Published: STUDENT DIRECT, April 2008
What do you want? Is indeed the question posed by the art comprising this exhibition. Its artists, all of whom live in India and are female, seem to demand an answer from the audience. It is a very good question – What do we want when we look around an art exhibition? Well among other things we want to have our perception and ideas challenged, we want to be provoked, be made aware of something unknown to us, to have our emotions stirred.
Tejal Shah’s ‘What are you?’ certainly does this. She investigates the lives and status of male-female transgender ‘hijras’, who are ‘treated as subhuman’ within their society. The work, that uses both film and photography, successfully shows the prejudices, even within ourselves, towards those who do not fit within the expected binaries of our world.
In India, Hijras are considered to be neither male nor female but rather of a ‘third sex’ and are thus discriminated and abused by authorities and members of the public alike. At the back of the gallery space two huge projections stand next to each other playing the same video on slightly different time lapses. At the beginning it shows the silhouetted shapes of women at a window, real and sexual, who then walk towards the camera and reveal their more masculine features. This unexpected turn exposes our assumptions and lack of acceptance of those who are transgender. The images that cover the walls portray each individual hijra, as they see themselves or want to be seen. The results show three very different sides of femininity - the powerful and unreachable seducer, the mother, and the romantic heroine. All of which are identities Indian society refuses them.
This to me was one of the most interesting of the exhibits ‘What do you want?’ had to offer for it explores the categorisation we are all subjugated to within societies. Our appearance, accents, and views mean that we are each placed within stereotypes by those around us, advertising is sent to your inbox guessing from your age and location what you might be interested in, people hand you a flyer if you look like someone they want at their night, you guess from external elements peoples sexual orientation.
The artists Shilpa Gupta and Shaina Anand make you aware of interesting parallels between India and Manchester. Having been to India myself, I remember the constant feeling of being observed by members of the public, especially as a woman and especially by men. Shaina Anand addresses this with her piece ‘CCTV Social’, in which she explores the similar extent we in Manchester are continually under surveillance. The many TV screens that fill the exhibition space expose the harsh knowledge that there are very few places within our city that you can truly be alone. We are encased by mechanical eyes, which have the power to follow our every movement. Our freedom to do as we please is in fact minimal and is thus is a comparable situation to Indian women ‘living within traditional family structures’.
Shilpa Gupta likewise addresses a lack of control we have upon our life, and its increase through the climate of fear absorbing our world’s climate. In the centre of her room are two tables covered with objects disguised by sewn cloth. These objects are unrecognisable and void of their identity. Before reading the explanation upon the wall, they seem to comment already upon the suppression women experience within India, for although the situation is improving, women are still viewed as largely inferior to men. They belong to men; they are a possession just like the belongings placed upon the tables. Learning of the objects origins however the piece takes on a different meaning. They comprise of confiscated belongings from the airports of Manchester and Mumbai, but we are not told which table displays which location. Thus it states that we are all ambiguous. Unsure of our positions within society, unsure of danger, unsure of identity. Just as we try to interpret the objects, we similarly interpret each other and ourselves.
Returning to the exhibitions title however, what we (or most certainly I) want, is to have art displayed to me in a well thought out manner, professionally, clearly and all in full working order. This is where ‘What do you want?’ fell short of its expectation. The videos of Shaina Anand froze and jumped, two separate artworks that relied upon audio were placed within close proximity to one another, frustratingly detracting from their individual impact and when viewing Shilpa Gupta’s confiscated objects I found the attendant picking them up and moving them from their intended position. Not what I want at all.
Nevertheless I do still recommend this exhibition. The art works all project a voice not often heard, that of Indian women. The art reflects the artists international experiences, the similarities and discrepancies between our culture and their own, and succeed in making us acknowledge that their issues, ‘affect people around the world’.