As a constitutional monarch, Queen Elizabeth is supposed to abstain from taking any overt political stance. Yet some commentators have noticed over time that she has sometimes made subtle commentary on current issues through her wardrobe choices, particularly her jewelry selection. The queen has a large assortment of decorative brooches, and she is rarely seen on public occasions without one pinned near her shoulder.
During the first meeting between Elizabeth II and Donald Trump in 2018, many royal watchers commented on the queen’s decision to wear a pin gifted to her by Barack and Michelle Obama, with whom, according to most accounts, she shared a cordial, mutually respectful relationship. Was the British monarch’s choice of that particular brooch a signal as to which American president she preferred?
Far less interpretive zeal is required to decipher the messages inherent in the oversized jewelry featured in the Persistence exhibition at the 701 Center for Contemporary Art. Each one of the more than 50 brooch-like pieces by Mana Hewitt, senior instructor and director of undergraduate studies for the art department at the University of South Carolina, heralds female accomplishment, often in defiance of expectation and, in some cases, downright opposition.
Encased in glass domes or traditional frames, the medallions — the artist describes them as medals not unlike those awarded for heroism in combat — feature enamel portraits of women of note affixed to a copper, brass or silver surface. Sometimes the piece has several panels suspended one above the other by chains. Both the portrait side and the back are etched with biographical information, quotes and associative symbols.
The medal for Harriet Tubman offers a fine example of the artist’s compositional scheme. This three-part tribute to the great abolitionist features a curved top piece with her name on the front and pin in the back, a larger middle panel featuring Tubman’s enamel portrait centered on an etched map framed by a chain, and a final pendant shaped like a padlock in the open position. A successful “conductor” on the Underground Railroad, the fearless Tubman helped approximately 70 enslaved people escape bondage and reach freedom in the North.
The women commemorated in this show represent a wide variety of fields, including government and politics, the arts and sciences, sports and entertainment. Gallery visitors should enjoy discovering the identities of the outstanding individuals Mana Hewitt decided to honor for their accomplishments.
Even more intriguing, in my estimation, is the opportunity to examine each piece up close to see how the artist matched her visual vocabulary to each subject. The likenesses of Supreme Court justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Elena Kagan and Sonia Sotomayor are framed, for example, by classical architecture representative of the Greek origins of Western democracy. The back of the medal for Hillary Rodham Clinton features the “Forward/Stronger Together” logo used during her 2016 Presidential campaign. The portrait of photographer Diane Arbus serves as the lens of a camera, and the likeness of movie actress and inventor Hedi Lamarr is framed by a circuit board. The enameled image of Aretha Franklin forms the center of an LP, and the likeness of Louise Nevelson is cast against a geometric background that resembles the puzzle-like configurations of her monochromatic wood sculptures.
Particularly resonant is the portrait of poet and civil rights activist Maya Angelou, which the artist places in a cage, echoing the titles of her 1969 autobiography and 1983 poem. Indeed, on the back of this one-piece medal Hewitt etched lines from that very poem, entitled “Caged Bird”: “The caged bird sings / with a fearful trill / of things unknown / but longed for still / and his tune is heard / on the distant hill / for the caged bird / sings of freedom.”
The exhibition of oversized commemorative medals pays fitting homage to women who left their mark on our world by never giving up on their unique genius. Overcoming roadblocks both personal and societal, they persisted.
What: Mana Hewitt: Persistence
Where: 701 Center for Contemporary Art, 701 Whaley St.
When: Through Sept. 8
More: 803-779-4571, 701cca.org