Why feminism doesn’t work in Asia?

“The oppression of women knows no ethnic nor racial boundaries, true, but that does not mean it is identical within those boundaries.” (Andre Lorde)

Bharit Kher, Hybrid series self portrait, 2007, digital C-print, 45 x 54 cm,Rockbund Art Museum, Shanghai

Bharti Kher, Hybrid series self portrait, 2007, digital C-print, 45 x 54 cm

She gazes boldly outside of the frame, her eyes fixed on the lens, confronting the viewer with the piercing look. In conventional feminist theory, the return of the gaze signifies resistance – once an object of the gaze, the woman asserts herself as a daring subject; like Manet’s Olympia she addresses the voyeur, challenging his position of power. As such, Bharti Kher’s Hybrid series self portrait is not dissimilar to artworks of western feminists such as Claude Cahun, Hannah Wilke, or Cindy Sherman all of which, like Kher, use the return of the gaze and the performative self-portraiture to assert their presence, reclaim their female bodies and subvert the patriarchal power dynamics.[1] Furthermore, as they use their own bodies and perform variety of roles, these artists point to the fluidity of identity and to its construed (rather than innate) nature. Kher, as noted in the recent Biennale of Sydney catalogue, “sees the body as a literal and metaphorical site for the construction of ideas around gender, mythology and narrative.” Fusing human and animal body parts into “strangely beautiful but quietly grotesque hybrid figurative sculptures,” she creates “mythical urban goddesses, creatures who came out of the contradiction of the idea of femininity or the idea of womanhood … she is the goddess, the housewife, the mother, the whore, the mistress, the lover, the sister … everything’.”[2]

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Claude Cahun, Autoritratto, 1929      |      Hannah Wilke, S.O.S. Starification Object Series, 1974

While Kher’s practice could be compared to western feminists such as Cahun, Wilke and Sherman the comparison is overtly simplified and even problematic. Kher’s identity is far more complicated than that of white western female because it is multi-dimensional and subject to additional layers of oppression that extend beyond the problems of gender to include issues of race and ethnicity. Born in London to Indian parents, and now living and working in New Delhi, Kher is no stranger to the feelings of inferiority and otherness; her body a carrier of hybridity, gazed at and colonized not just by the male but also by the female gaze. It is this hybridity, this complex and confused identity that is examined in her photographic-performance as she candidly portrays herself as a primate, an ape. Neither female nor male, Kher is a “lesser” animal in Darwinian scale of progress. Putting on an ape mask, she expresses her awareness (or fear) of being perceived as less than a human, or as a lower, inferior kind of a human. The ape-mask is, therefore, an externalised, materialised expression of an inner feeling, a feeling of inferiority made poignantly visible. So, when Kher performs herself in order to discover herself and in order to point to the way she is being seen, she does not perform herself as a Hollywood starlet like Sherman would do. The glamorous identity is unimaginable to a woman like Kher. It is, in fact, Sherman’s privileged position of power that enables Sherman to imagine and perform such an identity.

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Cindy Sherman, Untitled Film Still 58 (1980)

I do not wish to argue that Kher’s work is not concerned with ideas and practices associated with western feminism (i.e. challenging the patriarchal power dynamics) but I do wish to highlight that feminism in Kher’s case is much broader and deals with a wider range of issues, issues that are unthinkable to white western female artists and on behalf of which white western female artists do not, can not, and even should not speak. As expressed by Lisa E. Bloom, “defining features of Western feminism do not always neatly translate from one context to another.”[3] This, in part, is a reason why Asian female artist resits “feminism” as a label and why Melissa Chu notes that “any attempt to place Asian women within a totally Western feminist context would be an act of postcolonial piracy.” To label Asian female artists as feminist is to submit them to the western narrative that speaks little of their own cultural conditions. This approach fosters the assumption that female condition is universal and homogenous; that all women globally share the same kinds of problems and experiences independent of the socio-political context. When western feminism attempts to nest the practice of Asian female artists under its banner, and when white western feminists assume themselves entitled to speak on behalf of the Asian female artists, they in fact use “the master’s tools”[4] taking on the position of power in relation to the Asian women, thus keeping the Asian women silenced and submissive. This assumption that “Third World women’s oppression […] fits into Euro-American women’s criteria […] may well mean ‘westernization’,”[5] notes Trinh Minh-Ha.

