Women Artists of South Asia
Working from within and outside the known registers
Over the past three months, I have had the occasion to visit or to be present at a number of art exhibitions and art events in Kathmandu, Nepal's capital city. Quite a few of these were showcasing art created by women art practitioners. Walking between galleries tucked away on busy thoroughfares and congested lanes, I began to wonder about what exactly was it that differentiated certain kinds of artists from others, whether their perspective was gendered, what their relationship to contemporary reality could be, and more importantly – how they negotiate the art economy and manage to co-exist.
A number of art institutions – mainly art departments at the two universities, throw up batches of graduates and post-graduates annually. A significant portion of these numbers comprise women, who have evidently undergone training to emerge as artists but will mostly end up as art teachers, housewives or in unrelated professions. Economic exigencies coupled with the usual marital/familial constraints often nip such dreams in the bud in South Asia. And I wondered what it was that would possibly inspire them to take on the grueling and often lonely task of turning oneself into an artist when they looked to the local art scene.
We have a sizeable section of successful women artists in Kathmandu, who continue to work mostly in painting – though performances and installations usually pepper their bio-s. Artists like Erina Tamrakar or Pramila Bajracharya – and there are quite a few others – who consciously explore their gendered situatedness and 'express' this through art making. They are popular, mid-career artists whose presence have not only diversified the local art scene, but also provided layers to the exisiting gendered narrative. Erina usually brings us stereotypical faces of a generic South Asian Hindu woman (the dot or bindi on the forehead would signify Hinduism), done in lilting monochromatic outlines against vibrant backgrounds.
Her earlier work often arrived as shimmering, translucent shadows against foliage or cityscapes. A co-member at Kasthamandap Group, Pramila Bajracharya showcased her recent work in a solo exhibition with images of women in traditional attire dancing across frames, caught in moments of agonizing solitude. Both artists prefer to work in acrylic on canvas. Reinstating deep-seated stereotypes as their oeuvre which seems to be geared towards depicting feminine grace, and an almost spiritual resilience within a patriarchal system that alternates between moments of abandon and self-abnegation. It is therefore not surprising that their work commands ubiquitous popularity in the national market and attract anachronistic attention from Western collectors who feel comfortable with the stereotypes of a suffering feminine South Asian woman in need of Western aid and upliftment.
The very same collectors would probably eschew similar artworks emanating from the Euro-American art scene on the ground that from the gender perspective they seem to signal a form of regression. On the upside, I would say these artists perform an act of documentation. They are not particularly focused on pushing boundaries with their arsenal of stereotypical imagery, though they seem confident in their illusion that they in fact are. There is no sudden epiphany in their pieces, no unexpected moment of understanding when you connect the dots and leap to a higher plane of comprehension, or even an awareness of the newly globalized reality.
They in fact transcribe a reality that we, in urban, globalized centers, would like to avoid and forget about. It is the disempowered women teeming across the geographical length of this region which they usually bring into view. It takes grit and a certain amount of inbuilt insularity to pursue this. The ever-present whiff of a very mild social critique turns the protagonists’ bodies (and faces) into the simultaneously pitiable and the iconic, their flesh and features acting as bearers of tradition and of collective, cultural memory. The religious signifiers may vary, as do the rare historical markers. But the appeal remains rooted in feminine vulnerability, spiritual strength and grace. This is a symptom that seems to permeate the South Asian 'mainstream' art scene. And it is indeed such a sure-fire shot at acquiring patronage from the INGOs, United Nations and the diplomatic community (which immediately translates into local market viability as well) that it is often quite impossible for many such artists to get out of the groove. It is like hitting on a perfect but mediocre recipe that appeases the highest number of taste-buds. In Nepal, senior artists like Shashikala Tiwari in painting and Seema Shah through printmaking continue along this trajectory, among others, even after decades of practice. When I myself use oil on canvas to explore gender issues or contemporary fractured reality, my paintings are treated less as artworks and more as manifestos. Painting on canvas seems to have acquired a stain of intellectual lethargy in inverse proportion to raucous, commercial popularity.
Instrumentalizing nature is a popular alternative in such a scenario, where the landscape assumes similar feminine properties of grace, strength, resilience and glossed-over complexities, etc. Such efforts may or may not take on the role of a conscious effort to destabilize notions of the feminine as object of desire and to reclaim positive values for women's sexuality (as in the case of Shashikala Tiwari) or generally remain passive depictions of nature's 'aesthetic' beauty (Samjhana Rajbhandari, Bidhata KC among others). These two above mentioned categories are almost synonymous and characterized as they are by their lack of resistance and happily drive the art economy of the region.
Contemporary engagement with pressing issues of climate change and the environment have however, succeeded in eking out a new dimension from conventional nature-mania. For example, Ragini Upadhayay Grela – who works in printmaking and mixed-media painting – finds relevance not only through acerbic, political critique but also through intelligent personifications of Nature. Of course, when we arrive at the eco-centric projects of Navjot Altaf or Sheba Chachchi in India, this takes on a whole different dimension of commitment and engagement.
