Every Story Tells a Picture

Thomasin Sleigh on the power of ekphrasis in women’s literature

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Thomasin Sleigh on the power of ekphrasis in women’s literature.

Let’s say you’re reading a review of an exhibition online and you arrive at the paragraph where the art is materially described. Do you:

  1. Skip it and scroll down to find some images
  2. Google the artist’s name to see if they have an Instagram account
  3. Find the gallery’s website and look at pictures of the show
  4. Open another window and start reading something else

Is it necessary, in 2018, to describe art in words? Images are cheaper, easier and more accurate. I’ve wondered why, when writing for the web, instead of a paragraph describing the art, review sites don’t just have a hyperlink to a gallery of install images and videos. Or just more images; often there are a few miserly pictures dotted throughout the text, when surely it is easy to show the exhibition in its entirety. In the absence of the art, the objects, or at least images of them, the translation into words often leaves a feeling of lack, of deficiency, of not-quite-enough – the feeling that the text is overreaching and falling short. A photograph is a quicker way to get what the reader wants, rather than slogging through the tedium of words that are, inevitably, inadequate substitutes.

Nevertheless, every artwork exists in the world surrounded by a cloud of language. Art historian Francis Pound suggested in his essay for the 1992 Headlands exhibition catalogue that New Zealanders are reticent to acknowledge the interpretative necessity of words in relation to art, and that an undercurrent of “anti-intellectuality” means that we would rather “imagine that art speaks to us, as it were, naked and alone.”[i] However, Pound writes, “…we tend to forget, or not to take much account of the fact, that art is everywhere embedded in words; and that it is internally riddled with words. We forget the catalogue essays, the ‘artist’s statements’, the newspaper reviews, the magazine articles, the gallery’s informative labels…The artist who makes the art has a head full of words; the viewer who views the art is also a container of words – there are words leaning out of our eyes as we gaze.”[ii]

Every artwork exists in the world surrounded by a cloud of language

Despite their limitations, and our swimming-in-images current moment, words are the primary way we understand and interpret art, and ekphrasis – the Greek word for describing a work of art in literature – has contemporary relevance, as artists and writers continue to be drawn to each other’s work; the two art forms won’t leave well enough alone, they prod and pester and nibble, inspired and frustrated by each other in equal parts.

I’m always on the lookout for writers with an interest in the visual arts. I’m drawn towards fiction that moonlights as art history; short stories that question that veracity of images; and, conversely, art that interrogates words, or reveals the structures and hierarchies of language. I recently read Ali Smith’s novel Autumn, the first in a proposed quartet of rapidly-written seasonal novels. Smith uses a fictional frame to look at the real-life fate of painter Pauline Boty. After her early death from cancer in 1966, when she was only 27, Boty’s paintings were stored in a shed on her brother’s farm until an enquiring curator uncovered them in the late 1980s, igniting interest in Boty’s work and her role in the British Pop Art scene of the ‘60s. Underscoring the novel’s concern with art and memory, Smith scatters small ekphratic moments throughout the book. Here, the character Daniel Gluck describes Boty’s paintings to his young friend Elisabeth:

          …Which game would you rather play? I’ll give you a choice of two. One. Every picture tells a story. Two. Every story tells a picture.
          What does every story tells a picture mean? Elisabeth said.
         Today it means that I’ll describe a collage to you, Daniel said, and you can tell me what you think of it.
          Without actually seeing it? Elisabeth said.
        By seeing it in the imagination, as far as you’re concerned, he said. And in the memory, as far as I’m concerned.

Smith suggests words and art are interdependent, symbiotic, but Daniel’s descriptions are also necessary because the painting he describes is actually missing, both physically, and in the patriarchal canon of art history.

Autumn prompted me to think about the relationship between feminism and ekphrasis. Beyond simple description, could contemporary ekphrasis be a more powerful and persuasive tool, a way of writing that deconstructs established hierarchies, reinterprets art, and allows women to speak back to depictions of themselves and their bodies? A quick Google of “ekphrasis” brings up this Guardian article that lists the genre’s “ten best examples.” Except for a scene in Charlotte Brontë’s novel Villette, this list is solely of men writing about the art of other men, so I began searching for local examples to counter this masculine canon.

