On Friday 8 March, Lecture Hall A of the marble-clad EUC building is barely recognisable in the darkness – all the chairs have been removed and the only two light sources are the deep orange of the light-show installation in the centre of the room and the eerie fluorescence of Marlene Biesendorfer’s mesmerising video loop performance. Covered in yellow paint on the screen, grimacing slightly, she forces what looks like rotten banana skin into her mouth before sticking ‘Great Eater Award’ ribbons on her face. It’s uncomfortable, and without words, it feels like she’s having a conversation with me about female sexuality, its corollary expectations and the elusive ‘rewards’ that compliance brings. Perhaps it’s merely the uncanny resemblance of the feelings that both situations elicit that leads me to this interpretation.
Outside the lecture hall, in the grand lobby of the Blaak campus, Gina de Boer, a student from the Rotterdam Arts and Sciences Lab programme, is translating empowering female pop anthems into gentle ballads, accompanied by Jonas Nabbe on the guitar. It’s a fitting accompaniment to the serious and focused faces depicted in the photos and artworks of women in action – the theme of the evening to celebrate International Women’s Day, but also the modus operandi of the FairFight Foundation, the charity I founded with EUC colleagues and students back in 2015, and the girls it chaperones through their martial arts journey. Their tightly closed fists punch through the white pillars of the hall, reaching us from India and Zimbabwe, where these photos, paintings and prints were made, courtesy of Myrthe Minnaert, former EUC student and secretary of FairFight, and Katie Alexander, a woman as martial as she is artist.
In front of the stage, Lumi Pulkkinen’s photos provoke – particularly a picture of a large, meaty sausage held in delicate female hands. Its extremity has been covered in creamy mayonnaise, and the woman places a spoonful of bright red berries on top. It’s the berries that are causing a tension that makes me itchy. It talks about womanhood as walking the tightrope between pleasure and pain, emancipation and humiliation.
Behind the stage, a glorious picture of an African queen whose hair is none other than a majestic elephant, charcoal and acrylic, has made its way from the utterly deprived suburbs of Harare to EUC for the evening. I know the artist very well: Tinashe Munemo, a second year public administration student at the University of Zimbabwe, muddling through with a lot of determination, and a little help from FairFight. She would love to be here to tell her story. She would certainly belong here, at this institution of thinkers, dreamers, doers. But she can’t be here, because she’s too busy weathering the storm of Zimbabwe’s current political and economic collapse. One day, perhaps…
On this International Women’s Day 2019, someone has pressed pause on the usual frantic rush of students anxiously gulping down large volumes of text in preparation for their next problem-based learning tutorial. A space for reflection has opened. We wander through the EUC building that we have known so intimately for nigh on five years, and it looks different. It has allowed itself to tell women’s stories for tonight.
On the stage, Lijnie Reijers shares her story of a broken childhood, marred by betrayal and abuse. Before tonight, I only knew her as a pocket powerhouse – self-employed, running for office as a D66 candidate in Dordrecht, and one of the most respected Aikido Masters in the world. But the space we have created has allowed her to share her fuller self, to express that discomfiture that so many girls experience when they realise the meaning of oppression in all too real, all too violent and violating terms and yet still manage to make this a story about passion and success.
The power of clothing
The space we have created is an empowering space for women, but that does not mean we eschew a challenge: Aynouk Tan is here to pry open the debate on womanhood and the very concept of gender. She has come clad in what resembles pyjama bottoms, Pokémon-like creatures wrapped around her neck and a child’s princess veil on her head, to talk about the power of clothing, mere pieces of fabric that hold such identitary meaning. She talks of gender as performance. Aynouk is known for this – since her stint as an NRC Handelsblad fashion correspondent when she dressed as different characters to discuss the reaction they elicited, she’s been channelling Baudrillard and Butler’s postmodernist gender theory throughout the Dutch media and art scene. It’s a special moment, to be listening to her prod our ontological certainties for International Women’s Day.
It’s also special to witness the dialectic between her approach and that of Sarah Hopkins, a successful London City recruiter specialising in women’s careers who has come to talk women in business who work with purpose. Yes, they approach womanhood from radically opposite angles, but it certainly feels like they are looking for points of conciliation and a common ground – for themselves, and to share with the audience before them.
To me, this event feels like it’s offering a liminal space between the university and life in society. It’s a place and moment where what we teach, what our students learn and the discombobulating experience of life in the twenty-first century meet, argue, make up and spawn art forms bursting with colours and shapes that speak a language other than that of the classroom. Today, it talks about womanhood in terms that I simply did not encounter in my classroom experience as a student, and do not convey in my experience as a lecturer.
The diversity of the forms of expression this evening are activating parts of my brain that do not usually light up in this building, when I am focusing on my textbooks and research papers. The fact that it’s happening in this building primes me to recall that feeling when the magic fades and the hard-working students fill the space again, bent over their laptops and notebooks. I went home that night and started work on my next lecture – the political economy of the environment. Somehow, my slides were tinged with a touch of artistic folly and the dialectic mode of discussion seeped through the structure of lecture.
It makes me think: what if the University could open up more of these liminal spaces? A bit like in CS Lewis’ magical world of Narnia – you open a door and poof! You find yourself transported to a new world that is slightly unnerving and yet uncommonly beautiful. Events, moments, spaces that appear and disappear all over our campuses – for instance, art forms and spoken words that don’t necessarily belong in an economics lecture (yet), but are definitely capable of bridging economics and the social experience of the economy; or a musical moment that translates the bewildering experience of loss and helplessness in the face of terminal disease to medical students, perhaps.
The point of these spaces is that they do not impose, but invite; they do not replace, but complement; they do not lecture, but suggest. Building such spaces takes a lot of effort: we started preparing for International Women’s Day in November 2018 – a colossal effort that brought together EUC students and alumni, the FairFight team, the artists of the Willem de Koning Academy, musicians from the RASL programme and our speakers. Of course, not all of these events and spaces need to be quite so elaborate or take so much time to prepare and open up, but they will take time. In my view, however, this is a very worthwhile investment that speaks to the essence of EUR’s mission to make it happen and the University should support it, provide the space and time for it, and if necessary, finance it.
Ginie Servant-Miklos is senior lecturer at Erasmus University College and postdoc researcher associated with Aalborg University. She teaches in the department of Economics and Business and does research on the history and philosophy of education. In 2015, Servant founded FairFight, a charity that aims to empower girls and women through martial arts training.