It is for these reasons that the Asian female artists refuse the nestling under the label feminism which remains defined by the white western female perspective. Instead, following on the footsteps of Gayatri Spivak, they raise a provocative question: “can the subaltern speak?” In her famous 1988 essay of the same title, Spivak addresses the dependence upon western intellectuals to “speak for” the subaltern condition, thus assimilating it under the white western mentality rather than allowing the subaltern to speak for themselves and make themselves visible. This dependence, as explained by Minh-Ha, only keeps the “needy” in the state of need and inferiority[6] rather than giving them an opportunity to “concentrate their efforts on dispelling ideas popularly held about their so-called inferior status,”[7] and challenge the arrogant hegemonic assumption that there is only one standard of being an independent woman.

Alongside gendered identity, Kher investigates the uncomfortable sensation of hybridity, diasporic displacement, and cultural inferiority. The body, in her case is not just female but also Asian and the oppression is, therefore, doubled and even tripled – what Minh-Ha calls “double/triple bind” referring to “the marginalisation of women by both colonization and racism, in addition to patriarchal oppression.”[8] As she addresses these multiple layers of marginalisation, Kher’s performance becomes doubly or triply bold because it challenges not only the patriarchal stereotypes of submissive women but also the stereotypical perception of Asian female as submissive and silent. Kept behind the scene, invisible and silenced both for being female and for being Asian, when Asian female artists take on performance art as genre they not only claim their presence within the patriarchal society but also within the society of other women, subverting the dominant paradigm of the “First World” and challenging the Western norm. As they do so, they “insist on equality with a difference”[9] and as such refuse to be incorporated in a homogenised category of female and to be “spoken for by the colonizer.”[10] Instead they insist on “the dissolution of canonical borders that allows for the inclusion of voices that have been previously silenced.”[11] Once marginalized, dismissed and merely tolerated, their voices and their perspectives are now daringly asserted as part of the mainstream. But this mainstream is now expended and heterogeneous, disrupting the “assum[ption] that women are a coherent group or category prior to their entry into social, cultural and family structure.”[12] Asian female artists, therefore, as noted by Mitsuye Yamada have a challenge to “affirm [their] own culture while working […] to change it.”[13] In other words, they both need to build a respect for their culture in the western mind, and critique that same culture’s out-dated patriarchal power dynamic.

On top of addressing gender, racial and cultural roles, Kher also explores the tension between tradition and modernity and the imaging of the body that is transforming from the primate to the human could also be seen as a metaphorical expression of the adjustment to the modern age. Kher’s image, in other words, addresses the challenge of this adaptation and her artistic practice, as was described by Kher herself, is “the hunt for a chimera, the monster as a symbol of […] constant mutation and in conflict with itself.”[14] This tension between tradition and modernity is also explored in the work by Chinese artist Echo Morgan and Iranian artist Shadi Ghadirian both of whom are pointing to the imprint of tradition on the body and the psyche, and investigate the individual’s search for the new identity in the changing modern and global society (irrelevant to whether this individual is female or male).

Like Kher, Echo Morgan uses her own body as a medium. Her live performance work is titled Be the Inside of the Vase, suggesting the submissiveness to the traditional Chinese culture. Naked and painted over to resemble a traditional Chinese porcelain vase, Morgan is vulnerably exposed to what she sees as an inevitable imprint of Chinese tradition. The imperative statement ‘Be the inside of the vase’ comes across as a command but it is also a cynical statement that functions as an act of resistance. As she commands the submissiveness she also brings attention to this very command that is imprinted on the Chinese psyche just as the white and blue paint are literally imprinted onto her body. The act of stating is therefore compared to the act of painting, a human action and not a given condition. To follow tradition is, therefore, not a necessity but a conditioning. As she portrays herself as a fixed object (a passive vase), Morgan suggests her obedience to the authority of tradition but the performance of this obedience is in turn an attempt to bring this conventionalized and normalized authority of tradition to consciousness and interrogation.

