Walking down John F. Kennedy Boulevard in Jersey City is a curious thing. There’s an odd combination of retail chains sprinkled with what’s left of the great mama and papa shops that defined our countries culture for so many years.
In many ways Jersey City is a place of redemption and new beginnings. Resting in the shadow of Lady Liberty, it’s not unusual to see families that have recently immigrated to the United States walk the streets with their loved ones on a damp Saturday morning. These families seem at peace with the burning logos of Quiznos, CVS, and Papa Johns and do don’t yield to wayward pedestrians who spring pass them trying to avoid the rain.
It’s the women of these immigrated families that stand out to me. One woman is wearing a burka and pushing a newborn infant in its stroller with her husband; another woman, bronzed by age, guides her granddaughter into a laundry mat while sipping a café con leche she got from the nameless bodega across the street. I wonder about the decisions that led these women to this promise land and their freedom to choose their own path. If they had been in America longer, would they still be the same women with family and children I am observing?
There’s one woman in particular I whip out my notebook for and jot down notes on. She isn’t with a family. Rather, she is by herself on the steps of a weather-beaten brownstone reading the Koran, and chowing down on a Big Mac as a pack of Camel Lights peeks out her shirt’s front pocket. She’s may or may not be the holy grail of feminism, but on this soggy Saturday morning, she is certainly a contraction.
I am walking down JFK Boulevard this particular Saturday morning to get to my friend Yazmin Gonzalez’s apartment to see her execute her art project, The Wounded Empress. I have been friends with Yazmin for over fifteen years and even in a heavily transit area as New York City, I am always traveling long distances to see her. I don’t travel to see her out of obligation or friendship. Rather, I do it out of curiosity. Yazmin always has something going on. She is an artist in every sense of the word. She dreams, she plots, she executes. She’s militant about her ideas and like a good General, knows exactly when to charge head first into them. If she’s asking me to swing by, then she’s going to put on a great show.
On the corner by Yazmin’s apartment, there’s a mural of a double-headed eagle watching me as I walk by. New Jersey is a state full of mythology that consists of the Jersey Devil, decapitate brides and wayward albinos. You get the sense that this double-headed eagle means something. It’s like the eyes of Doctor T.J. Eckleburg from F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. The image is more than just graffiti. It has a biblical authority about it.
It’s within the gaze of this double-headed eagle that Yazmin and her boyfriend Abe Zepeda along with two of her friends, Nancy Dong and Alisha Desai, are bringing The Wounded Empress to life. This isn’t an art show. This is the shoot…the creation of The Wounded Empress. The Wounded Empress, as Yazmin explained to me before hand, will be a series of photographs promoting feminine power and will be submitted to various art shows for display. They aren’t doing this for money. They’re doing it for art.
The Wounded Empress as a concept is simple to digest: she’s inspired from the tarot card archetype, The Empress and is symbolic of mothering, fertility and power. According to mythology, The Empress is trying to fuse heaven and earth, God and child. To say she’s highly idealistic is an understatement. However Yazmin’s version of the Empress is in pain; she’s flawed and quite literally wounded. What exactly is her gash I do not know before hand.
I make some unfair judgements before I enter the apartment. I’m expecting a Cleopatra-esque style costume that represents women scorned in society with a message that is easy to decipher. As a male feminist, I often think some people miss the point entirely on the idea of feminism, particularly women. It’s not about girl power or women being better than men. It’s about equality of both sexes. No one should be inferior because of their genitals.
Yazmin and I took feminism together in college. She gets it. She knows I get it. Fuck, we’ve debated about Judith Butler’s idea of gender in the post-modern world endlessly. It’s not that I don’t trust the integrity of her message or her ability to understand the mechanics of feminism, rather its my own insecurity of walking into a woman’s world and stating my perspective in their fight for equality. I worry that an exhibit with the word Empress in its name would have specific undertones that would ostracize, if not, isolate me, and put me in a position where I would have to defend the XY chromosome.
However, when I walk into the apartment, which incidentally is owned by Nancy, any preconceived judgements evaporate…not because of some revolutionary idea, but because of the absurdity of the room . Yazmin is mounted up against a white wall with a papier-mâché fetus hanging from her stomach as the two girls caress it. She waves, a mouth full of beautiful white teeth greets me, and I awkwardly wave back.
“Face your womb towards me,” Abe, who is the director and photographer of the project, says to her. “I need more womb.”
As it turned out I missed the point of The Wounded Empress.
“I wanted to manifest The Empress in a fairytale-ish way. I wanted to capture her on camera,” Yazmin explains to me during a break in her room, the papier-mâché fetus hanging off her like a wayward intestine slithering out of her stomach.
When I ask her what moral she hopes viewers will take away from The Wounded Empress’ fairytale, she crosses her ankles and folds her hands. The question is something she’s considered, but the response is highly personal.
“Art can heal,” she slowly explains. “This was a way of me dealing with a relationship where I experienced a lot of loss. It was a relationship I went through the key points of my womanhood. I was a woman who was fertile and I loss the child, and it hurt. This art piece will be a cathartic tool to get my emotions out. Often times we don’t act out our sadness. It needs to be let out, and I am the Wounded Empress.”
I see Yazmin’s narrative of The Wounded Empress now. It involves the death of a child as her two goddesses companions, The Maiden and The Crone, cradle the Empress through grief. Yazmin tells me the greatest pain a woman can ever experience is the loss of a child. Its a crimson wound that bleeds from the womb and into the soul, and no matter how much you wash, the blood is always there. The theme of the project is in focus now.
