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Milcah Bassel PB ’11 speaks about her gender-focused art

Contributing Writer

Published: Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Updated: Tuesday, September 27, 2011 04:09

Milcah Bassel

David Yun

Bassel enjoys creating pieces that viewers can physically interact with, such as this humongous sculpture.

The first thing I notice about her is her boots. These flaming red boots are coupled with a man's vest, a polka-dotted scarf, a beaded necklace and a white button-down shirt.

This artsy cross between men's and women's wear immediately has me intrigued. Her curly hair is pulled into a ponytail, and she has a name from the bible meaning "queen."

This woman with striking footwear is the same woman who created the sculptures that are on display at the "Floors & Ceilings" exhibit in the Women's Studies Research Center. In the first student-run exhibit of its kind at Brandeis, Milcah Bassel's PB '11 sculptures catch my eye just like her boots. Her sculptures occupy most of the exhibition space of the WSRC.

At the "Artist's Slide Talk" this past Thursday in the WSRC, Bassel gave a talk about what inspired her bold pieces. Bassel graduated this past May, and her friends from her post-baccalaureate program and a few undergraduates attended the event.

Bassel was born in Boston and moved to Israel when she was young. She grew up in Jerusalem in a very orthodox Jewish community. Bassel recalls, "always being a doodler" from a very young age, but it wasn't until she did her compulsory military service for 2 years that she became interested in art and drawing.

Fighting in a male-dominated combat unit helped Bassel to discover her strength. From then on, Bassel decided that she was not just going to doodle in her notebook; she was going to take up space, and she was going to create art.

At first, Bassel painted. Her paintings focused a lot on the human form—in particular the female body, which is often drawn by men and made into a sexual object for men to "ooh" and "ahh" at. Bassel wanted to be more than "oohed" at.

If there was any "way of moving away from the male gaze, … if it was possible for a woman to deal with her body in a new way," Bassel was going to find it.

Bassel traveled to Paris, where she visited many chapels. Despite being a Jew, Bassel had a "very strong experience" going to these places of Christian worship, filled with vivid colors painted during the Renaissance.

Perhaps as part of some spiritual epiphany brought on by spending so much time in churches, Bassel realized her paintings were missing something. Paintings "couldn't go beyond the surface or the visual," and Bassel "wanted to experience her own body."

"Paintings couldn't go all the way into the body experience," explained Bassel. So she switched to sculpture, a more body-conscious field, which aided her other profession—as a massage therapist who focuses on healing the body.

One of Bassel's most popular sculptures is the "Body Tunnel." This big, oddly shaped sculpture, which Milcah said resembles a "whale," is shaped like a long funnel. The inside of this funnel represents the interior space of the body, "like a room."

Working from the inside out is one of Bassel's goals. Pushing our minds is another. Bassel has thought about what it would be like to be without skin.

Her wire pieces, made out of masking tape and aluminum wire, try to convey an interior and exterior without skin. It is because what "goes on in our own body that is so sacred" that Bassel feels that we don't need the skin to hide what is so holy beneath it.

The piece that takes up most of the space in the WSRC is Bassel's "The Skin Piece," or "the monster," as the artist calls it. When Bassel was working on "The Skin Piece" in her studio, it got so big that it was outgrowing her workspace. This piece, made out of paper and then hardened, took months to make. When Bassel was moving the skin to the research center, she had to pour water on it to revive the piece, as she felt the piece had lost some of its "fluidity."

The water reminded Bassel of the taboo toward discussing bodily fluids and our ways of hiding natural discharges. Growing up in the Judeo-Christian tradition, pouring water on the skin reminded Bassel of all the water rituals in the Jewish tradition that are done to purify people, because the body is not considered sacred and is separate from the holy. But Bassel's goal is to prove that the body is divine.

To get away from the tradition of the body as something to be looked at, Bassel does not use visuals to help her along in her creations. Instead, she relies on her own body to create her artwork.

Bassel is now feeling her way through a new project: "The Male Fertility Cult Learns to Menstruate," which will focus on gender and the beauty of menstruation.

Bassel's pieces are designed to make us engage with our body. Viewers can walk around inside and climb on her sculptures. She also wants us to think about space, and particularly how her sculptures dominate space. With her sculptures, Bassel is making a "big statement."

The sculptures dominating the space of the WRSC give off the feeling that behind every side of the sculpture, there is a woman in red boots reclaiming her body and taking up space for all the women in the world who have not yet realized that they have permission to be loud. 

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