ARTiculating Her Voice: The Subversive Role of Women Artists in South Asia | Kate Blumberg

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 “It is clear that the Indian woman artist as a category does not seem to exist before the mid-1980s.”
—Deeptha Achar, “Ascribing Feminist Intent: The Invention of the Indian Woman Artist”

Notwithstanding some notable exceptions such as Empresses Mumtaz Mahal and Noor Jehan, the brave warrior Rani Laxmibai of Jhansi, and pioneering feminist, writer, educator and activist Rokeya Sakhawat Hossain, many women in South Asia have been entangled in a continual struggle against stigmatization and persecution by society for centuries. Yet, despite their significant underrepresentation and marginalization, women artist-activists have made numerous attempts to spread awareness about, and ultimately end, pressing issues such as discrimination based on caste, religion, etc. as well as gender-biased crimes such as dowry harassment, sexual assault, and sati.[1] In other words, art has always been one of the most widely used mediums for women in South Asia to express their concerns and make their voices heard. In this article, I will trace the development of the “South Asian woman artist” as a subversive category of analysis throughout history and into the contemporary climate. In doing so, I argue that South Asian women artivists[2] offer a complex, nuanced lens through which we can explore women and gender in South Asia.

A Brief History

Deeptha Achar states: “If one looks at the curriculum vitae of art practitioners who now fall under the purview of the term “Indian woman artist”—Arpita Singh, Madhavi Parekh, Nalini Malani and Nilima Sheikh—it is evident that they begin to practice and show well before the 1980s.”[3] Yet, at the time, the art-critical discourses that framed these women artists were those regarding the debates that occurred around modernism in the post-Independence context.[4] Thus, these women were positioned as ‘young artists’ or ‘new contemporaries’ or seen as players in the debate around tradition and modernity. They were characterized as ‘naïve’ (Madhvi Parekh) or ‘expressionist’ (Nalini Malani), ‘traditional’ (Nilima Sheikh) or ‘decorative’ (Arpita Singh).[5] And while their choices and concerns were often recognized as women-centered, and even feminist in the case of Malani, they were “not seen as belonging coherently to a cogent body of work that could be theorized under the rubric of the Indian woman artist.”[6]

According to many scholars, women’s history in India began as an act of reclamation.[7] Since women had been ‘hidden from history,’ the aim was to ‘liberate women’s history’ from ignorance and neglect, and, in the resulting work, make women in history visible.[8] Historically, the only women who found a place in traditional history textbooks were either women who successfully performed male roles or whom powerful men cherished. Traditional history has predominantly focused on areas in which men were dominant—politics, wars, diplomacy—areas in which women had little to no part.[9] But today, history is no longer just a chronicle of kings and statesmen, of people who wielded power over ordinary men and women engaged in manifold tasks. It is no longer a pervasive, hegemonic male narrative. In accordance with Joan Scott’s “Gender: A Useful Category of Historical Analysis,” countless women embody an assertion that women do not just have a history, they are history.[10] Nevertheless, that history has been distorted, even erased by the biases that pervade our culture and scholarship.[11] In order to embrace a more inclusive, comprehensive knowledge of history, we must see women as a force in politics, as reformers, revolutionaries, searching for an identity in their nation, in their class, and for themselves. The diversity and totality of women’s lives—Women as producers, workers, artisans, domestic servants, in their roles in the family, as wives, daughters and mothers—have to become visible.

Scholars state that the evolution of women’s history has been stimulated by two related yet independent forces or developments: The maturation of social history and the growth of an active women’s movement.[12] For example, in India, a significant landmark in the field of women’s studies manifested itself in the 1974 publication of “Towards Equality: the Report of the Committee on the Status of Women in India,” which concluded on the basis of a countrywide investigation that “the de jure (legal) equality guaranteed by the Indian Constitution had not been translated into reality and that large masses of women had remained unaffected by the rights guaranteed to them.”[13] What’s more, in alignment with the nation’s inferiority crisis,[14] many Indian scholars were influenced by the growth of the feminist movement in the West.[15] Such forces drew the attention of scholars to the neglect of women’s roles and contributions, especially in the social sciences.

