This essay, by Kathleen Farmillo, is illustrated mainly by selfies curated by women in their homes during the Covid pandemic.
The fleeting mythology of womanhood bears little room for property ownership. Rather, we are attached to property. Never the home-owners, we are part and parcel of the house, as integral as the plumbing and the wallpaper. Kitchen, living room, master with an en-suite and a wife or daughter waiting there with tea in a mug and dinner on the hob.
Property – at least in the aspect of houses – is a feminine domain. Women have been historically sheltered in the house, subject to pain within it, punished for seeking a life outside the garden walls. Feminine attachment to property requires women to be subject to the house, as though property itself were the master of us.
In 2017, the Monnai de Paris in France hosted an exhibition called Women House. It then moved to Washington D.C.’s National Museum of Women in Arts in 2018. The exhibition was inspired by Womanhouse, a 1972 installation helmed by Judy Chicago and Miriam Schapiro with 21 other women artists from the California Institute of Art. While the original Womanhouse acted as gallery, studio and haven for its artists, its focus was white, middle-class cis womanhood. Its successor, however, featured the art of 36 women from across the globe.
The repeated theme of the exhibition embodies the deep entanglement of femininity and the house: primarily the soft strangulation of forced domesticity. Mona Hatoum’s 1999 ‘Home’ was included in the exhibit.
‘Home’ is a metal table covered in metal domestic objects – whisk, cheese grater – the remnants of the women’s domain. These objects are connected by metal wire which transmit an electrical charge. The table itself is sectioned off with more metal wires, and the electrical hum is amplified through the room. Hatoum in her 2001 book explained the title; “I see it as a work that shatters notions of the wholesomeness of the home environment, the household, and the domain where the feminine resides”. In this, as in many other pieces in the exhibit, the house is a centre for oppression.
The tangible reality of the home, however, can be more complex – particularly in queer stories. One piece from Women House presents female attachment to houses as safety rather than isolation. ‘Katlego Mashiloane and Nosipho Lavuta, ext. 2, Lakeside Johannesburg’ is a 2007 photograph by Zanele Muholi. In a kitchen, two women kiss in a moment of joyful intimacy. It is in this photograph that we see and understand the important contrast between property and sanctuary.
The problem with sanctuaries is that in this economic climate and this country they are virtually non-existent, only available to those blessed with wealth. The housing market is a grimly inaccessible cruelty, one we swallow reluctantly. Of course, we naturally focus on London as the glowing capital of capital, the only place to start a career and a meaningful life. People in their twenties and early thirties have quietly accepted that if they want to stay, they will be doing it as renters. Yet even outside of the extortionately expensive capital, the idea of buying a house in your twenties is so novel that it’s foolish to even think about.
Relinquishing the desire for home ownership is part microcosmic socialist revolution, part necessity. It is an anti-capitalism movement against private property inherently connected to the reality that our futures sit in the hands of our landlords. This fact co-exists with another: that ownership of a home, of a space, is also freedom. It teases the rare opportunity to create sanctuary, not just for oneself, but for others.
If Chicago and Schapiro’s original 1972 Womanhouse was the creation of an artificial home interrogating white American middle-class womanhood, The Coloured Girls Museum takes a pre-existing home and turns it into an ode to black women and girls. Vashti Dubois is a woman in Philadelphia, USA. In 2014, she turned her home into a museum and art gallery which is dedicated to art of black women and girls. Dubois’ galleries span eight rooms, including her living room, dining room and son’s bedroom (this houses the Coloured Boys exhibit).
The transformation of home into art is the perhaps only positive of ownership – permission. Permission to celebrate and dedicate freely, permission to grieve and transform. This is what we lose when we rent: permission to make tangible, lasting changes.
Without true ownership, under threat of being removed, we are forced to create safety through smaller acts of possession, through things.
My family has lived in rented houses for most of my life. I’ve had more than 10 bedrooms, but always a loving, financially secure family and a roof over my head. The cruelty of renting didn’t really hit me until I was 17, in the middle of my final year of high school. Our landlords evicted us with a one-month notice, clearing room for their son to move in. We had lived in the house for five years.
The idea of a childhood home has always been a foreign concept to me, one that filled me with phantom nostalgia, though not quite jealousy. Moving around has made me easily bored, and the idea of being confined to a single place is stifling. One thing, though, recently struck me. For most of my life, I’ve never been able to paint my bedroom walls.
The last time we painted my walls, I was 3 or 4 and we lived in my grandparents’ house. I had the attic bedroom, a fabulous thing, with blue walls and painted clouds. The best bit, though, was a giant pink castle painted by my father on the wall along the staircase. I was the luckiest girl, to have that castle. I find myself wondering, will my daughter have one? Will any of us have daughters to paint fairy tales for, if we continue our progression? That house is gone now. It’s a very big Sainsbury’s with a below average Costa at the bottom. My fairy castle sits in the fizzy drink aisle.
There are things you accumulate and things that you lose in the transience of moving. The process of going from place to place gives material things a strange quality: both disposable and intensely important as a part of the life we have built ourselves. I am obsessed with material belongings. I spend hours poring over blankets and cushions and vases, things that will make a place feel like my place. The things I collect around me, like a dragon’s hoard, are little clusters of myself, of comfort and safety. But that comfort comes from possession.
Women have spent centuries being hidden in a space where we have dubious autonomy, our bodies and minds relegated to the house. As a result, the process of making four walls and a window our own is cathartic. This process of nesting is, I think, very female. We cannot paint the walls, so we nest by accumulation, movable lumps of ourselves, of blankets and pictures that we think represent some definitive part of our identity, that are, most importantly, easily transportable.
Our relationship with renting, then, is a neat little parallel to our relationship with consumerism. Our inability to control where we live in any real means encourages capitalist indulgence, however understandable that is. I fritter away my hours watching Architectural Digest videos of impossibly wealthy people in their bespoke homes, convincing myself that buying knock off crockery will pull me from the drudgery of my life. Above those are more pressing concerns. There is a lack of faith in our future, collectively. We are in an environmental apocalypse, our hyper-capitalist governments paralysed by greed and corruption, not just unable but actively fighting positive change. Owning and buying things feels tangible when very little else does. Nesting is an escape from the grief of everyday life. The current situation – the pandemic – has increased this immensely, particularly as we enter autumn at a hurtling speed. Confined to our houses, we need them to feel safe and, without the ability to make lasting or structural change, we do that with things.
We will hopefully reach a point where security and stability are ubiquitous, and the desire for ownership is less consuming. But before we get there, the desire to own is understandable, particularly for women. We have owned so little. We barely own our bodies.
If we are forced to abandon the fantasy of ownership, perhaps it will be easier to just let go. But if we relinquish the desire to own, will we find ourselves releasing our grip on the housing ladder, only to fall backwards into a void? Or will we be caught by firm hands, thousands of them?
By Kathleen Farmilo
Follow Kathleen on Twitter @kathleenioh or Instagram @kathystagram
‘Home’ Mona Hatoum:
Zanele Muholi: Katlego Mashiloane and Nosipho Lavuta, Ext. 2, Lakeside, Johannesburg (2007):