Laws to Live Byby Meghan McDermott
Laws of the Bandit Queens: Words to Live by from 35 of Today’s Most Revolutionary Women
(Three Rivers Press, $17.00)
Flipping though the bold and beautiful portraits in photographer Ali Smith’s second book, Laws of the Bandit Queens, one is stuck by the simple fact that this is a rare and thoughtful collection of women. Featuring witty, playful, and provocative images of artists, writers, thinkers, activists, provocateurs, athletes, comedians, and politicos of all kinds, Ali Smith complements her photographs with each woman’s stated “law to live by.” It is a work that captures the everyday resilience of women to achieve and hope, reaffirming Agnes Rogers’s 1949 photographic tribute to “the durable sex in its infinite variety though half a century of American life.” That’s right fellas, women are here to stay.
For instance, take playwright Paula Vogel’s law: “To paraphrase Stella Adleer, there are three things you need to make it: 1. The tenacity of a bulldog, 2. The hide of a rhinoceros, and 3. A good home to come home to.” Or the Guerilla Girls’ law: “Any veteran of the civil rights, women’s, or gay rights movement knows that progress is the result of pressure, protest and struggle. Persevere.” This is good stuff.
Inspired by the legendary life of the original “Bandit Queen” Phoolan Devi, a woman born into the lowest caste of Indian society who rebelled, survived, and raged into leading a notorious gang that was the bane of the upper castes, Laws of the Bandit Queens reflects her essence. Devi “represents a determined unwillingness to accept the oppression fostered by the norms of society,” writes Ali, who through this affordable, accessible art book give us alternative ways of seeing women in their own skin.
Dissatisfied with her photo career, fed up with the exploitative lifestyle that came with being a musician, and reckoning with turning 30, Ali decided to leave her excellent but exhausting band SpeedBall Baby. As she explains, she “put the importance of my belief system over my need for any external affirmation. I wanted to celebrate people who live according to personal codes that I could relate to and respect, and who have each done at least one concrete thing that I feel gives women a stronger, smarter presence in a world often inclined to the undervalue them.” Ali thus began a process of creatively documenting women she was inspired by and had access to through her work as a musician and a photographer, creating a prototype design for a book. Her initial work featured such controversial Bandit Queens as Janeane Garofalo, Sandra Bernhard, Ann Magnuson, Lydia Lunch, and punk rock goddess Exene Cervenka.
These days, the law most on Ali’s mind is one generated by writer Alice Walker for the book, because it symbolizes the core of what motivated her: “The right to exist as I am is fundamental. My presence proves it.” In a recent interview Ali explained, “So much is about accepting how you are feeling, about being confident and taking it to the highest degree.” She adds, “It takes so ridiculously long to get to the point where you simply accept yourself as you are and feel good about that person … then you can start to shine.”
While she’s quick to note that deprivation is not particular to women, Ali emphasizes that, “it is exaggerated. No matter how far you go, there is a price to pay. No one is immune to these pressures. But there are more imposed roadblocks for us because of unexamined traditions and unrevised assumptions about the capabilities, or lack thereof, of the sexes.” She says of herself, “I question the self-serving motives of people who create and perpetuate these standards,” and for the rest of us she smiles and adds “I don’t friggin trust them.”
And this is why her photos are so remarkable—as they reflect more than a single view of the women in the pages. Instead, they appear as composite representations inspired by the actions of each one as they fight the good fight. Of her photographs, Ali says, “it’s collaborative by nature, the nature of what you’re doing is different. These photos capture the time we spent together creating the images.” Pulling them together underscores that their successes are not a random act but an evolution of spirit, purpose, and possibility. “I see this as an expression of an evolution in thought and not politics that belong only to a ghettoized group. I’m a feminist because I believe in equal social and political rights and representation for women worldwide. That seems like a no-brainer to me.”
Being a Bandit Queen means letting nothing stop you from pursuing desire, joy, and justice. That’s why a story like that of Waris Dirie, who survived genital mutilation, needs to be shared as much as possible. “How did she know she was worth more when everything happening to her said otherwise?” asks Ali. “She just did.” It means you have the prerogative to make change and keep reinventing what holds you down. In the truly wise and rebellious words of Exene Cervenka, “If I ever did manage to find a law to live by, I would break it.”
MEGHAN MCDERMOTT is a Local Editor and contributing writer for the Brooklyn Rail.