Scrap-metal faces for a truth-teller
SUZANNE BENTON, an American sculptor and performance artist, recently taught a workshop at the Faculty of Fine Art of Dhaka University. Here follow some excerpts from a conversation she had with GOLAM MORTUJA.
Golam Mortuja: Let's open this conversation with an enquiry – why do you do performances and how do you connect them to social causes?
Suzanne Benton: I began doing performances as a feminist in my early days, wanting to draw attention to the cause of the women – and that seemed to be continuing here in Bangladesh. Most interestingly, it has given me not just my country but the entire world as the venue. I have been able to work in many countries. I have returned to Bangladesh after 16 years, which is a long hiatus. Now that I am back, I made two masks in the Sculpture Department of the Faculty of Fine Arts, Dhaka University.
Did you teach a workshop there?
This time I taught a workshop in welding at the level of masters' degree. And we actually have an exhibit. At the opening I also did a performance just as I did at the Bengal Gallery. I certainly have considered what story to tell…. With the first mask I told a story that was given to me the last time. It's a very simple story, I will codify it here – essential the story is about God saying to human beings that 'I have given my life for you so that you can be free. But what have you done with this freedom?' Now, this is a story I can tell all over the world. And what I have noticed in Bangladesh that any thing connected with the words is responded to with great silence and interest.
How about the social aspect, what interests you the most?
Talking about social issues, what keeps me awake in the middle of the night are catastrophes like a young woman at a village being stoned to death; her name was Nurjahan. This happened 17/18 years ago. With the trumped up charge of being a bigamist, she was tortured. And that seared me to the core. And so I told that story. And last week it turned out that the day before I arrived, this young woman, Hena, was so brutally murdered, with such vengeance and vehemence. that every day the newspapers would come up with more details on it. I think on the first day I just read it and the second day there were more details – it was like a mystery – unfolding day by day…. And then, one day on, I would say in the middle of the night, before my performance at the Dhaka Art Centre, I woke up in the middle of the night feeling the pain of this poor child. So I decided to tell that story.
I wish her story would have the impact as did the story of a poor man who died of police torture in Egypt, because he had posted something on the web. It ignited the entire country.
You were also talking about a woman in Connecticut who was brutalized by her husband while the police just stood by and watched…
The women in America didn't know that their problem was universal; when we figured it out we were able to rise up. I started with this story in America in the 1980's in my state of Connecticut. I remember vividly – there was this woman who was beaten by her husband and she fled to the house of her sister and secured what we call an injunction. So, the husband was not supposed to come and visit her. But he came and said he just wanted to talk to her – and she foolishly went downstairs – outside – to talk. And he started to beat her up. They called the police at that time or before – that's a detail I do not know about – but the police car arrived and the guy kept beating her up in front them – and they stood by.
The woman was so badly beaten that half of her body was paralyzed. A lawyer – and as I said who is it that rises up – the lawyer, the doctor, the activist – people who are educated… you know you only need eight people who are really connected to change the world. So, a lawyer found about this and proceeded to file a suit against the police and he won. I am happy to say that the police had to pay a huge fine. Ever since then, when a woman calls to say that she is in danger, there is a response.
As far as feminism is concerned, your acts, the entire gamut, have covered only the social aspects of it. There are philosophical and cosmic aspects of the idea of feminism. Do you ever consider those in your expression?
You see, I am a second-wave feminist. And a second wave feminist is a truth-teller. But, it isn't just about truth-telling, because you understand that we changed the legislation in America. And I think, we have deeply affected the world by doing so. My first international travel dates back to 1976 and I have seen that people change through intervention. I mean, if you're assured of equal pay and equal work, your life is going to change cosmically…
You know, yesterday I saw a play – it was a Tagore play called Raja. Though I could not understand a word as I could not understand the dialogues in Bangla, I could sense how the queen in that particular drama seemed to have been continually undermined by the king. Every thing has to do with the king. Where is the king? The search seemed eternal. The queen herself had no power, so she was beseeching, and there was one situation where she was talking to these men who, I think, were symbols of different aspects of power. And they did not respond, they did not answer her. So, she went on imploring and imploring and imploring. Well, she was weak, she was weakened, and that was what she was. It seems the only power she had was the jewels she wore.
I loved those Tagore songs and the dancing, but you know from the gestures and all that what I could get – that aspect of female hysteria. It comes when you have no power, it comes when you have lost power, and it comes when you have no option. So, the strength of women which is phenomenal, even in the face of these terrible strictures, Is being unfolding now in the world.
But, in reality, I see the change – when I was here sixteen years ago, there was hardly any woman out in the streets – now, they are every where…
Infiltrating the social space is very important. You know in America the Civil Rights Movement began with black people sitting in public transports… these are cosmic relationships in reality…
When I started my career I used to say I am a woman who reads. Now I say I am a woman who observes.
Do you think when the juridical aspect of the society gets the upper hand and the law decides what is bad and what is good, the communion between men and woman and even between human beings and nature suffers? When a governing body is responsible for the wellbeing of the people, things are not being decided by the social beings themselves.
You know, the role of those people is to serve the people and to protect them.
Is it happening?
Do you mean here?
No, in the United States.
It is a great help… if I have problem and call 911, I know that some body's gonna come. I am happy to say that I do not need to call that number often. But I did have an occasion in my little town, where I live, to dial the number when some one threw a rock and broke a big window… and the policemen came and they were marvellous – the way they handled that. They did not arrest anybody, they just got hold of the people responsible and made them pay for a new window.