The poetry of Therese Lloyd explores the feminist potential of ekphrasis. Her recent book The Facts is peppered with poems that respond to artworks by Edward Hopper, Bill Culbert and Graham Fletcher. In ‘Office at Night’, after Hopper’s painting by the same name, Lloyd writes from the viewpoint of the painted woman who stands at a filing cabinet and looks over at a man seated at a desk. The painting is characteristic of Hopper’s work: imbued with a sense of heightened emotional tension and ambiguous narrative, leaving the viewer wondering what happened immediately before, or after, the moment depicted. Taking on the voice of the woman in the scene, Lloyd writes:

I am almost certain I kept it here
a formula, a poem, an address
under the ‘miscellany of absence’
and while I look
you look down
a particular strain of shame
that holds us here

This poem riffs off the unsaid and unseen elements of this painting and the taut sense of repression and silence – “the ‘miscellany of absence’” – that pervades the scene.

Lloyd also explores the moment after the one depicted in a Hopper painting in the final poem of her collection, ‘Eleven a.m.’ In this painting, a naked woman, her face obscured by her hair, sits looking out an open window. Again, Lloyd speaks from her point of view, and again, uses the first person:

I am the Duchess of Dirty Laundry and Hapless Mortals
           my realm is made up of minutes
                        taken and given
                                    where activities fold over themselves
in incremental shifts
of light from my skin
When I took my throne
            time began
                        I am waiting to see
                                    what will happen
when I stand.


Lloyd’s poems not only give voice to the women in Hopper’s art but also act as a form of art criticism. In the painting Eleven a.m., the scene is heavily staged, strange, and the painted woman’s nakedness, as in much of the history of Western art, is unnecessary and gratuitous. Lloyd’s poem points to this history in the way it invests the light from the woman’s skin with a power; she sits on a throne; she is the Duchess of a realm; and when she stands and reveals herself she will no longer be anonymous, or a simple object to be gazed upon. This moment is full of possibility.

Lloyd, who in a recent RNZ interview said that “poetry can talk about art in a way that nothing else can”, uses ekphrasis as a way to reframe the way women are depicted and constrained within Hopper’s paintings. Her descriptions of the paintings allow for multiplicity and embodiment, as we are encouraged to inhabit the minds of the paintings’ subjects, and see the world through their eyes. Instead of looking at, we are looking with these women, and, as such, the poems resist the anonymising wash of Hopper’s paintings.

Her descriptions of the paintings allow for multiplicity and embodiment, as we are encouraged to inhabit the minds of the paintings’ subjects, and see the world through their eyes.

Savvy art gallery staff have long exploited the interest that writers and artists have in each other, and invitations are regularly extended for writers to participate in the interpretation of art and exhibitions. In 2015, fiction writer Tina Makereti was invited by LitCrawl Wellington to write a short piece in response to A Beautiful Hesitation, a major 2015 exhibition of Fiona Pardington’s photography at City Gallery. Makereti’s extraordinary resulting story, Black Milk, went on to become the Pacific Regional Winner of the 2016 Commonwealth Short Story Prize.

Makereti was attracted by a gallery wall that was hung with Pardington’s luminous black and white photographs of native birds, tūi and hūia, alongside details of their feathers and nests. In one of these photographs, Uncanny Tui, Kakahu (2008), Pardington accentuates the human-like shape of the tūi: slightly hunched, its wings like shoulders, the feathers around its neck like the top of a korowai. Makereti’s sinuous and elegant story can be read as an ekphrasis of this ghostly photograph, as Black Milk expands on Pardington’s suggested personification of the tūi and tells the story of a birdwoman who appears on earth.