I now come to the middle order. Artists, who are constantly pushing boundaries. Like their women colleagues across the region, they comprise the actual site of ferment. They reach out across borders to their colleagues and help consolidate the notion of the global South with their cross-cultural efforts. They have broken free of the canvas and paint and work primarily in installation, video and performance. In Kathmandu, artists like Sheelasha Rajbhandari, Saurganga Darshandhari, Meena Kayastha, Mili Pradhan, Sushma Shakya and perhaps myself among others are constantly trying to negotiate surrounding reality through queries into identity, gender politics, cultural inheritance, environment and religio-political impasses.
And most importantly, the role of art itself. These are issues at stake across the region. The artists are committed to experimentation, exploring their socio-political location and are ready to accept an occasional failure as they search for a new idiom. They are yet to become names in the global scene, but have the potential. Thankfully, not all will make it to the grinding, draining drill of global recognition. Some will pursue their journeys at a remove from the race for global acceptance, nurturing their processes and arriving at the philosophical cores of their practice alone, even broken. But individual bodies of work will gradually be building up that may echo across time and which later generations will inevitably dig up, peruse and make relevant.
Each of the countries in the region have their own group of such practitioners, working in different media, all closing in on the kill. Our works are not so smart or well-produced as of those who are usually facilitated by endless financial resources of chic galleries or heavyweight museums. Sometimes the pieces are a little rough around the edges, a roughness that allows it to breathe and open up unexpected spaces for reflection, for vital queries, for even a rare ambivalence. The market for such works is extremely unpredictable, and mostly conventional media oriented. Though at the intellectual vanguard, these artists are at risk of making a mistake too many and may inadvertently step into the quick-sand of withdrawn patronage and dreaded indifference. They receive the least support from the art economy (both local and global), take the most risks and drive the intellectual edge of the art ecology of the region.
And finally, we have the 'made it'-s. The ones, who have stepped onto the global stage and are regularly doing the biennale/art fair circuits, including prestigious representation in Euro-American galleries to cap their usual appearances at local and global venues. They have sprung from the above mentioned middle order, but only a while ago. Their works are fluid, relevant, and full of queries -- mostly geared towards predictable answers that verge on the clichéd, only rarely left open-ended in the true sense because museums and galleries, it seems, have a thing for the un-ambivalent. These artists are the ones most well-versed in the global art idiom – a facility that often takes its price through a waning of genuine, politically engaged commitment.
The global art scene speaks in a language accessible across cultures and political systems. Such accessibility no doubt democratizes art and positively redefines its parameters and credibility. However, it also drains art of its peculiar, idiosyncratic rootedness. Artists like Tayeba Begum Lipi, Ashmina Ranjit, Huma Mulji,
Anoli Perera communicate with their target viewers in a code that is at once sleek, easily decodable and at times produces works with predictable denouements. Not that surprise is a vital necessity for good art. But neither is predictability. As with the first group, these artists must allow access to the largest common denominator (among curators, gallerists, auction houses, museums, serious private collectors, if not the general public). It is indeed difficult to avoid mediocrity under such circumstances, especially when even bigger names get away with it with such loquacious ease. You are not allowed to make a mistake, or fail at this level of operation. Mistakes, attempts, and most importantly ‘serious enquiries’ are out of bounds.
Finally, there are also artists that fall outside the art economy, and practice what comes under the umbrella word ‘traditional’, ‘folk’ and sometimes even 'art brut'. Never really taken seriously, these artists continue to produce a bulk of artworks over their lifetimes that bear uncanny insights into contemporary reality.
Formal inventiveness or dexterity is definitely not their forte. But it will be extremely shortsighted of us if we were to leave them out from art historical narratives – their works do not hold a key to the direction global art will be taking in the future, but they do hold the key to unravelling the experience of modernity from a position of authentic wonder and query. For example, here in Kathmandu we still have an artist, Bhadra Kumari Ghale, who used to paint with turmeric, kohl, indigo powder on paper – and most of her images were caustic critiques of gender violence, commodification and social imbalances.
Globalization seeped in hand-in-hand with imperial modernity and liberalisms as well as through neo-imperialism and, at present, with a state of post-democracy on many instances. It is silly to rant on and not recognize its role in rediscovering old connections, earlier routes of communication and coexistence. Even as economically less developed societies try their hardest to come up to scratch, even as imperialist powers of yore bite the dust on financial fronts (if not cultural), even as new economic tigers roar on the scene. For it would be even more silly to try and validate a culture of mediocrity in its name.
KURCHI DASGUPTA is an Indian artist and writer based in Kathmandu who works in the capacity of a freelancer contributing art writings to both regional and overseas magazines.