I arrived in Santa Barbara on September 1st, 2017. I moved into a (quasi-monastic) rented room with two beds, a closet and a small dresser with two drawers. There is plenty of room to fit all my belongings, but some of them still fill a medium-sized suitcase, in the hopes of an imminent move to a university housing apartment. I keep the suitcase locked under my bed. Within, there are some books and stationery that I will not be using this quarter, two film cameras, a folder full of letters and photographs with notes of encouragement and longing. There is also a small gray box, sealed with scotch tape to prevent it from opening and spewing its contents. Inside are a gold ring with an orange stone, a silver necklace and locket containing photographs of both of my sisters and, lastly, a gold necklace from which an unostentatious heart-shaped pendant dangles. On both sides of the pendant, the word “AMOR” is punched on the metal in capital letters. It was given to me by my happy-crying mother on my graduation day, in 2010.
I had seen this pendant many times before it became mine: it was a tiny glittery thing in my mother’s bijou box, which I would peruse from time to time as a child (most likely in the process of playing dress up with my sister). Whenever she caught us, she would parade the precious artifacts along with their stories and memories — she is a teacher and great storyteller to this day, to whom I credit my disposition to embellish my own accounts. The heart pendant was a gift from her mother for her 15th birthday, on the day of her Debutante Gala (a declining tradition in Brazil that was prevalent in small towns until the 70s as a display of a family’s power and influence, in which girls were presented to the local society during a ball).
I never wore much jewelry. In Brazil, most female children born in the 80s and 90s had their ears pierced at the very hospital where they were delivered (in an attempt to distinguish babies’ genders), so I wore earrings, but I liked playing sports and jewelry would tangle in clothes and hair, so rings, bracelets, and necklaces were inconvenient. I also never understood the appeal of wearing something expensive in my daily life, since it could be stolen or lost (when I was 12 I lost a digital Timex watch and cried like a baby). Nevertheless, jewelry (especially gold and diamonds) seemed to play an important role in womanhood, so I urged my mother to safe keep the little heart pendant in order to pass it on to me when I was myself an adult.
In 2010, those days were long gone. I had gone through my adolescence, a tumultuous time if there ever was any, and was earning my first college degree, bachelor in Graphic Design. It was a joyous occasion: my family knows how to celebrate. After taking official photographs, my mother handed me a small black velvet box in the shape of a graduating hat. It contained a fine gold chain with the now repaired AMOR pendant, which I wore immediately. Receiving such intergenerationally loaded item illustrated the principles of gift-giving and sharing as alternatives to strictly capitalist exchanges, as Katherine Gibson Graham (2013) puts it, towards other forms of social and economic relations. It felt like my family’s love transubstantiated. I wear it whenever I am feeling under the weather as if it has mystical healing properties. I do not believe it but I feel it. My mother inexplicably knows to call me on those trying days.
We are more than 10,000km. apart this very moment when I am sitting on my bed (there is no desk in my room) wearing the necklace for the first time since my arrival. I am considering my feminine line of inheritance (Goggin and Tobin, 2009), my heritage, my matrilineality: the scores of women who had to survive and thrive for me to be where I am now. Who birthed, cared for, educated, fed and cleaned, who worked three times as much. My last names do not account for them – 2/3 of the words that confer my identity are an indelible sign of masculine proprietorship. My mother’s mother – who raised six daughters and three sons – was a teacher, as is my mother and as I intend to be. My father’s mother provided and cared for four children by herself. I, in turn, am one of three sisters. Thus, I traveled with my minute gray box, an affective dowry, from mother to daughter to granddaughter. Upon such minuscule objects, women can build their own histories and identities.
ANNA MARIA MAIOLINO, Por um Fio (série fotopoemação) – By a thread (from Photo-poem-action series), 1976. Black and white photograph.
In “Por um Fio”, Anna Maria Maiolino evokes this matrilineality through a literal line which connects her mother, her and her daughter. The title of the piece exacerbates the fragility of these bonds, which hang by a thread. The artist states that, in this photo-poem-action (wherein its obvious her affection to life), she approaches infinitude, which begins with her, in the center, and comes from the past, with her mother and goes towards the future, with the image of her daughter Veronica. “Both movements point towards the infinity, the continuity of life” (Maiolino, 2014). Active during the Brazilian military dictatorship and a highly masculinist and censored context for the arts, the artist recalls being told that her body of work was so strong, it seemed to belong to a man. Within this paradigm, a photograph portraying women as protagonists and their relationship must have been disruptive. This is a unique depiction even amongst other women artists’ works on motherhood and family.
The golden thread stretches from my mother to her mother and me.
Women have a long history with jewelry that goes beyond aesthetics: oftentimes it was all they could expect in terms of provision for their future and independence, since jewelry equipped them with direct ownership of wealth otherwise denied: “[In the nineteenth century], inheritance patterns and Western legal tradition reinforced the gendering of objects. According to legal and social traditions, ‘real’ property or land followed male lines of inheritance. Conversely, women were bequeathed ‘movable’ forms of property — textiles, pieces of silver, ceramics and other domestic objects — that could be removed from the home” (Goggin and Tobin, 2009: 27).
They carried such objects from the house of the father to the house of the husband, the woman herself a moveable object: “These feminine objects (…) took on a crucial dimension. Not only did they perpetuate private domestic memories, they did so for the gender that had the most potential to become dissociated from those memories. The system of feminine moveable goods combated the familial fragmentation inherent to the act of marriage by endowing the moving woman with objects from her family. These objects acted as reminders of her past, denying her absence from her family by allowing her to take a substitute with her.” (Goggin and Tobin, 2009: 27)
The picture of the necklace shows its imperfections and damages caused by wear — it is certainly not the work of a master goldsmith –, but the heirloom goes beyond its material form or monetary value, it connects and forges a narrative otherwise forgotten. It materializes affections and memories, bridging 10,000km. of land and sea.
Balsamo, Anne, Suchman, L., & Graham, K. G. (2013). Feminism, Technology, and Systems 2: Infrastructures. FemTechNet. [VIDEO]
Maiolino, Anna Maria (2014). Tudo começa pela boca.
Goggin, Maureen Daly & Tobin, Beth Fowkes (2009) eds. Women and Things, 1750-1950: Gendered Material Strategies. Farnham: Ashgate Publishing Limited, 2009.