Just as Pardington’s close cropping has an abstracting effect on the birds she depicts, Makereti’s story leaves the reader floating by deliberately withholding anchoring details. The use of te reo Māori and references to “spiraled markings on some of those chins” locate the story in Aotearoa, but the birdwoman’s ultimate purpose is ambiguous:

Her son stooped so that she could whisper in his ear. She told him where she had come from, about her own kind, how there were so few left. Their gifts. The covenant they had had with his father’s people. She told him how she had been sent a long time ago, and the telling was like an unravelling of all the things she had seen: the wars and despair, the museums and grief, the long, dark nights and the joy of making children.

The story can be read several ways: a parable for the extinction of New Zealand’s birdlife, or the importance of storytelling, or the impacts of colonisation, or the role of women – or, most likely, a combination of all of these.

Uncanny Tui, Kakahu appears as the prologue to Black Marks on the White Page (2017), an anthology of Māori and Pasifika writers edited by Makereti and Witi Ihimaera. The book is illustrated throughout with artworks by Māori and Pasifika artists, including Pati Solomona Tyrell, Yuki Kihara and Lisa Reihana, as well as Pardington; in its opening dedication and introduction the editors invoke the concept of talanoa, a Fijian, Tongan, and Samoan word for conversation or, more specifically, “dialogue that brings people together to share opposing views without any predetermined expectations for agreement”.[iii] Ihimaera and Makereti are particularly interested in the intersection of art and writing, and write in the introduction:

Perhaps the division between forms – fiction, creative non-fiction and poetry – doesn’t necessarily make sense to an Indigenous Oceanic world view. Words | stories | art | songs | dance | mythologies | ancestors | film | contemporary life | poetry – these all exist in the same moment, in the same space, and none of it is untrue.

This inclusive model suggests a continuity and circularity, each art form feeds the other, and on and on. This is an optimistic counter to the idea of lack or words-as-bad-substitutes with which I began this article. The talanoa set up in Black Marks isn’t an ‘either/or’ binary between words and images, but a ‘this/and’ participatory invitation that, in the case of Makereti’s Black Milk, allows descriptive passages that invoke the photograph better than any gallery-generated wall label could hope to:

This time is wasn’t bleak or hurtful, it was a flash of curved beak in velvet dark. Black milk. The depths of Te-Kore-the-place-before-night. More inviting, more liquid than you ever expected black to be. Darkness that holds all of light in it. Home, she thought, and she heard the movement of feathers through air.

Fiction writer Pip Adam was also invited by LitCrawl to write a short piece in response to Fiona Pardington’s exhibition. Adam has frequently expressed her interest in the visual arts and often cites artists as important influences on her writing. In an interview in 2016 she emphasised her particular affinity with photography:

I really like Gregory Crewdson’s work and Yvonne Todd’s and Anne Shelton’s and Ava Seymour’s, actually I LOVE photography and I like how it is ‘real’, the way it interacts with reality, the way it is a copy of objects that exist in this reality but no matter how documentary a photograph is, it’s still not real in an empirical sense. I feel like that about all writing.

In 2015, Adam collaborated with the photographer Ann Shelton on her work House Work, and the resulting experience – across both words and art ­– has stayed with me in the years since.

I registered my interest to participate in House Work and received an invitation to meet at a certain spot in Otari-Wilton’s Bush, in the Wellington suburb of Wilton. I assembled with a small group of people and a guide led us through the bush, up a hill, across a road, and into a small modernist house (if you are tuning out when reading this paragraph, check out the video below). The house was almost totally empty, except for the art hanging on the walls. We were invited to walk around, and we did, peering into the vacant rooms. It felt strange, entering this private space, but it also felt as if it had been prepared for us – emptied and cleaned – and the architecture was interesting: clean modernist lines, wood-panelled walls, bright red Formica bench tops in the kitchen, and substantial wooden shelving units.

Watch: Open Home – a short film by Becky Nunes about Ann Shelton’s House Work.