The Woman Artivist

This article will focus on one role in particular: The woman artivist. Artivism is a portmanteau (linguistic blend of words) word combining art and activism. It developed in recent years as antiwar and anti-globalization protests emerged and proliferated.[16] In many cases, artivists attempt to push political agendas by the means of art. Nevertheless, a focus on raising social, environmental, and technical awareness (along with the political) is becoming more and more common. Besides using traditional mediums such as film and music to raise awareness and push for change, an artivist can be involved in a variety of different forms such as ‘culture jamming,’ ‘subvertising,’ street art, spoken word, protesting, and activism.[17] As artivist Eve Ensler states: “… This passion has all the ingredients of activism but is charged with the wild creations of art. Artivism—where edges are pushed, imagination is freed, and a new language emerges altogether.”[18] Accordingly. Bruce Lyons writes: “… artivism promotes the essential understanding that … [humans]… can, through courageous creative expression, experience the unifying power of love when courage harnesses itself to the task of art and social responsibility.”[19]

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“The artivist (artist + activist) uses her artistic talents to fight and struggle against injustice and oppression—by any medium necessary. The artivist merges commitment to freedom and justice with the pen, the lens, the brush, the voice, the body, and the imagination. The artivist knows that to make an observation is to have an obligation.”[20]

—M. K. Asante, “It’s Bigger Than Hip Hop”

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While artivism is not a term that originated in India, there continues to be countless South Asian women artivists who have pushed the boundaries of convention. South Asian women artists have emphasized gender issues and discrimination in the form of paintings, sculptures, and installations since pre-independence times. And despite the decades that have transpired since, many of these same issues are still prevalent in today’s society. (This notion of tradition versus modernity—and of continuity versus change—is crucial when looking at how the discipline of artivism fits into the overall context of the history of women and gender in South Asia). While I have briefly addressed the history (or in this case, lack thereof) of women artists as a category of analysis, I will now shift my focus to the contemporary context. Artivism as a discipline does not merely allow us to better understand the past, but it also provides us with a contemporary lens for viewing women’s current position and status in South Asia. Today, forms of art practice, exhibition making, and art writing by women remain extremely diverse and extensive (and not just exclusive to the borders of South Asia).[21] These women have shown themselves to be innovators and fighters, in various forms. As stated in “Articulating Resistance: Art and Activism,” edited by Achar and Panikkar: “The disciplinary understandings of contemporary Indian art are being challenged in our time by experiences, narratives and strategies designated as activism.”[22] This is precisely what I aim to accomplish with the following examples—to abandon discourse that isolates art from activism, and to bridge the gap—to explore the synthesis of the two in what is called artivism.

Modern-day Examples of South Asian Women Artivists

One of the most radical Indian artists of her generation, Tejal Shah (b. 1979) works in video, photography, and performance. In her first U.S. solo exhibition, Shah presented a video installation “in which the pliable language of gender is explored in a physical, concrete manner not only by her chosen subjects but also through the medium itself.”[23] Moving between staged performances, documentary, music video and appropriation, Shah’s “What are You?” (2006) highlights the complexities of the highly marginalized hijra (“third gender or sex”/transgender/transsexual/intersex) community in India.[24] In doing so, she creates a direct relationship to her subjects’ experiences of their own gender fluidity. Moreover, similar to Begum Rokeya’s “Sultana’s Dream,”[25] Shah powerfully alludes to a reinvention or transformation of Indian society and culture by proposing an egalitarian, poly-gendered society—a vision of “a perfect, egalitarian democracy where all types of queer or perverse desires, imaginings, and social relations are allowed to flourish.”[26]

Shah’s “What Are You?” articulates a subversive, queer-feminist identity that represents a new direction in India’s current art scene. At the same time, Shah’s work makes a strong case for the necessity of “preserving and reinterpreting the large body of discourses and representations of queer, plurally identified and same-sex desire in India’s cultural traditions.”[27] In this respect, the artist’s interdisciplinary, cross-media practice “allies itself with recent queer and feminist activism and scholarship in India and the South-Asian diaspora, which has produced illuminating anthologies and studies on queer histories and cultural traditions on the subcontinent.”[28] Shah’s work is also deeply rooted in her experience with feminist and queer activism. Shah has participated in various local, queer feminist groups since 1998, and is a co-founder, organizer, and curator of Larzish, India’s first international film festival of sexuality and gender plurality, which saw its opening in 2003.[29]

