From Maya Angelou to Patti Smith, and from Begum Rokeya to Michelle Obama, the dazzling mix of image and song in Ultraviolet has become one of the most talked-about moments of the show. Cathleen Falsani reports on the trailblazing women of herstory and why #povertyissexist.
'Whenever you see the feminine spirit move from the circumference to the centre, there’s usually a jump in consciousness.’
On The Joshua Tree 2017 Tour, ‘Mothers of the Disappeared’ closes out the album’s eleven tracks and opens the door to what is commonly referred to as ‘the encore’ but is so much more than that.
Think of it instead as the third act—a set containing some of the most powerful storytelling, in music and images, of the night.
“Bono had the idea to give ‘Act III’ of the show a loose theme of being an ode to women,” said Willie Williams, U2’s longtime creative director. “He’d observed that at various times in human history, a more feminine spirit has taken the lead; the Renaissance and ‘60s counterculture being examples.
“The thought was that we are currently living in a time when we could really use a more feminine spirit in our leadership and a way to illustrate this might be to celebrate some of the great female pioneers of the past,” Williams said.
Enter Alice Wroe and Herstory, a participatory project that combines feminist art, education, and activism to engage people of all genders in celebrating women’s history—particularly women who have been left out (systematically or otherwise) of the traditional, historical canon.
“I’ve been researching these women for about four years and I’ve got hundreds of them. I have a little weep in the morning when I read about them and they literally feed me and make me stronger,” said Wroe, 26, by phone from Russia where she was running a series of Herstory workshops for street children earlier this month. “When I got the opportunity to show these women - my personal heroes - to the number of people who go to a U2 show each night, it blew my mind. I realized together we could genuinely rupture the canon that is so damaging to all of us, that just swells with white, CIS-gender men. And if we can promote these women’s lives on the stage and allow them to be the role models that they fully deserve to be, we really could change hugely how we relate to ourselves as women, how we relate to each other.”
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Wroe and Williams’ collaboration gave birth to the Herstory multimedia installation that accompanies ‘Ultraviolet’. The “luminous icons” themselves, aka the 50-by-40-foot motion graphics that showcase the women’s photographs and names, were created by Susana Yamamoto, a UK-based Brazilian artist and motion designer.
“Alice came up with two strategies; one was to divide the women loosely into categories (on the understanding that many women would span several) and within each category to present a ‘legacy map’ of how one woman’s work helped create a stepping stone for women who followed,” Williams said. “Generally we looked for women who could represent a time, a stance, or an attitude broader than just her own work. Alice was also very keen to include women who wouldn’t have agreed with each other on everything but were different voices in the conversation.”
In all, more than 60 women have been featured in the Ultraviolet/luminous icons piece, ranging from well-known cultural icons such as Oprah Winfrey, Michelle Obama, Sheryl Sandberg, Patti Smith, Angela Davis, Hillary Rodham Clinton, Lena Dunham, and Maya Angelou, to lesser-known women whose contributions to politics and protest movements; LGBTQ, women’s and Civil Rights; literature, music, business, and even sport has paved the paths that led directly or indirectly to their successes and triumphs.
So among the luminous icons there is Ellen DeGeneres, but also Moms Mabley—an openly-gay, black performer who was one of the first stand-up comedians to incorporate political commentary into her act—and Marsha P. Johnson, an African-American transwoman queer liberation pioneer, veteran of the Stonewall riots, and early AIDS activist.
Wroe calls the threads that connect the Herstory women ‘legacy paths.’
“I would find one woman who is so, so famous now that everyone would know who she is and what she stands for—a good example would be Malala—and then I’d work backwards.” That search led her to Begum Rokeya, the social activist who started the first school for Muslim girls in 1909 in Calcutta, India and dedicated her life to educating young women. “I cannot imagine a world in which Malala could stand up to the Taliban and know that she has a right to education as a young Muslim woman without Begum Rokeya having fought her whole life to empower young girls toward education.”
Researching Rokeya led Wroe to The Sari Squad, a group of South-Asian women in 1980s Great Britain who would dress in their traditional garb and go to multicultural events as a means of combatting racism. And when they encountered racist protesters, who were sometimes violent, they would defend themselves using martial arts. “And then they would burst into song afterwards,” Wroe said. “I love the idea of these incredible women in Britain wearing colorful saris defending themselves and others against racism.”
From the Sari Squad, Wroe’s research took her to Edith Margaret Garrud, one of the first female martial arts instructors in the world who, in 1913, trained the official 30-member all-women defense unit of the UK Suffragettes, known as ‘The Bodyguard’ or the ‘Jujitsusuffragettes.’
“I love these parallels between these women all over the world doing these different things but kind of gradually fitting in together to create a world that was better for themselves and for future generations of people,” Wroe said.
The band’s full-throated celebration of women, feminism, and women’s history in Act III is tapping into a shift, a “feminist bubbling” that’s happening globally, she said. “It’s all coming to a head at this moment, we have to ride it, and run with it…If we don’t look back and dig around for these women who were there and celebrate them in a serious way, how can we look forward and expect people like me and people like you to become the women we can be and change the world the way we can? Because if you can’t see it, you can’t be it. That is the maxim that pushes me forward and makes me believe that practicing women’s history is a political act.”
The Herstory/Ultraviolet piece also complements the ‘Miss Sarajevo/Miss Syria’ film shot by the French artist JR at the Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan, featuring the 15-year-old Syrian girl Omaima, as well as the work of ONE, whose “Poverty Is Sexist” campaign is also highlighted during the Third Act.
“Poverty is Sexist was born out of the idea that we simply cannot end extreme poverty until we break down the barriers holding girls and women back,” said Roxy Philson, ONE’s chief marketing officer, who with ONE’s creative director Meagan Bond, came up with the campaign’s name and concept. “The struggle of a young girl in Africa fighting to go to school or to decide who she marries might seem a million miles away— but as the Herstory piece powerfully and poignantly drives home, that this is a shared fight and a shared struggle.
“The images of these trailblazing women who have, quite literally, bent history to their will shows us that change is possible, and inspires me to keep up the fight for women everywhere,” Philson said. “None of us are equal until all of us are equal.”
The ONE Campaign has been collaborating directly with the Herstory piece by running online polls through Facebook where ONE members can nominate a local “she-ro” to be included among the luminous icons at the area show.
“The idea came directly from Bono, said Saira O’Mallie, tour relations manager and former interim UK director for ONE. “Going from city to city, we have all these icons, but he wanted to know who it is that really resonates with the people locally, the people who are actually making change.”
Sometimes the local “she-roes” (or femmes du jour as Williams calls them) are historical figures, such as Ida B. Wells, the African-American journalist and co-founder of the NAACP who was featured in Chicago, or the late Texas Governor Ann Richards, who appeared among the luminaries at the Houston show.
Other times, they’re contemporary women, such as Kehkashan Basu, a 16-year-old environmental activist from Dubai who was celebrated among the luminous icons at the Toronto show. Or María José Fletcher, co-founder of Vida Legal Assistance, who works with immigrant survivors of violent crimes (particularly sexual violence and human trafficking) in South Florida, who was included in the Tampa show.
As The Joshua Tree tour continues into Europe and South America, Herstory’s luminous icons will go with it and continue to evolve, said Williams who added: “Perhaps at the end of the tour we should do a mega-mix of them all!”