In Bangladesh, women who are engaged in the visual arts, often find themselves negotiating an adverse territory as they seek to locate themselves within a tradition where they have been historically discriminated against and which has been defined in male terms. While some women have dealt with these issues through deconstructing the visual imagery, others have disparagingly investigated the process of image-making and the historical relationship between sign-making and collective construction of femininity in a particular society. Refusing the image of woman as ‘sign’ within the patriarchal social order, these artists have chosen to work with an existing set of cultural images because they insist feminine sexuality is always rendered as demonstration of differentiation.
Feminism has always been deeply concerned with questions about this issue of marginality and representation, with the politics of images. This concern is in the way in which woman’s body has been manipulated in the male representation, and women’s relegation to a secondary position in the so-called high culture. Post-modern analysis has raised essential questions about power, aspiration and meaning in arts. Some of our women artists are consciously making an effort to be recognized as subject rather than object, autonomous participants rather than hostages in a constructed patriarchal society. Even if many of the women artists in Bangladesh addressed the issue from a personal point of view and, when dealing with the female image, could not go beyond the traditional male viewpoints, some of them were employing unconventional matrices and focus on the issue. It seems that their efforts have resulted in some unpretentious observation and introspective realization of the matter.
Tayeba Begum Lipi has been striving over the past several years to present her works in a more contemporary vocabulary of artistic expression, such as installation, site-specific construction and performance, notwithstanding the fact that she did paintings in traditional oil and acrylic mediums as well. Her concern seems primarily to be her own self as a woman and as a loner in the society, but unlike her other counterparts she deals with the female body and the feminist quests from a more heterogeneous understanding. She has studied the conflicting manifestations of the female body at length and has gradually developed a discourse of her own. To achieve this, she has traveled to different and remote areas, studied traditional arts done by women and has taken part in several interactive art activities around the globe. These experiences have provided her with a wider understanding of the issue and a variety of sources to explore.
Lipi is one artist who unyielding questions – why the territory of even contemporary art is so often a way of dealing with masculine sexuality and its sign – the body of woman. She also strives to explore the relationship between the concepts of beauty largely determined by a male-dominated sexuality and the sense of contemporaneousness claimed to be within it.
Lipi, as a woman artist, is making an effort to redefine this sexuality in the representation of women’s body as a sign of beauty. Her attempts are to rediscover and reinterpret this representation which was defined by this‘ other’, dominant but non-committal part of the social weave.
To Lipi, the perspective offered by feminism is in terms of this emphasis on the body, on woman’s body as a particular ‘dilemma’, both as the means of productivity and as an object of beauty. She sought a symbolic vocabulary which could both express and conceal the reality of the body. Her installation work presented here is an interrogation by itself. It is a satirical enactment of a part of the woman’s body, evocatively titled Bizarre and Beautiful, consisting of 3000 stainless steel razor blades reshaped to that of a bra of 30 pieces, suspended from bars in a metal shelf. Here one finds a sense of foreboding as well as a monstrous desire and sensuality working in an undefined space where the blades are not sharpened in reality, but appear to be so, threateningly reflecting the light.
While gender suggests that we are defined as a boy or a girl from the moment of birth, I prefer to perceive the newborn as a child. Despite my femininity as a woman, there also lie innate masculine characteristics within myself. In the video, I simultaneously assumed the roles of both the bride and the groom of my wedding. First, as a bride I enacted my existence meticulously in bridal attire on a wedding stage. Returning to the green room for a cropped haircut with the additional mustache, I changed and performed again as a groom. A professional make-up artist and hairdresser were actively involved in this project.
How do we represent the beauty of a woman? Is it a beautiful mind/body or does it rely on a beautiful body alone? How does a female find herself different from her male counterpart? Is it relevant largely to the construct of the body?
My installation is a satire of the bizarre, consisting of 3000 stainless steel razor blades reshaped to that of a bra of 30 pieces, suspended from bars in a metal shelf. Here you find a sense of foreboding as well as a monstrous desire/sensuality working in tandem where the blades are not sharpened in reality, but appear to be so, reflecting threateningly in the light. A number of people have worked in this project. The blades were reproduced in a small workshop in Old Dhaka, while the bras were made in a welding workshop in Shobujbagh.
In the video, called I Wed Myself the artist assumes the role of both the bride and the groom simultaneously in a wedding dress-up. First, as a bride she enacts her existence meticulously in bridal attire on a wedding stage. Returning to the green room for a cropped haircut with the additional mustache, she changes and performs as a groom. Both the happenings are projected simultaneously and side by side. Such wits reinforce the double meaning frequently associated with sex and enjoyment – desire and consuming, women and foodstuff, product and contentment. These spaces of femininity still regulate women’s lives at least in countries like Bangladesh – from facing the disturbing looks by men on the streets to surviving mortal sexual assaults. As a consequence it remains relevant to cultivate a feminist analysis to perceive and detect its serialized structures, to develop unconventional models for negotiating these areas. Access to a sexual domain which is marked by understand and ambiguous spaces is one of many struggles artists like Tayeba Begum Lipi are encountering in several parts of the world. The struggles are not only racial and communal, they are also of gender and class, of religion and politics.T he borderlands are restless, and a confused territory of cross-cultural, cross-gender and cross-class relations. They are stained by sexism and a shrouded xenophobia, fear of the other. These fantasized boundaries are being tested today by such women art practitioners like Lipi.