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“What Are You?” combines a stance of decided political activism with an experimental aesthetics that proposes at once a subversive reinterpretation of several historical and contemporary imaginaries, and a provocative new vision of its own.[30]

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Jasmeen Patheja is an artist, feminist, photographer, and social entrepreneur based in India. She is the founder and director of Blank Noise, a community of Action Heroes—citizens, across India and beyond, united to eradicate sexual, gender-based violence. Patheja initiated Blank Noise in 2003 as a response to street harassment, at a time when sexual violence in public spaces was viewed as a non-issue. Patheja has worked “to break societal denial and create collective ownership of the issue by mobilizing individuals and communities to take agency”[31] in tackling the issue. She is explores vulnerability, fear, empathy, trust, victim blame, shame, and desire through her practice.

“I Never Ask For It” (2004 – ongoing) is one of the Blank Noise projects where individuals are asked to send in a garment that they were wearing when they experienced violence: “The garment is witness, memory and the sender’s voice to reject any excuse or justification of sexual violence.”[32]
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What makes women, girls, survivors of violence, remember the clothes?

This holds a mirror to the truth that women and girls are raised in an environment of warning that repeatedly justifies sexual violence against them. I Never Ask For It is a long-term mission and commitment to end victim blame and all attitudes that have long justified sexual violence as experienced across spaces, identities and geographies, by building testimonies of clothing…Action Heroes are revisiting memory, recalling a time they experienced sexual assault, discrimination or injustice. They are building I Never Ask For It by bringing the garment worn at the time of experience. The garment is memory, witness, voice. In 2023, ten thousand garments will assemble and stand united in sites of public significance. This is a global call to action. Join the mission. Unite to end victim blame.”[33]

May we never have to ‘defend ourselves’.
Nor ever have to carry the weight of warnings.
We assert our right to live defenseless.
Sexual violence can no longer be justified.
#INeverAskForIt

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Concluding Thoughts

Today, forms of art practice, exhibition making, and art writing by women remain extremely diverse and extensive. Women artists in India continue to explore historical and nationalist critiques, migration, globalization, class, caste, and feminist issues in order to raise awareness and make a difference. In doing so, they have shown themselves to be innovators in various artistic, media methods.[34] In the course of discussions before the seminar “The Issues of Activism: The Artist and the Historian” (2003) at the Faculty of Fine Arts, Baroda, Nilima Sheikh commented on the close relationship that the body of her work has with the concerns of the women’s movement in India. In fact, Sheikh has, several times, invoked the feminist context in which her work was shaped. She has argued that her practice of painting can be seen as a resistance to ‘the inherent pressure to engage with the political life of a nascent democracy, where there seemed to be little space left, within the definitive terms of radicalism, for a quest as personal as the search for a feminine voice.’[35] In fact, she has sketched the slow processes through which the quest for the feminine voice as radical practice was thought through with definitively feminist tools. As she demonstrates, women have and continue to use art as a social commentary, as a platform for justice and equality. As scholar Anna C. Chave once wrote concerning the question of segregating “women artists” within the general classification of ‘artists:’ “Damned if we do, and damned if we don’t.”[36] Her comment, paired with Sheikh, reveals the political necessity of recovering and retrieving individual names, while concurrently acknowledging (and even celebrating) the reinstatement of difference, as well as a form of collective, global sisterhood.

Geeta Kapur, a New-Delhi-based art critic, art historian and curator once stated that “feminist politics in women’s art is inherent in the historical context of its production.”[37] Nevertheless, the ‘Indian woman artist’ as a category has been deemed a fairly recent development, consolidated in the 1980s.[38] And while the feminist thrust of the 1980s did appear to have energized historical art discourse, the direction it has taken has “substantially been along the lines of ‘loss and recovery’ and ‘valorization of the personal’ mode in the engagement with the idea of the Indian woman artist.”[39] This is quite problematic, for such critical practices “have tended to naturalize the category and imbue it with an essential presence that defines it away from any historical specificity.”[40] And, in doing so, they “locate the thematic of Indian women artist in the realm of the ahistorical, apolitical feminine.”[41] This brings us back to Scott, who recognizes that women’s history has erroneously been entirely separate from or outside that of men’s.[42] Women’s history cannot be studied in isolation from what has been called ‘mainstream history.’