I ponder this for a second. The loss of an unborn child. What does that mean exactly? Is it the loss of life? Loss of life suggests the baby was an entity prior to entering the world. Or more importantly, is the loss of an unborn child symbolic of the loss of a promise? These are questions to which I have no answer to. I can speculate. I can even analyze what she means by pain, but can I as a gay male ever truly understand her words?
Yazmin and I met at a small Catholic school in 5th grade. She wore a plaid jumper as part of her uniform and I pleated pants. She had this fiery red mane, and would be the first to bow her head when reciting the prayer of serenity in Mr. Insignares’ class. As students, we were promised many things at the small Catholic school: that we would get married, have children, and, more importantly, we would be safe because we had God. We were fresh face, we saw this white picket future as a reality, not a possibility. However the small Catholic school never considered the alternative options, of what would happen to the promise when phrases like the procedure or coming out became relevant.
The bedroom Yazmin and I discuss The Wounded Empress in has no mattress. I find myself fixated on this observation as she explains the project to me. It’s not that she’s boring me. Rather, the absent mattress brings up questions of how well we I still know the girl in the jumper uniform, of how she has grown into a woman who forfeits domestic comforts for a sort self-induced exile. I ask if wearing a faux fetus on her stomach is haunting, a sort of penance even.
“It greatly emotionally impacts me,” she says. “Sometimes the decision is easy when you have the support of the tribe. In this story, The Empress has two close female friends, one is much younger, and the other is much older. I wanted this photo series to represent the support of the tribe when dealing with rites of passage.”
Yazmin reflect on her answer. She places her hand on the makeshift uterus, the lace veil coming down her side. She is beautiful. One would even say maternal in a quasi alternate universe sort of way. She’s the Bride of Frankenstein; however, she isn’t looking for her mate or creator. She is looking for her child.
“It’s a magnificent ability,” she says of being able to carry a child. “To be one with another being.We are connected and are one. Your body even moves differently.”
We return to the shoot. Portisehead’s Nylon Smile is playing in the background as the three girls stand in unison. Even though they’re
friends out side of this shoot, a special rapport is obvious. It’s a deep rapport; deeper than the Empress’ wound. You can’t fake this kinda of friendship in a shoot with a papier-mâché fetus as the pivotal prop.
The other two ladies are from different walks of life and can empathize with Yazmin’s pain.
“Losing the womb can be altering,”says Nancy, her arms adorned with spirtual markings. “I am guiding [The Empress] through her pain because as a Crone, I too have lost the womb.”
Nancy plays The Crone, an older female archetype who has weathered the pangs of womanhood and is at peace with her age. She is a wise woman and has earned respect. Nancy explains Crone status is achieved when a woman grows comfortable with the idea that she will one day die. “Just because I’m going to grow old and die does not mean my youth will be thrown out with me. It’s a memory. It’s a lovely memory and brings me to where I can experience everything fully.”
The other goddess that makes up this triquetra is Alisha, and she plays The Maiden. As The Maiden, Alisha stands at the right hand of The Wounded Empress. She’s the virginal character, the more innocent and ethereal one. It’s important to note The Maiden has not experienced the loss of the uterus. It’s a rite of passage she has yet to experience. I inquire with Alisha how The Maiden is able to relate to both The Wounded Empress and The Crone’s loss.
“She’s helping the Wounded Empress reclaim her innocence,” Alisha explains. “This trio is powerful, we all represent different aspects of each other.”
The idea that the greatest pain a woman can experience is the loss of a child resonates with me as the girls continue to shoot. It’s exactly what I feared, that there’d be some sort profound divide between man and woman that cannot be bridged. I think for a moment perhaps Yazmin’s message is not only right, but exclusively female. I want to say as a man, I would feel the loss of the child on my shoulders as well…that the wound bleed from me too. But how could I make such a claim when as a gay man, my method of conceiving would be significantly different than that of Yazmin’s. Is The Wounded Empress on to something?
Abe is the next person I sit down to speak with. Abe is not the father of Yazmin’s lost child. He and Yazmin have only been dating seriously for a little over a year, and he came into the picture after the loss. We talk about the project, his ideas and the scope of the fairytale. Then I ask him about the loss of a child, about his feelings on the matter from a man’s perspective.
“I could never understand how that means [to lose a child],” he tells me looking down. “Like anyone who has ever felt helpless…who felt they couldn’t do anything else. That helplessness accompanies the feeling of sadness.”
Abe’s perspective on the loss of the womb is essential to this project. True, The Wounded Empress is a collaborative project; however, the project relies on his vision and direction as he wields the camera lens, the window in which The Wounded Empress’ dystopian fairytale comes to life through. The focus is exclusively female, but its is the father who watches silently, helplessly as his love bleeds. It is because of his empathy, he is able to offer his own way of support. Abe’s answer quenches my fears of not being able to relate to the message of The Wounded Empress. Abe’s answer is the bridge.
As I pack up to go, Yazmin, Abe and the girls are still going at it. I see Yazmin nestling her makeshift fetus, specifically rimming the head with her finger tip as the girls embrace her. The idea of being two souls in one body is echoing inside of Yazmin. I think back to the double-headed eagle, how it’s body must fly in a certain fashion to accommodate the two souls. The responsibility that comes with sharing a body must be taxing. Is the eagle’s life a blessing or a curse? I know Yazmin’s answer to this question. It isn’t a curse. The double-headed eagle’s life is a blessing.
Yazmin smiles at me as I leave. She is relentless with her charge. Not for the sake of art, but for redemption.
Art by Ryan Florez