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In the Studio: The Power of the Female Gaze

Karen Martinez and Amanda Schilling revel in women’s multifaceted strength.

As we prepare for the 41st M.F.A. Thesis Exhibition on March 29, our “In the Studio” series gives readers the chance to get to know the artists behind the work. See what inspires our School of Art grad students!

Blood, nectar and smoke spill across the screen in Karen Martinez’s short film “Malinalli.”

Inspired by Malintzin, Spanish conquistador Hernán Cortés’ translator and concubine, the film is just one in a series of vignettes exploring the stories of complicated Latinx figures in American history. Martinez is drawn to the stories of women whose reputations are marred by history — a history often written and influenced by white men — women who carry the burden of “bad” female archetypes.

“It’s important to me that women take over that narrative,” she says.

“I feel like Latinx people have had an identity crisis because of colonization. Even though a lot of us have roots in this land, the country has done what it can to belittle it, to erase it from the collective memory.” Her work resists this erasure by providing a new perspective on Latinx experiences, one that casts the women at the center as powerful, integral figures.

Amanda Schilling also explores female archetypes, using photography to challenge the narratives surrounding women. Her work addresses themes of duality, motherhood and domestic life through a mix of staged studio portraits, slice-of-life documentary photography and abstraction.

Whereas Martinez turns to history for inspiration, Schilling finds it in her day-to-day life — the messy bedrooms of her children, the trash they leave behind, household objects.

“I am capturing the mess and the chaos of motherhood, of trying to juggle everything without losing your sense of self,” she says. “A lot of times, after we become a wife or a mother, we can fall into that role, trying to be something for everyone else, and we can forget who we are.”

Like Martinez’s films, Schilling’s work fights against this loss of self, reasserting women as fully realized individuals — more than just mother, partner or protector — a multifaceted force to be reckoned with.

Learn more about Martinez and Schilling in our Q&As below!

Karen Martinez, Interdisciplinary Practice and Emerging Forms 

What are you currently working on?
My background is in communications, media production, and I mostly focus on film and video. Right now, I’m working on a film series about figures in American history, women who have gone down in history as really bad things.

One of the vignettes that started this is about Malintzin — vulgarly known as Malinche — a slave who was given to the Spanish as a translator for Cortes. I focus on her giving birth to the first Mestizo [a person of mixed European and indigenous descent]. There’s also an exploration of Coatlicue, who is an Aztec goddess, immigrant women and a focus on Latinx women and their experiences. All the characters are women and most crew members are women or occupy a female bodied people, which was something that was important to me. Seeing how most of the research, writings and reflections on these women are from men, it was important to me that this story be told by women. 

Why do these topics interest you?
Making art can be a very vulnerable thing. It’s expected of the artist to share these really deep, genuine emotions. That’s the juicy part that everybody wants to consume.

I’m a DACA recipient, but I didn’t really want to make art that is like, “this is an undocumented person” because I want to stay away from the fetishization of oppressed people. Also, I don’t want my work to be interpreted as a single voice for all undocumented people. So, I looked to history for answers and reflections that would give me a starting point to think about the current situation. I saw that women in history traditionally don’t go down in a positive light. I think that those notions translate to the oppression of women today.  

How do you hope viewers engage with your work?
I hope they notice the quality of the characters being presented because, sadly, it’s not something that we see every day. I hope they leave wanting to support more female filmmakers, and that they maybe think about the female gaze, especially since film is inherently about the male gaze. I hope they see something different here that helps us connect and demystify our experience. 

Amanda Schilling, Photography/Digital Media

What ideas are you exploring in your work?
I make work about gender, identity and the societal pressure to reach unattainable standards of perfection in order to achieve the “American Dream.” I want to debunk the myth of the perfect family where everyone is always smiling, children never misbehave, everything is always clean and mothers easily master all tasks necessary to keep it that way. In our social-media-driven society where only our best selves are shared with the world, I want to illuminate those things that we might otherwise try to hide. I want to release women from the pressures of conformity and feelings of not being good enough.

In my “Wife, Mother, Woman” series, I spend several hours, sometimes days, with women and their families documenting their interactions as they happen to show the true reality of motherhood. In my “Duality” series, I merge alternate realities with what I experience in daily life confronting external expectations with internal desires. In a departure from imaging the figure, “Lost and Found” focuses on the objects indicative of the domestic, and therefore female, world. For this series I photograph bits of detritus found around my home, left behind by my children or expelled from my couch. By throwing them out of focus and literally blowing them up out of proportion, I am at once making beautiful, abstract, painterly images while at the same time commenting on the way that we often focus on our tiny imperfections and blow them out of proportion in the male-dominated and “make-over” obsessed world we live in. 

How has the University of Houston helped you grow as an artist?
My undergraduate degree isn’t in art, so I didn’t have a lot of that formal training coming into the program. I’ve been exposed to many things I wouldn’t have found otherwise, and that’s been really wonderful. I also think here, in Houston and at UH specifically, the art scene is really vast but still accessible. We have easy access to major institutions and people in those institutions are willing to work with us, even as students. People on my graduate committee are from the Houston Center for Photography and FotoFest, and it’s amazing to have access to those people in such an intimate way. 

What do you hope people take away from your work?
I want to highlight the unpaid domestic labor roles women fulfill and how they manage to keep everything together with little or no recognition of their labor or sacrifices. I want people to recognize that what they see in mass and social media is not real, that nothing and no one is truly perfect, and they shouldn’t have to be.

The M.F.A. Thesis Exhibition opens at Blaffer Art Museum on Friday, March 29 at 6 p.m. and will be on view through Saturday, April 13.