Throughout this article, I have provided merely a few of countless examples of women who have, through their artistic practices and frameworks, sought alignment with the various struggles around caste, community, gender, and sexuality. These women artivists, both ‘then and now’ have embodied issues critical to the study of gender throughout history and as history is being made—Issues that include: The search for ‘lost’ women artists, the re-valuation of women artists who were dismissed or marginalized, the re-examination of the criteria by which artworks acquired canonicity, the legitimation and problematization of gendered themes, etc.[43] These women are true manifestations of agency and subjecthood.[44] They are women who have embraced their identities and have powerfully defended their positions as subjects, not passive objects. They are women who have acted, not been acted upon. They are women artivists, and they have not only claimed, but they have deserved, their own category.

 

“Any form of art is a form of power; It has impact, it can affect change — it can not only move us, it makes us move.” —Ossie Davis

 

Bibliography

Achar, Deeptha. Articulating Resistance: Art and Activism. New Delhi: Tulika Books, 2012.

Achar, Deeptha. “Ascribing Feminist Intent: The Invention of the Indian Woman Artist.” India International Centre Quarterly 39, no. 3/4 (2012): 216-29. www.jstor.org/stable/24394286.

Achar, Deeptha. “‘Invisible Chemistry,’ The Women’s Movement and the Indian Women Artist.” In Articulating Resistance: Art and Activism, edited by Deeptha Achar and Shivaji K. Panikkar. Tulika Books, 2012.

“Artivism.” Wikipedia. April 01, 2019. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Artivism.

“Artivism Archives.” Feminism In India. feminisminindia.com/section/magazine/culture/artwork/.

Basu A. (1991) “Women’s History in India: An Historiographical Survey.” In: Offen K., Pierson R.R., Rendall J. (eds) Writing Women’s History. Palgrave Macmillan, London doi.org/10.1007/978-1-349-21512-6_10.

Bissonauth, Natasha. “Bodies That Matter.” Art Asia Pacific, 64-5.  tejalshah.in/wp-content/uploads/_pdf_file/387-8cdf0b15.pdf.

Brooklyn Museum. “Global Feminisms: Tejal Shah.” YouTube. April 28, 2010. www.youtube.com/watch?v=W-tRqliEEB0.

Dave-Mukherji, Parul. “Contemporary Women Artists in India: Riots, Violence and the Multiple Politics of Praxis.” In Articulating Resistance: Art and Activism, edited by Deeptha Achar and Shivaji K. Panikkar. Tulika Books, 2012.

“Garment Testimonials.” Blank Noise. www.blanknoise.org/ineveraskforit/.

“Jasmeen Patheja.” Jasmeen Patheja. www.jasmeenpatheja.com/.

Kumar, Nita. (ed.) “Introduction” in Women as Subjects (1994).

Lal, Vinay. “Not This, Not That: Hijras and the Cultural Politics of Sexuality” Social Text, no. 61, Winter 1999, pp. 119-140.

Mohanty, Chandra Talpade. “Feminism without Borders: Decolonizing Theory, Practicing Solidarity.” Duke University, 2003.

Monnet, Livia. “Queerness in/as the Strange, Prismatic Worlds of Art”: Fantasy, Utopia, and Perversion in Tejal Shah’s Video Installation “What are You?”

Paven Maholtra, “Bytes, Bombs, and Bombshells: India’s Search for Identity,” Harvard International Review, vol. 23, no. 2, Fall 2001.

Rokeya Sakhavat Hossain “Sultana’s Dream,” Selections from The Secluded Ones, Roushan Jahan (ed., trans.) [excerpt], pp. 1-18.