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Echo Morgan, Be the Inside of the Vase, 2012

Another artist that questions the authority of tradition and investigates the transformation of identity in the modern, globalized society is Iranian artist Shadi Ghadirian. In yet another series of photographic-performances she portrays Middle Eastern women dressed in traditional Islamic hijab while nonchalantly holding objects associated with progress, modernity and consumerism (all of which are easily associated with Western colonialisation of traditional Iranian culture). Again fiercely gazing at the camera, these women seem to assert themselves as legitimate owners of these objects which belong to them as much as to their western producers. As a modern Muslim woman living in Iran, Ghadirian draws attention to the customs of her Iranian culture and its contemporary transformation resulting from the interaction with other cultures. Her images are symbolic representation of the influence of western culture and consumer commodities, and the changing nature of Asian daily life. The cultural identity is nowhere in the world anymore fixed but heterogeneous and fluid. This is not to say that Ghadirian celebrates this progress nor that she sees it as an effortless evolution. The evolution is confusing and psychologically uncomfortable, requiring a rapture in what was once normalized; the casting off of an old skin. This casting off or tearing apart, is not dissimilar to Bhatri Khar’s metaphor of transformation from the primate to the human.

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Shadi Ghadirian, Qajar Series, 1998

Like Morgan, Ghadirian is interested in accepting the modernity and finding the way the tradition could be incorporated into it whilst also critical of traditions stubborn resistance of change and adaptation. This critique is evident in the couple of images in which we see two traditionally dressed Islamic women holding mirrors in their laps. In Qajar #23 the mirror reflects the two women, while in Qajar #24 it is held by two completely covered women to reflect the bookshelf in front of them. The mirror indicates the framing and the act of framing alludes to the normalisation and regularity. The frame, in other words, limits the possibilities and growth. The use of the frame could therefore suggest Ghadirian’s critique of the limits of tradition which put the frame on what identity and the culture can and cannot be. This reading is furthermore encouraged in the image where the mirror reflects the books, the carriers of knowledge and tradition. Ghadirian here draws parallel between the framing (the convention) and the knowledge suggesting that the knowledge and the culture are itself nothing but a constructed and imposed frame; a possible trap. Ghadirian’s images, thus, point to and express the archaic stereotypes placed upon contemporary Iranian women (but this could also be extended to men) and perfectly visualise Ranciere’s statement: “What you are taking for visible self-evidence is in fact an encoded message whereby a society or authority legitimates itself by naturalizing itself, by rooting itself in the obviousness of the visible.”[15]

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Shadi Ghadirian, Qajar #23 and #24, 1998

As we have seen the frame of the mirror reminds us of the barriers which tradition imposes and within which it wishes to remain. But at the same time, the humorous nature of Ghadirian’s photographs – particularly the ones in which the female subject holds a radio or a can of coke – point to the laughably decorative nature of tradition in the modern, consumerist era. As explained by Minh-Ha, to “preserve the form of the old in the context-content of the new; this is what decoration means.”[16] The disjunction between the old and the new does appear humorous and Ghadirian satirizes and criticizes both the imposed western modernization and the stubborn Islamic resistance to progress. But then again, it is worth nothing that it is a white western eye (i.e. mine) that reads these images and assumes Ghadirian’s mockery. Perhaps, the images and the “old / new” juxtaposition appear humorous and odd to us because of our stereotypical notion of what “naturally” goes or doesn’t go together. If there is a jolt and a surprise in the viewer when seeing these images (i.e. because it is unusual to see hijab in conjunction with the coke can) this, perhaps, says more about the spectator and the stereotypes imprinted in his / her mind than about the actual experience of the subjects in these images. And it is precisely this assumption (i.e. an assumption of what it means to be a modern, progressive woman) that white westerners need to be conscious of before we place and analyse the work of Asian artists (in this case Asian female artists) under a particular theoretical banner.

