Art is both personal and universal

Nov 30, 2018, 07:30 IST | Rosalyn D'mello

I have never before been so conscious that you, my reader, are not just listening, but can identify with my own predicaments

Art is both personal and universal
One of Hannah Wilke's best known works is S.O.S. (Curlers), in which the artist stuck on her face tiny vulval sculptures shaped out of chewing gum. Pic/hannahwilke.com

Rosalyn D'melloIf anything, I regret having had to arrive at a moment of existential crisis before I made the decision to seek counselling. Having studied psychology during my under-grad years, I was fairly certain that I was a well-adjusted person. Last week, I began to feel as if my emotions were getting the best of me.

I had been sweeping them under the rug and behind furniture so they wouldn't appear in plain sight. I'd been struggling with the loss of a friendship that had become such an integral part of my identity; that had come to assume the significance of a point of reference such that I didn't know anymore where he ended and I began. When he decided to ghost on me, I felt the sincere anger of someone who had been wronged. He'd always held all the cards, always laid the terms and conditions of our engagement. I felt as though I had been robbed of my agency. I couldn't continue like this. I needed to be stronger. I needed to feel less broken. I had to take charge of the situation. Last week, around this time, I looked up a counselling centre in South Delhi and made an appointment to see a therapist.

I am genuinely amazed by the progress I've made in a single week. It had everything to do with my therapist's suggestion. "Sometimes we need to reframe a problem," she said after I'd talked for almost an hour. "Who are you as a person?" she asked me. "How do you define your individuality, not as your mother's daughter, your niece's aunt, your sister's sister, your friend's friend?" She told me to consider journaling. I was somewhat surprised by her recommendation, particularly since my writing is largely autobiographical.

But she made me question if that was essentially a manifestation of my own lack of clarity about the parameters of that self. It's been a wonderful exercise. After defining myself as a writer for at least 10 years, to now write not with the goal of later recycling my material for future books or columns, but solely as a method of talking to myself, discovering patterns about my behaviour, unabashedly listing my accomplishments and failures, knowing that this isn't meant to be seen or read by anyone has been wholly empowering.

The real challenge, as I've begun to understand it, is one of reclaiming agency. To know that you can only hold yourself responsible and accountable for your own actions and behaviour, and not for those of others in your life, changes something fundamental about the manner in which you otherwise internalise other people's shortcomings or failings. I've had to reaffirm for myself that all the lifelong rejections and the subsequent hurt, pain, and anger they caused were not reflective of something lacking in me; it was someone else's inability to see me the way I saw myself, or an inability to receive me in their lives. I didn't have access to this wisdom before, and I spent so many years believing I wasn't worthy of affection, or being surprised when I was greeted with warmth and kindness, when actually, I should have been more discerning of how much toxicity I would make allowances for in my relationships.

One breakthrough I've had in the last six days came from understanding that my feeling of empowerment has been the direct consequence of my investment in feminist ideology. Feminism occupies the same space in my life that religion occupies for others; by which I mean that it offers me a set of codes that dictate acceptable and unacceptable behaviour. Unlike religion, however, it is not based on dogma or blind faith. It is an ideology that helps me navigate the world, allowing me to see through misogynist tripe. It compels me to be more conscious about my actions so that I don't fall into the trap of hypocrisy, and it offers me space for me to practice compassion. Unlike religion, its rewards are more immediate and aren't premised on the notion of an impending afterlife.

I realised also that I've been struggling so much with trying to become the person I want to be - someone bathed in the radiance of grace -that I lost sight of who I am, which explains why I depend so much on my friends and on factors external to me for validation. It explains also why writing has become such an extension of my self, and why the confessional mode has become my medium. Within its elusive boundaries, I allow myself to spill over, digress, and be vulnerable. I refuse to call it catharsis, though. And it isn't narcissistic either, because I have never before been so conscious that you, my reader, are not just listening but can identify with my own predicaments. I can't help aligning my urge towards irrepressibility with what the artist Hannah Wilke once said: "If women have failed to make 'universal' art because we're trapped within the 'personal', why not universalize the 'personal' and make it the subject of our art?"

Deliberating on the life and times of Everywoman, Rosalyn D'Mello is a reputable art critic and the author of A Handbook For My Lover. She tweets @RosaParx Send your feedback to mailbag@mid-day.com

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