Scott, Joan W. “Gender: A Useful Category of Historical Analysis,” American Historical Review, vol. 91, no. 5, Dec. 1986, [excerpt]pp. 1053-1061; 1070-1075.

Sharma, Meara. “The South Asian Artists Making Their Mark on the Western Scene.” The New York Times. December 28, 2018. www.nytimes.com/2018/12/28/t-magazine/south-asian-artists.html.

“Tejal Shah: What are You?” Asia Art Archive. aaa.org.hk/en/collection/search/library/tejal-shah-what-are-you.

 

Additional Note:
The examples of South Asian women artivists that I have provided in this essay are merely a few of an innumerable number. And while I have tried my best to do this subject matter justice, the bibliography is by no means exhaustive. That being said, I wanted to include this supplementary source (“Feminism in India,” a (super cool!) online magazine/database) to offer additional contemporary sources in relation to women, gender, art and activism in India. I encourage a much more extensive study of this issue, for we must all educate ourselves on these topics if we are to ever make a positive change in this world. Listed below are a few of the articles on the website that are definitely worth checking out.

“Artivism Archives.” Feminism In India. feminisminindia.com/section/magazine/culture/artwork/.

“Feminism in India is an award-winning digital intersectional feminist platform to learn, educate and develop a feminist consciousness among the youth. It is required to unravel the F-word (feminism) and demystify all the negativity surrounding it. FII amplifies the voices of women and marginalized communities using tools of art, media, culture, technology and community.”

  • “Meet Kanchan Chander: The Artist Who Forces Her Audience to Shed the Male Gaze”
  • “These Women Used Mehendi To Make Feminist Statements on Their Bodies”
  • “6 Madhubani Women Artists Who Pushed Out Dominant Narratives”
  • “Meet Shristi Verma, The Instagram Artist Who Draws Queer Women in Love”
  • “The Aravani Art Project: Inclusivity & Art with the Transgender Community”

Also See Gallery:

Tejal Shah: tejalshah.in/wp-content/uploads/_pdf_file/387-8cdf0b15.pdf.
Jasmeen Patheja: www.blanknoise.org/streetinterventions.
Amrita Sher-Gil:

Footnotes:

[1] Achar, Deeptha. “Ascribing Feminist Intent: The Invention of the Indian Woman Artist.” India International Centre Quarterly 39, no. 3/4 (2012): 216-29.

www.jstor.org/stable/24394286.

[2] “Artivism Archives.” Feminism In India. feminisminindia.com/section/magazine/culture/artwork/.

[3]Achar.

For example, although few acknowledged her work when she was alive, Amrita Sher-Gil (1913 – 1941) was an eminent Hungarian-Indian painter. She has been called “one of the greatest avant-garde women artists of the early 20th century” and a “pioneer” in modern Indian art. Sher-Gil’s art has influenced generations of Indian artists from Sayed Haider Raza to Arpita Singh and “her depiction of the plight of women has made her art a beacon for women at large both in India and abroad.” The Government of India has declared her works as National Art Treasures, and most of them are housed in the National Gallery of Modern Art in New Delhi.

[4] Achar, “Ascribing Feminist Intent: The Invention of the Indian Woman Artist.”

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Achar.

[9] Basu A. (1991) “Women’s History in India: An Historiographical Survey.” In: Offen K., Pierson R.R.,

Rendall J. (eds) Writing Women’s History. Palgrave Macmillan, London doi.org/10.1007/978-1-349-21512-6_10.

[10] Scott, Joan W. “Gender: A Useful Category of Historical Analysis,” American Historical Review, vol. 91, no. 5, Dec. 1986, [excerpt]pp. 1053-1061; 1070-1075.

[11] Achar.

[12] Achar.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Paven Maholtra, “Bytes, Bombs, and Bombshells: India’s Search for Identity,” Harvard

International Review, vol. 23, no. 2, Fall 2001.

[15] Achar.

[16] “Artivism.” Wikipedia. April 01, 2019. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Artivism.

[17] Ibid.

[18] Ibid.

[19] “Artivism.” Wikipedia.

[20] Ibid.

[21] Sharma, Meara. “The South Asian Artists Making Their Mark on the Western Scene.” The New York Times. December 28, 2018. www.nytimes.com/2018/12/28/t-magazine/south-asian-artists.html.

