Contemporary South Asian artists are picking up elements from ancient history to present radical and progressive ideas on feminism and sexuality.
At the Broad Art Museum at Michigan State University last year, a five-month long exhibition, titled “The Artist as an Activist,” by renowned Bangladeshi artists Tayeba Begum Lipi and Mahbubur Rehman opened to rave reviews. The exhibit spread across an entire floor at the Broad and three different galleries, displayed 40 intriguing pieces, tackling everything from cultural, gender, regional to sociopolitical issues. The American media and visitors seemed especially curious about the works centered on the transgender community or hijras, as they are called in the subcontinent.
Traversing the sordid life and travails of Alyonna, a transgender, whom Tayeba Lipi met and befriended in Bangladesh, the works titled “When Life Began” and “Lullaby,” were amongst the most discussed and written about.
Lipi says, “We were surprised and could not say whether it was interesting for Americans, a country certainly far-ahead of the subcontinent when it comes to transgender rights, or was it that they did not expect an artist from Bangladesh to be talking about a subject considered blasé in her society.”
South Asian art, a subject of immense curiosity for the West, is often compartmentalized. Because it frequently draws from fables, mythology and folk traditions, it is often viewed as merely referencing its regional and cultural associations.
However, a new wave of contemporary women artists are presenting radical, feminist and critical portrayals of their society. Their thoughts and processes, plucked from the challenges of the times and societies, are presented in a global context and often hold universal meaning. For many Indian, Pakistani and Bangladeshi origin artists, the inspirations are in their roots, but the manifestations extend beyond the cultural limits. Often, the artists are striving to bring to the fore progressive ideas from their ancient cultures, which were sidelined during the influx of “modernization.”
South Asian feminist art is in an interesting phase presently, as contemporary artists fearlessly present ideas that debunk gender identities, portray women protagonists as self-sufficient heroic warriors, and dauntlessly question deep-seated biases. For their art, often subjects, such as sexuality, sensuality and body image, are empowering tools, not something to be self conscious about.
Brooklyn based artist Chitra Ganesh, derives the narratives for many of her works from forgotten or buried events in history. The artist, who has held several exhibitions across the United States and abroad, including solo presentations at PS1/MOMA, New York, has also shown powerful and intriguing women as protagonists in her paintings. Amongst her works is a painting of Dutch courtesan and spy Mata Hari.
Ganesh says: “My feminine icons are strong women who are extremely well-known, but still have a mystery around them. Like Mata Hari, who is a spy, but is participating in a very involved way in a highly political world or Jhansi Ki Rani who had an aura of intrigue around her.”
So how do viewers in the West used to stereotypes of docile South Asian women, instead of the strong, fiery, women, such as her portrayal of Goddess Kali, with three breasts and a dark stance, react? Ganesh says: “The kinds of challenges I face with the reception of my work as an artist of Indian origin, whose works is situated within a figurative representation, vary from location to location. In the United States, for example, work is often interpreted autobiographically, or as a reflection or comment on a larger truth about Indian, South Asian communities. For example, there have been countless times the imagery I create has been taken for a self-portrait, even when these characters look nothing at all like me.”
She adds: “In the subcontinent, the issues around sexuality and nudity have been more provocative, rather than the dark skinned aspect of my figures. There is relative little outright nudity and sexuality portrayed in contemporary Indian art, though its antecedents include millennia of figurative, and at times even boldly sexual sculpture.”
No Easy Portrayal
The artists are not conveying unified or particular messages in their works.
The works are often fluid forms of thoughts that may mean different things to different people.
Visual artist, Hiba Schahbaz, who grew up in Karachi, Pakistan, and is now based in New York, uses centuries-old miniature painting forms to present contemporary feminist ideas. Her works of women and mostly nude portraits wrestle with the themes of sexuality, censorship and freedom.
Says Schahbaz, whose works exhibited at the Vienna Art Fair and at Scope New York: “I’m aware that my work is breaking several stereotypes — the female miniaturist as opposed to the male miniaturist, the female Muslim traditionally brought up painter who is painting herself nude, the portrayal of western masterpieces as a brown nude woman (in my work) is intentional.”
She adds: “The truth is my painting process is very organic and intuitive, and the breaking of stereotypes is often a side effect. I do paint matters, which move and motivate me; these are sometimes personal sometimes political or social.”
The idea of unabashedly displaying their thoughts and intentions on the canvas, not worrying about the consequential meanings, if any, that the work may draw, also seems to be a common thread among many contemporary artists.
