Women of 1000: exploring the art and research of Meg Hyland

Hey, it’s Friday, and it’s also (now the day after) Valentine’s Day. I’m incredibly proud to be sharing an interview with Meg Hyland, creator of Women of 1000. Her project combines a childhood storybook style and serious, in-depth research as she explores the lives of women around the world from over one thousand years ago. Her thoughts on white feminism, female empowerment, and female friendship are fitting for a day that often celebrates a more narrow idea of love. Also, she has a calendar for sale. Check it out!

Also, apologies this post is a day late–Wordpress was not allowing me to upload photos yesterday, for whatever godforsaken reason.

Tell us about Women of 1000. In a sentence, what’s it about for people who are unfamiliar with your project?

Women of 1000 is an art and research project exploring the stories of women all over the world who lived a thousand years ago.

How did you get the idea for Women of 1000?

I graduated with a degree in Mediaeval History from the University of St Andrews in 2017. I loved what I did there, but after I graduated, I felt that I was officially “qualified” in medieval history but still knew so little about that time period outside of Europe. I started educating myself about the pre-colonial history of Wisconsin, where I grew up, and continued from there. I was learning so much and wanted to share it with other people, but I was still trying to figure out how.

Sei Shōnagon

Then I read an amazing book called The Pillow Book. It was written by Sei Shōnagon, a Japanese lady-in-waiting, in the early 11th century. It’s a hilarious and sometimes heartwarming collection of anecdotes about life in the court of Empress Teishi. What shocked me so much about reading this was how personal it was — the minutiae of everyday life and interactions, with all the irritation and affection we can relate to today, were captured in so much more detail than anything you’d get written in Europe at the time, let alone anything written by a woman.

Once I read The Pillow Book I got the urge to draw Sei Shōnagon to tell more people about her through art. Expanding that idea to include women from other places is how Women of 1000 started. Concentrating on women from a specific year also helped focus my goal of learning about all the places I hadn’t learned about in my formal education. When you ask the question “What was life for a woman like in this place, in this year?” you can tackle it much more manageably.

Why did you choose 1000? What is the significance of the year to you?

I chose the period when Sei Shōnagon was alive. I was leaning towards picking 1000 because it was a nice round number, but it turned out that an event recorded in The Pillow Book that took place in 1000 was especially poignant.

Sei Shōnagon writes (very amusingly) of the various male lovers who come in and out of her life, but the one relationship that remains constant throughout the book is her deep friendship with Empress Teishi. In 1000, Teishi was pregnant with the Emperor’s child but had been eclipsed by a new favourite wife. In spring on the day of the Sweet Flag Festival, Shōnagon’s favourite day of the year, she and the Empress exchanged poems about their friendship, with the Empress saying that Shōnagon was the only one who understood her heart.

By the time Shōnagon wrote this story down, the Empress had died; she died at the end of the year 1000. The exchange of poems on the final Sweet Flag Festival they shared together summed up so beautifully the relationship between Shōnagon and the Empress. Scholars think she wrote The Pillow Book so that history would remember the life of poetry, beauty and fun at Teishi’s court instead of her fall from grace. This really sealed the deal for me in picking 1000 as the year to set my project.

What do you think examining the lives of women in times gone past can teach us today? Huge question! 

That is a huge question, but a very good one! There are a couple of important takeaways I hope people have after learning about the women I feature in my project.

The first is that the story of women’s lot throughout history is not the same in all places. White feminism popularized the idea that women were oppressed until the liberation movements of the 20th century, but this isn’t true across the board. For example, I recently featured the story of Jigonsaseh, one of the founders of the Haudenosaunee Confederacy in what’s currently called New York.

Jigonsaseh

Aside from being crucial to the spread of the Confederacy’s ideas of peace between warring neighbours, Jigonsaseh instituted a form of government which placed women in serious positions of authority. The Clan Mothers of the Confederacy are the ones who nominate the male chiefs, and if they don’t think the chiefs are doing their duties well (including by committing violence against women), the Clan Mothers have the right to revoke their chieftainships. The Haudenosaunee also can’t go to war without the approval of the Clan Mothers, who control all food production.

It wasn’t until colonization that the Haudenosaunee began experiencing high rates of violence against women which continue today, as well as patriarchal religious and governmental structures imposed by outsiders. In spite of these challenges, the Clan Mothers still hold their position in the governance of the Confederacy, and Native women across North America are fighting to restore the rights they had before colonization. In cases like these, it’s clear that the narrative of women’s liberation is not linear, but has in fact varied wildly across place and time.

The second thing I hope people take away from these women’s stories is that women have always been important to course of history. Sometimes it was by occupying roles we typically think of as belonging only to men, such as religious and political leaders. I’ve been really surprised at just how many women held political power across the world in the year 1000. For example, the Liao Empire in modern-day Mongolia was ruled by a woman, Empress Chengtian, who successfully invaded Korea — also ruled by a woman, Queen Heonae! Part of Iran was ruled by a woman, Sayidda Shirin, while Egypt was de facto ruled by Sitt al-Mulk who in 1000 became primary advisor to her younger brother, the caliph al-Hakim.

Sitt al-Mulk

However, women have also been important to the course of history in ways that had nothing to do with political power. One example is my illustration ‘The Weaver of Xuenkal’, which features an elite Mayan woman weaving a beautiful textile. This piece was inspired by an archaeological report I read which argued that the women of Xuenkal, a city in the Yucatán peninsula, revolutionized their weaving techniques around the year 1000. Before they had only woven what they needed, but their neighbour Chichén Itzá was growing in power. Other cities fell afoul of Chichén Itzá, but the women of Xuenkal began weaving surplus textiles which could be paid as tribute. Xuenkal was therefore incorporated into the trade network between Chichén Itzá and the coast, which financed new building projects in the city. These women are nameless, but their ingenuity shaped the history of their city and region.