From the societal plain let's enter the domain of art, regarding your form of art or performance to be precise. You seemed to invoke the ritualistic, which is sometimes defined as anti-structure … what I am getting at is that how you align the faith in anti-structure with the secular beliefs.
But it is the structure before structures – an early organizing principle…
It is cosmic dimension of the being or the body which is invoked in rituals; so how do you connect this kind of primordial concept with the secular concerns? How do you bridge the gap or, should I say, how do you put them together in one place?
You put a mask in your face and you are in the primordial mode of existence. People are stunned by it.
You also refer to the mask as a portal to the world.
Because this spirit is universal. I mean I have worked in twenty-nine countries. And there isn't a community where people don't understand the power of the mask. Even people who never experienced it before become alive to it.
You not only transform yourself but also the ambiance of the entire venue where the act is being arranged.
Exactly. You know I have done so many workshops with people to empower them, because you can really tell a story from behind the mask and that's really what I did. I told a story from behind a mask and I have stood out among all the other people. If I had tried to tell the story of Henna without the mask, they would have said: Who are you to tell us this?
When I put a mask on, I am not me any more, I am some kind of universal being, a being completely transformed. You know religion came out of that. The people who put on the masks became powerful. This ritualistic dimension is so crucial to how people, early men, used to organize themselves as a society. I have a friend who is a folklorist and she told me that in Bali, where I have also travelled, the mask performance, where the characters take certain roles, people begin to consider them as if they were people of authority. In a sense the ritual is the beginning of the human organization. It literally had begun what now we can call secular organization. At present, the ones to whom we confer guardianship – the police, the adjudicator – they are like King Solomon. You know the story: I have cut this child in half; now, do you think it's fair? That is adjudication.
I made masks in so many countries. When I went to Africa, I took the masks I had made in different countries – from Japan, Korea, and India. They were characters, and all characters have certain characteristics. And the Nigerians, they picked up those characteristics and they put together a play, transforming my original king of high authority and a shamanic character from Korea into a play.
So when you put on masks, they bring out a story related to a deeper, mysterious world, which is probably cosmic and primordial. And entering that world is very empowering. It also has to do with faith. You have to believe that when you put on a mask you will have a story, something will come into your mind and you are beholden to share it with others, because the mask is in front of your face and it is incredibly powerful.
The kind of performances you are famous for, they have to do with multicultural devising of plots and narrative of gestures…
And multiculturalism works at different levels. At one level it is just about appreciating other people's culture but at another lever it carries political implication – from where do you operate?
The fact is the mask – be that a gold mask or a black mask – does not have any connection to racial prejudices; they are in no way racial masks. They do not have social colours; so anybody can put them on, anyone can be anybody in them. And yet they have characteristics of the country at the same time. They carry the signs of time and the culture; and yeah, it is a kind of blending…
How do you dovetail your culture with that of others – I mean you come from United States…
You would have to understand that I grew up in New York City – the world has always been in New York City. So, I have always been interested in the possibility of mix. There are two things that made me want to see the world and explore it through my art. One has to do with growing up in New York City and sitting on the subway to watch people from all parts of the world. The other thing is the Metropolitan Museum of Art, where you have the arts of the world of all time. And I always wanted to be in the countries that created the uniqueness of those works of art. So, that was my impetus.
And I would also like to add that I inhabited a liberal world and having a Jewish background I grew up nurturing an interest in other people and other cultures. I grew up knowing that to the Jewish people accepting diversity is fundamental and it is also better for every body.
The equitable status of all cultures that multiculturalism stands for, that understanding came naturally to you, the conditions for that were there.
Well, it's endemic to my country. We say all men are created equal and now we say all men and women are created equal (laughter).
But there are pitfalls…
You know there are pitfalls… not every thing is well in America. The money that gets poured into our elections and the way the big corporate operates, these need to be changed. And, as an individual, I will not go to certain places, even in New York, to avoid incident. You cannot even take your performance to every corner of the world. You have to be assured that there is some level of understanding of what you have to say. I would say one of my most moving workshops was in Nepal with women who were being taught to be the ombudsmen in their villages. And, as for the way I operate, I don't direct them – the stories that come out, we make something of it.
Are your stories location-specific? When you are working in your own town, do you usually draw your materials from that region?
I have a range of stories but most of them are not about my own land. Right now I have one that has to do with aging – you know, the plight of older people in America. It is a girl who speaks about her grandmother who had been active before she broke her hip and the wonder of modern medicine put a pin in that hip and the story ends with the girl narrating how her grandmother grew very old and her mother took her in… and, after a while, grandmother heard a child crying on a television set, and then I come out with these cries, and she said as my mother is annoyed how long can we keep her? And then grandmother said 'my bed is burning' and the woman says no one came to hold her hand, no child slept with her… and my mother was annoyed…
It deals with the issue of estrangement at the old age. Is ageism rampant in the United States?
It's not going to be for long. You know the boomers are aging. They changed the world as they moved along. So, it's probably gonna be hip to be old (laughter).
Any last word or reflection on how it was in Dhaka this time?
It has been very inspiring for me to be here. You know, yesterday, when I went to see this show, I went in a baby taxi… I got all fumes in my face. Then I got there and the play was so marvellous and beautiful and we came home in a rickshaw and it was wonderful – it was what life feels like in many ways – it was hard in many ways and beautiful in other ways. If you are willing to wait while walking towards your goal, you are rewarded. So, that's how I feel about being in Dhaka... those microcosmic-level advancements that you make in life…
You people have a lot of things piled up before your feet and you are doing a marvellous job of moving forward in spite of all these barriers.
GOLAM MORTUJA is a freelance writer based in Dhaka.