage or a dream. When I look at it, I think of the phrase “Arab Spring” and all the hopes that sprang up as people all over the Middle East began to protest against tyrants and oppressors, and how many of their dreams have now turned into nightmares. I think also about women who write of feeling empowered rather than oppressed when they wear the veil. One of them is Umema Aimen, who wrote this for the Washington Post blog, She the People:

Hijab, for me, is a way of rejecting the culture that wants to characterize me by the angles and curves of my body…. You see, the whole point of a burqa is to de-sexualize the way people think of me. I do it to defy the male gaze and force people to see me for my intellect and my abilities…. My hijab never stopped me from traveling across the world, or participating in long hiking trips or being a professional at work. My mother covers her entire body, except her hands and feet, but that did not hinder her from becoming a philanthropist and a shrewd businesswoman.["Dear Lady Gaga, 'Burqa" sends the wrong message," Washington Post, August 19, 2013]

For Aimen, the burqa seems to function for Muslim women in the same way a suit does for men. It acts like a neutral uniform, freeing the wearer to think and act without reference to what her body is doing. Of course, not everyone agrees with Aimen, which is part of the power of Veil of Dreams. Who is dreaming here, the woman or those who project their ideas and desires upon her image?  Is she bound by the veil, or does it free her to dream? 

Our Lady of Perpetual Exhaustion has evoked many other powerful, enigmatic images that raise equally perplexing questions about women’s roles and activities, and about how all of us, men and women alike, worship at her shrine. If you cannot get here to see the show, read about it on our web page and we’ll post some photos in our Flickr gallery soon. 


  1. I cannot wait to see all of the works that the title inspired! Am also looking forward to hearing from the other artists at the opening reception on September 24th.

  2. Yes, me, too! See you at the Watergate Gallery on Saturday!

  3. I have been the Lady of Perpetual Exhaustion. Now I am an artist of healing living on the Outer Cape of Massachusetts, manifesting all that is food for me.