To summarize, Kher’s, Morgan’s and Ghadirian’s works could be compared to Cahun’s, Wilke’s and Sherman’s in their use of body as the medium and in their conceptual and political nature. But the comparison should be used only as a point of departure to analyse the differences between these works and recognize extra layers of oppression that are addressed and explored by Kher, Morgan and Ghadirian. The gender, in fact, is not always a main concern in these works and takes a back seat to the issues of ethnicity, race, and conflicting relationship between tradition and modernity. Many of these works address and confront white western women and their privileged position of power and assumed superiority, rather than speaking to men or challenging patriarchy. The aim of all these works is to create a rapture and shift in imperialistic, colonial mindset so that the “master’s tools” could be laid down and the superior / inferior binary removed. The desired effect will be what Professor in Theatre and Performance Studies, Baz Kershaw calls “ideological crisis”[17] that disrupts the current notions of what modern, progressive woman is and challenges the homogenous category “female”. As the result of this crisis, the viewer will be placed “betwixt and between”[18] two social selves, questioning once assumed knowledge whilst still discovering the new set of ideas. The consequence of this ideological transaction, as hoped by Kher, Morgan and Ghadirian will be a radical modification of ideology (or ideologies) which will open doors to Asian women and allow them to play equal roles in the field of feminism. If this happens their unique condition and concerns will be incorporated in a wider and heterogeneous feminist narrative that will allow for the differences, not merely tolerating them but bending towards them. In other words, white western female point of view will truly become just one of many available points of view. It is then that all these women, with a wide variety of their experiences, will be joined together in the common fight against patriarchy.

Be the Inside of the Vase (2012) copy.jpg

[TEXT: IRA FERRIS, June 2016]

REFERENCES:

[1] ”Performance,” notes Melissa Chu, “has been an extremely popular medium for artists to question status and perception of women in society.” Melissa Chu and Benjamin Genocchio, Asian Art Now, (New York: The Monacelli Press, 2010), p112.
Carla Bianpoen notes that women “reclaimed the body through various representations.” This, she notes “is an indication of how the issue of a woman’s body is a profound matter, and women have started the journey to reclaim their own body through their perspective.” See Carla Bienpoen, “Women in Indonesian Modern Art: Chronologies and Testimonies,” in Indonesian women artists: the curtain opens, edited by Carla Bienpoen, Farah Wardani and Wulan Dirgantoro, 23-33, (Jakarta: Yayasan Senirupa Indonesia, c2007), p31.

[2] Biennale of Sydney, The Guide: 20th Biennale of Sydney, (Sydney, 2016), p52.

[3] Lisa E. Bloom, “Negotiating Feminism is Contemporary Asian Women’s Art,” in The Feminism and Visual Culture Reader, edited by Amelia Jones, 14-19, (London and New York: Routledge, 2010, 2nd edition), p16.

[4] Minh-Ha quoting Andre Lorde. See Minh-Ha, “Difference: a special thirds world women issue,” p151.

[5] Minh-Ha, p168.

[6] Minh-Ha also writes: “The invention of needs always goes hand in hand with the compulsion to help the needy,” which is as she continues “a noble and self-gratifying task that also renders the helper’s service indispensible.” Minh-Ha, p158.

[7] Minh-ha 169

[8] Nagy-Zekmi, “Images of Sheherazade [1] Representations of the Postcolonial Female Subject,” in Journal of Gender Studies, Vol. 12, No. 4, 2003. p173.

[9] Nagy-Zekmi, p173.
Minh-Ha also writes, quoting the Editorial Collective of the French journal Question Feministes, that “the very theme of difference […] is useful to the oppressing group … any allegedly natural feature attributed to an oppressed group is used to imprison this group within the boundaries.” See Minh-Ha, p165. In other word this kind of feminist discourse is content with the reforms that do not “remove the fence.” Minh-Ha, p161.

[10] Nagy-Zekmi, p173

[11] Nagy-Zekmi, p173

[12] Nagy-Zekmi, p174

[13] Mitsuye Yamada, “Asian Pacific American Women and Feminism,” in This Bridge Called My Back: Writings by Radical Women of Color, edited by Cherrie Moraga and Gloria Anzaldua, 71-75. (London: Persephone Press, 1982), p73.

[14] Xuan Mai Ardia, “7 influential women artists from Asia-Pacific,” in Art Radar, posted on 7 March, 2014, http://artradarjournal.com/2014/03/07/7-influential-women-artists-from-asia-pacific/

[15]Jacques Rancière, The Future of Image, (London: ‪Verso, 2007), p10.
And Ranciere, in turn, echoes Ludwig Wittgenstein who says: ‘The limits of my language mean the limits of my world.’

[16]Minh-Ha, p166.

[17] Baz Kershaw, “Performance, community, culture,” in The Politics of Performance: Radical theatre as cultural intervention, 15-41, (London and New York: Routledge, 1992), p28.

[18] The phrase originally used by the anthropologist Victor Turner and quoted in Kershaw, p24.

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