I hope that people who read about these women are inspired to challenge their received notions of history and imagine futures where all women are recognized for their contributions and have an equal spot at the table. 

If you had to pick a favourite Woman of 1000, who would you choose? I’m sorry if this is an impossible question!

Well, I’ve already told you about Sei Shōnagon, so I’ll pick a second favourite! It’s probably Coniupuyara, one of the first illustrations I did in the series. The Coniupuyara were women who ruled cities in the interior of the Amazon Rainforest. A Spanish friar called Gaspar de Carvajal was lost with a group of conquistadors on the Amazon River. His account of the people they met along the way is fascinating because it paints a picture of an urban rainforest with wide paved roads, exquisite pottery, and gleaming temple mounds, home to millions of people in highly organized societies.

Threaded throughout his story are references to the Coniupuyara — in one town, the Spanish were told that the town’s only economic function was to offer tribute of macaw feathers to the Coniupuyara, who used them to line the roofs of their temples. Carvajal met the Coniupuyara in person when they led their troops in battle against the Spanish. The only way he could understand what he was seeing was to describe them as the Amazons from Greek mythology, and that’s where the Amazon rainforest gets its name.

Later Europeans didn’t find any of what Carvajal described because disease had decimated so much of the Amazon, so his account was discredited until archaeologists started finding evidence of the cities. I loved trying to reconstruct what one of the Coniupuyara might have looked like based on female figurines from circa 1000.

I love your simple, storybook style. What inspires you? 

Thank you! Animation was an early influence on my drawing style, and I think that still comes through even if I’ve moved away from the anime and cartoon style I had when I started drawing. My sister Ellie is a big artistic inspiration for me. I also love landscape paintings and storybooks. Other reconstruction artists and museum dioramas inspire me too.

What’s the research like for each woman? What’s the longest you’ve spent on a single woman’s story? 

It depends on whether I’m drawing a specific person known from historical literature or recreating a person based on archaeology. For some women, there are books and articles about them based on historical texts.

For other illustrations, I read archaeology and ethnography to try to reconstruct what life was like in a place a thousand years ago. This is never perfect; ethnographic accounts of people’s lives and cultures only capture a moment in time, usually biased by the recorder’s worldview. But I’d rather use these imperfect measures to try to recreate life for woman in a place than leave out entire parts of the planet where women lived but didn’t write anything down, especially since it’s due to colonization that their oral histories have been so disrupted.

Mahendradatta

The longest I’ve spent on a single woman’s story was Mahendradatta, Queen of Bali. I started researching her when the project began two years ago, but I only finally got her illustration done in December! I usually do about one illustration a month, but I’m always researching multiple women at once.

Where do you see your projects headed in the future?

A lot of people ask me if I’d ever turn this project into a book, and that would be really cool. My dream would be to have enough money to commission other artists who are actually from the cultures I learn about to create their own pieces about women who inspire them as sort of a companion project. But that doesn’t seem imminent!! I’d like to give talks at academic conferences to highlight my way of using art to bring research to a wider audience and make it more accessible.

One of my other goals for the project is to expand my coverage to people who were transfeminine. The identity “trans woman” is a complicated one to project back into the past because a lot of cultures had more than two genders, but there are definitely transfeminine people who I’d like to include. I want all people who identify as women or femmes to see that history is full of people like them!

Tell me about how your academic endeavours. What are you studying, and where do you want to go next?

Last year I graduated from the University of Edinburgh with an MSc in Celtic and Scottish Studies, and I’ve applied to return there to do a PhD in the same subject. My research topic is women’s work song in the Scottish fishing industry. My masters thesis looked at recordings of Scottish Gaelic songs which were sung by herring gutters when they gut and packed the fish. For my PhD, I’d like to expand to other languages, such as English, Scots and Irish.

Tell us about your mom. I studied underneath her at the University of St Andrews, and she’s awesome. I would love my readers to hear more about her. 

Thanks for asking about her! She IS awesome. My mom is Sabine Hyland, a Professor of World Christianity at the University of St Andrews. She specializes in colonial Peruvian ethnohistory. In recent years, she has focused on khipus, the writing system of knotted cords that the Inca used to keep all their records. Khipus are actually older than the Incas (I featured one in my illustration ‘The Reader of Ancash’), and they lasted beyond them too, since missionaries would use them to teach people Christianity, and small communities in the Andes continued using them for letter-writing and record-keeping centuries after the Spanish conquest.

My mom tries to decipher the khipus by looking at post-Inca khipus and the notes that missionaries, village leaders, and anthropologists recorded about them. She received a lot of media attention for deciphering the first phonetic element of a khipu: the names of two social groups at the beginning and end of a khipu “letter” exchanged between their leaders during an 18th century rebellion against the Spanish. This was the first decipherment of an element of a khipu since the Inca decimal system was decoded in the 1920s! She gets contacted by rural communities in the Andes who want her to come and look at their khipus, sometimes in an effort to access their cultural patrimony which is locked away in urban museum stores, or to prove to the government that their lands are of cultural importance and shouldn’t be sold off to foreign investors.

Where can my readers find you?

Women of 1000 has a website where you will find all the illustrations, stories, and resources to learn more about each woman featured. You can also find the project on Facebook and Twitter. I don’t have a smartphone yet so I can’t post to Instagram, but that should change soon! I collect inspiration and research images on Pinterest, and you can find my professional profile on LinkedIn.

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