Shortly after we arrived, the inbuilt speakers in the lounge began playing the voice of someone reading a story. We gathered together to listen. This story, Making Herself at Home, written by Pip Adam, followed the character of Abigail, a woman recently separated from her husband after having an affair, and now wandering, broke and disconsolate, through the rain. As we listened, a disconcerting mirroring occurred: the story described Abigail walking through the bush, letting herself into an empty modernist house, and looking around, just as we had done. Sitting and listening in the empty lounge, we heard the room around us described:

The lounge was empty but there was still art on the walls. A large plane of yellow, disrupted at its base, nested in a white frame behind glass and another, slightly smaller. A photograph of a room that Abigail recognised and hummed warm and a collage, the cut-outs pushing everything flat – wheels, trees. But there was no furniture at all. Even a built-in chair had been removed. Abigail ran her hands over the change in colour on the wall where it had been.

Within House Work, Adam’s story was a real-time, synchronous ekphrasis. The writing described the house in which we sat, and a similar walk to the one we had just taken through the bush. Adam’s ekphrasis therefore existed right inside of House Work, as description, as critique, as history, as fiction, and as documentation; it unpacked and expanded on some of Shelton’s thematic concerns (in the way, say, a catalogue essay does) but was also aurally part of House Work and the viewers’ experience of work. As well as being active participants in Shelton’s artwork, I felt as if the assembled viewers could have been characters in Adam’s fiction, that the speaking voice would suddenly describe each person in the room, as if someone outside was watching us from a vantage point outside in the bush, and their voice was being amplified, Wizard of Oz-style, into the room.

Shelton’s art has frequently looked at the concerns of women and their role in society, and House Work expanded on these interests. The house in which we sat was Shelton’s current home, and had been built in 1957 by Nancy Martin, who was purportedly the first single woman in Wellington to receive a mortgage to build her own home. The house, therefore, is a bold physical example of one woman’s bravery and vision, in a society that suppressed women’s agency and restricted their financial and creative freedom. Adam’s story further teased out the building’s feminist history through the character of Abigail, who reads information about Nancy Martin on a laptop she finds in the house. It’s complicated: Adam’s fictional character, Abigail, reads about real-life Nancy Martin, as part of a story which was read out loud literally inside Shelton’s artwork, her house, which was also Shelton’s real home – a circularity that made my own ekphrasis of the artwork very tricky!

In putting together House Work, Shelton astutely perceived that writing was a good way to bring together Martin’s story and the history of her house. “I settled on the idea of enlisting a ghost writer,” she writes in the beautiful book produced to document this artwork, “not in the sense that her identity would be obscured but in the sense that I needed someone with the skill to weave together a life that is ghosted through my home and a piece of writing made sense on this level.”[iv] In House Work, the words and the art are symbiotic and embedded, and Adam’s story, through focusing on a contemporary character, works to pull Martin’s life and history into a contemporary political climate and highlights gender disparities (especially financial) that still exist in the present day.

In House Work, the words and the art are symbiotic and embedded

Sitting down inside Shelton’s (and, previously, Martin’s) house and listening to Adam’s story filling up the spaces of the elegant, wood-panelled room, Francis Pound’s statement, “there are words leaning out of our eyes as we gaze”, kept popping into my head, I think because the story seemed to fill up and inhabit the room, in a physical, cloudy way, and Adam’s words helped us grip onto and make sense of House Work.

It's interesting that, alongside Adam, Makereti and Lloyd are also thinking through what contemporary ekphrasis means in our image-dense 2018 – and there are other New Zealand writers I could add to this list, such as Megan Dunn, Cassandra Barnett and Anna Sanderson. In the small sliver of contemporary writing that I’ve looked at here, to talanoa ekphratically (!!) across both images and words is a powerful way to tell women’s stories, foreground their often-suppressed contributions to society, and allow for a feminist rewriting of the image.


[i] Francis Pound, ‘The Words and the Art: New Zealand art criticism c.1950–c.1990’, in Headlands: Thinking Through New Zealand Art (Sydney, Australia: Museum of Contemporary Art, 1992), 185.

[ii] Ibid

[iii] David Robinson and Kayt Robinson, ‘Pacific ways of talk – hui and talanoa’,p. 2, accessed September 2018,

[iv] Ann Shelton, ‘Artist’s note’, in A Spoonful of Sugar (Auckland: Rim Books, 2015).