Living in a world defined by men

Published: May 31, 2019, 06:17 IST | Rosalyn D'Mello

It's a long way to utopia and we cannot delude ourselves into thinking we are no longer under the grip of patriarchal conditioning

Living in a world defined by men
On one wall of a room was first screened footage of a man singing a Persian sufi song to a visible audience in a concert hall. After he is finished, the video on the opposite side begins. We see a woman singing to an empty auditorium, except her mystical melody is not constructed by words that have any semantic semblance. Pic/Architectural Digest India

Rosalyn D'MelloI have yet to visit the exhibition but I find myself so drawn to its title that when I do make it to the Venice Biennale I feel inclined to make it the first stop on my still evolving itinerary. "She Persists," is what its curators, Mashael Al Rushaid and Sona Datta have called the show of some 20 international, rebellious feminist artistic voices, on going at the Palazzo Benzon, on the Grand Canal. I learned about it as I was conversing with Mithu Sen, a dear friend and one of the Indian artists who debuted a new performance piece in Venice, also intriguingly titled (Un)Mansplaining during which, over a soundtrack she composed by stitching together excerpts of male art critics expounding on contemporary art, she elocuted nonsense speech, dressed in faux exotic clothes, playing with how she is frequently presumed by male artists and critics to be "possessed" while she performs, which sounds harmless but is in fact an insidious accusation meant to strip off any artistic agency she may claim to have.

Talking to her reminded me of how dangerous women like her have conventionally appeared to patriarchal figures, and how, in an age where the age-old recourse of witch-burning is frowned upon, the strategy of disempowering women of intellect by construing their thoughts and actions as somehow frivolous continues to hold sway. I was also reminded of the powerful two-channel video work Turbulent (1998) I saw at the most recent edition of Kochi-Muziris Biennale, curated by feminist queer artist Anita Dube, by Shirin Neshat. On one wall of a room was first screened footage of a man singing a Persian sufi song to a visible audience in a concert hall. After he is finished, the video on the opposite side begins. We see a woman singing to an empty auditorium, except her mystical melody is not constructed by words that have any semantic semblance. It floats between sounds and wails, all indecipherable, all existing outside of meaning.

It is an ode to the virtue of feminist persistence. Laptop-less and for all practical purposes penniless, since I had to block my debit card after I got "skimmed", I've spent the last week utterly immersed in reading. There are two columns that appear in The Paris Review that have caught my intellectual fancy — one called Feminize Your Canon by Emma Garman, in which she revisits forgotten works by women writers across continents and centuries and Eat Your Words by Valerie Strivers, which has the writer recounting for us her experiments in cooking from recipes inferred from various literary works, from Iris Murdoch to Colette. I have simultaneously been reading essays by Adrienne Rich, the white lesbian feminist activist and Virginia Woolf's Three Guineas, both of whom testify to the urgent need for us to recognise the relativity of privilege, and how, while we've come so far in the fight for gender parity, there are many more battles to fight, many more demands yet to be made.

It becomes even clearer how feminism as an ideology is tethered to so much more than the struggle for women to be recognised as entitled to the same rights as men. It is perhaps the only ideology at this moment in time that is truly capable of liberating us from the disastrous perils of capitalism and fascism, both of which are seeing a resurgence of exploitative will. Woolf's anti-war treatise so directly and urgently deals with the question of how to prevent mass-scale violence, the inhumanity of war, and she, like Rich and so many within the feminist tribe, make a strong case for how as women, we've got the shorter end of every stick not just because we have been historically oppressed but because our subjectivity continues to be suppressed. Despite how empowered we may either be or strive to be, the reality is that we are living in a world that was defined by men.

Even what we understand and accept or have inherited as time was instituted by men and inscribed upon global consciousness by emperors and colonialists. How do we even begin to regain and rebuild all that we lost out on because our subjectivities were never consulted either because we had limited historical access to education or because we were deemed
to be inferior.

More than ever before in our history we have to reinvigorate intellectual thought and philosophical enquiry with feminist imagination. It's a long way to utopia and we cannot delude ourselves into thinking we are no longer under the grip of patriarchal conditioning. It has fallen upon us, the inheritors of the feminist past to continue to build for the feminist future. Despite all the odds, we must persist.

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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