Artist Sukanya Mani, who is based in St Louis, Missouri, and often uses tales from her childhood and mythology to question notions of patriarchy, says, “I can see strength in sexuality, but a viewer may see it just as a sexual picture.”
She points to her series of work, titled, “Transcendence of Color,” in which she painted faceless men and women in black and white, to brush away ideas of race, culture and ethnicity, “The ideas was to study pure humanity without any biases.”
The artist who has exhibited at Center for Diversity and Inclusion, St Louis, and at Gallery at Chesterfield Arts, explains her work “Untitled,” which shows a nude portrait of woman sitting backwards: “For me, that’s a powerful image of a woman who is confident in her skin. For me the image is even modest, as you don’t see the face, but the body. But someone may perceive it as a sexual image and I am all right with it too.”
Tales of Power
Contemporary South Asian artists also retell stories of power and freedom in ancient history. Mani says: “A few years ago I displayed my work of Ardhanarishvara, an androgynous form of Hindu Lord Shiva and Parvati that is depicted as half male and half female, for an American exhibit on Freedom. Many Westerners were fascinated that the idea of a third gender existed as far back as 1st century in Hindu tradition and it was immediately picked up not by an Indian, but an American collector.”
Chitra Ganesh, who often draws references from the Indian comic series Amar Chitra Katha, one of India’s largest selling series that retells stories from epics, mythology, folklore and fables, says: “Amar Chitra Katha represents a collective visual memory bank, especially for people amongst a certain generation such as mine, when there was fewer variety in general around comics, cartoons and graphic novels, not just in India, but also in the West. The collective repository or archive of images is an extremely powerful point of reference, as it often intersects with many peoples’ first experiences reading, learning history, social and cultural codes, and so on.”
However the artists also do not think it’s important to only lean back on their own heritage. Ganesh, says: “I don’t think it is essential to begin with cultural material that is directly linked to an artists’ national origin or cultural heritage. As long as the material has profound meaning or resonance for the artist, one can take any material and use it to think through a set of ideas like feminism, or storytelling, and create works that have a deep impact on their audience.”
Artist Schahbaz agrees: “The new self-portraits I am working on are based on western masterpieces. This series began when I posed myself after Ingres La Grande Odalisque and ended up in an impossible position with a sprained neck. My illusions about the old masters painting beautiful life-like women exactly as they were, was shattered and I became obsessed with the elongated back and turned neck of the Odalisque and painted her repeatedly as myself. After this I began moving through Western art history and studying masterpieces of iconic women and using them as inspiration for self-portraiture.”
The artists also maintain that they are expressing universal emotions through their canvas. With their art they are often bringing to fore uncomfortable truths about their society that may find a resonance elsewhere too.
Lipi, who has done some of the most prolific work as an artist from Bangladesh, presents her thoughts in a subtle but sharp way. Amongst her works is a shiny baby’s cradle installation titled “My Daughter’s Cot,” which on closer inspection is made of thousands of sharp metal razor blades.
Explaining this contrast between something so fragile as a baby’s cot to something as dangerous as a blade, Lipi says: “The depiction is from my own memories of growing up in a large extended family in Bangladesh, where I saw a lot of child births. At the time of a woman’s labor in family, young boys were summoned to bring sterilized blade from the shop, the only tool instrumental in bringing a new life by midwives.” The practice is still common in small towns and villages in Bangladesh.
Lipi says: “I am not an activist, my activism comes through my works. I try to talk about lots of odd things, but in a satirical vein.” An example is her work, I Wed Myself, in which Lipi shows getting married to one’s own self.
For Mani, art also empowers the viewer to look beyond the archetypical. Some of her portrayals of women dressing and reveling in their bodies while wearing a gajra in their hair signify great power. She says: “I do not subscribe to the idea that women in subcontinent dressing for their men is suppressive. I see a lot of freedom of choice and happiness in a woman wanting to dress up and show her beauty to her beloved.”
The manifestations of many artists, sharply contrast what is seen and what is truth.
For instance, Lipi in her installation, titled Love Bed, which has been showcased at Guggenheim Museum in New York says:“The metal bed, on close inspection is made of blades and shows the state of affairs of many loveless marriages in the subcontinent. Another one has metallic bras, again made up of needles and blades, so as to say that why should a man look at my breasts and why do I have to cover it up with an odhna.”
Ganesh sums up the popular sentiment of the artists: “I am interested in creating the kinds of images I would like to see, and images which offer audiences a different set of representations than those which are more widely disseminated by mass mediated culture.”