“If the spate of American exhibitions in the United States by South Asian women is any indication, these parallel energies — deeper interest from American museums, a canny push from South Asian practitioners — are having a real effect. But of course, the latest iteration of the trend still comes with pitfalls, as grouping a diverse array of South Asian women artists into a single story of progress risks othering them further, as well as flattening their work in precisely the ways they reject. And yet, the combination of institution-level shifts in the United States, a robust women-led contemporary arts infrastructure in South Asia and ongoing cultural conversations about meaningful inclusion and representation, do seem to be creating the conditions for more sustained engagement.”

[22] Achar, Deeptha. Articulating Resistance: Art and Activism. New Delhi: Tulika Books, 2012.

[23] “Tejal Shah: What are You?” Asia Art Archive. aaa.org.hk/en/collection/search/library/tejal-shah-what-are-you.

[24] Lal, Vinay. “Not This, Not That: Hijras and the Cultural Politics of Sexuality” Social Text, no. 61, Winter 1999, pp. 119-140.

[25] Rokeya Sakhavat Hossain “Sultana’s Dream,” Selections from The Secluded Ones, Roushan Jahan (ed.,

trans.) [excerpt], pp. 1-18.

[26] Monnet, Livia. “Queerness in/as the Strange, Prismatic Worlds of Art”: Fantasy, Utopia, and Perversion in Tejal Shah’s Video Installation “What are You?”

[27] Monnet.

[28] Ibid.

[29] While this essay’s focus is specifically on women artivists, Shah’s work elucidates the importance of representation for ALL genders and sexualities. “’Kinky’ Issues: Gay Identity and High Art,” “Chandi Ba(ha)r: Questions of Place, Space and Censorship” and “On the Making of Bombay Longing: Queer Activism” are all telling chapters in Achar’s “Articulating Resistance: Art and Activism” in reminding us of the significance of queer/gender fluid art and activism.

[30] Monnet.

[31]“Jasmeen Patheja.” Jasmeen Patheja. www.jasmeenpatheja.com/.

[32] “Garment Testimonials.” Blank Noise. www.blanknoise.org/ineveraskforit/.

[33] “Garment Testimonials.” Blank Noise.

[34] Achar, Deeptha. “Ascribing Feminist Intent: The Invention of the Indian Woman Artist.”

[35] Achar, Deeptha. Articulating Resistance: Art and Activism.

[36] Ibid.

[37] Achar, Deeptha. “Ascribing Feminist Intent: The Invention of the Indian Woman Artist.”

[38] Ibid.

“Arguably, the contemporary women’s movement in India was born in the mid-1970s. The women’s movement in the 1970s was quite successful in raising the issue of dowry deaths, rape and women’s health, orchestrating a sustained campaign at the national level. These drives were accompanied by an aggressive media campaign which allowed these ‘women’s issues’ to enter popular consciousness. Moreover, each of these issues centered on the woman’s body in a way that rendered conventional representations of women problematic. Notably, the body in pain became an important motif…The 1980s marked a shift in the women’s movement in India: from its beginnings in the 1970s where the movement for women’s rights focused on one or two issues such as dowry and rape, operating with a social welfare-based ideology and with a quite straitjacketed understanding of women’s problems, it shifted to positions where the focus was on a range of issues systemically interrelated with explicitly feminist ideology that allowed more complex understandings of the issues involved. The idea that women were systemic victims made room for a more individual approach that emphasized the ‘creative’ aspects of women’s life. While such a reading of the women’s movement is debatable, one can certainly track a new feminist interest in the arts, as also history, during this period which crucially focused on the question of representation.

[39] Achar, “Ascribing Feminist Intent: The Invention of the Indian Woman Artist.”

[39] Ibid.

[40] Ibid.

[41] Ibid.

[42] Scott.

[43] Achar, “Ascribing Feminist Intent: The Invention of the Indian Woman Artist.”

[44] Kumar, Nita. (ed.) “Introduction” in Women as Subjects (1994).

 

Kate Blumberg is a Furman University student studying Asian Studies and Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies.

 

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