In 1979, American artist Judy Chicago created an installation art piece titled The Dinner Party, which is considered one of the first feminist artworks. A triangular dinner table held 39 elaborately-painted plate settings and the women represented included mythical and historical figures from Sappho and Ishtar, to Virginia Woolf, Georgia O’Keeffe, and Emily Dickinson.
More than 35 years later, an Israeli artist and archaeologist, Shirley Siegal, drawing inspiration from Chicago’s work, collaborated with Indian artist Madan Lal to create her own installation to connect the women of India and Israel. Siegal and Lal’s artwork, titled The Plate and The Palette, is a dining room complete with a long table, ceramic plates, cups, wooden cutlery and tableware covered in paintings and portraits of Israeli and Indian women.
On the tablecloth, Lal has created a mural that brings together the five elements – air, fire, water, earth and space – symbolising the connection of humankind to the universe. On the wooden forks and spoons are painted words in Hebrew and Persian that mean, “we will share”, “we will comfort” and “we will solve”.
“We come from very different cultures, yet in both countries women face similar issues, like domestic violence, lesser wages, glass ceilings,” said Siegal, who met Lal, vice-chairman of Chandigarh’s Lalit Kala Akademi, at an international art residency in Macedonia in 2016. “We decided to bring simple women from different parts of society to our table. A table is where the family sits together, where you eat and talk and laugh, but also where there are negotiations. It is traditionally a woman’s sphere. Yet here, the woman is the initiator, the leader, the protagonist.”
In India, the Plate and Palette installation has been showcased in Chandigarh and Delhi.
Similar stories and struggles
The travelling exhibition’s main aim, according to Siegal, is to showcase the true meaning of women’s empowerment. “It is first and foremost about creating an atmosphere where a woman’s voice can be heard,” she said. “A woman sees the world very differently from a man. Women talk to each other and become friends easily. Women that work together are a very powerful and effective element in society.”
“As a woman, I will not send my sons and daughters to fight – I will find new ways of solving conflicts,” said Siegal, referring to Israel’s mandatory military service for men and women over 18.
The women on Siegel’s tableware come from all walks of life – a waitress, a religious woman from Jerusalem with her hair and shoulders covered, the first Israeli commercial female pilot, a foreign worker from Africa, an Armenian girl, an Arab girl, an Indian dancer and Indian goddesses.
“One of the women is Maryam Fagih Imani, daughter of an Iranian ayatollah,” said Siegal. “Her father was second to religious leader and politician Ruhollah Khomeini in Iran’s religious revolution in 1979. She left Iran and went to Oslo, Norway, where she created the Centre for Cultural Diplomacy and Development. She preaches around the world of the necessity of creating peace between Iran and Israel. She heard of my project and is a big supporter of it. So I painted her on one of the plates.”
The Israeli artist had done a project, titled The First Supper, similar to Plate and Palette, with Iranian artist Hadieh Afshani.
“We were the only ones there that could speak fluent English, so we became friends,” said Siegal. “When I saw Madan Lal’s art, and how very different it is from my art, I knew we had to combine them together. This is what bringing two cultures together is all about – using the differences to create something new.”
Lal’s tablecloth showcase themes and figures from Indian mythology. He has painted images of Hindu gods and goddesses like, Kamadhenu, Radha, Vishnu, Krishna along with swans and parrots, which are the vehicles of Saraswati and Brahma respectively. Lal has also created sculptures using various types of grains for the table. According to Siegal, these represent food and nourishment but also represent man and his seed. “The aim is to reinforce the idea that if men and women worked together for the cause of women’s empowerment, everyone will benefit.”