Girl To Woman:
A look into how the theme of feminism is expressed in the artwork of Asian artists Sangeeta Sandrasegar and Suzann Victor
Written by Alice Jordan
Asian artists Sangeeta Sandrasegar and Suzann Victor explore themes of feminism within their art practices. Both artists discuss how cultural backgrounds and diaspora affect their experiences as female artists and the work they produce. For example, Sandrasegar's series titled
Goddess of flowers
(2003) tackles the intrinsic relationship between modernity and culture that influences womanhood in Asia by utilising strong symbolism to exemplify the pressure on femininity. Whilst Victor's work
Third World Extra Virgin Dreams
(1997) investigate the culture of purity with ideas of virginity and menstruation. Feminism is a broad subject that encompasses many issues pertaining to the advocacy of women's rights, for that reason, I will be focusing on themes surrounding the female identity, coming of age, and the intrinsic pressure of culture and tradition.
The writing of American lawyer and civil rights activist Kimberlé Crenshaw can be used to set a framework to examine intersectionality and how it is discussed in both Victor and Sandrasegar's creative works. In the article Toward a Field of Intersectionality Studies: Theory, Applications, and Praxis (Cho, Crenshaw & McCall 2013), co-written by Crenshaw, intersectionality is used to examine the themes of race, gender, sexuality, and class. The article discusses how all-encompassing types of minorities represent inclusion and reflects the way in which issues like race and gender affect each other and are connected (2013). Even though the focus of the analysis is on feminism in Victor and Sandrasegar's work, these theories can be used to demonstrate how history, culture, and diaspora are interwoven.
Sangeeta Sandrasegar uses her Malaysian heritage to explore the cultural pressure applied to Asian women. Sarita Heer, a Lecturer of Art History at the University of Illinois at Chicago, investigates Indian women in her dissertation titled Re-Imaging Indian Womanhood: The Multiple Mythologies of Phoolan Devi (2014). In particular, Heer (2014) examines Sandrasegar's series of work titles
Goddess of flowers
(2003) and cultural practices within the lens of opposing context of modernity and tradition. Sandrasegar's depiction of violent imagery seeks to explore the interwoven history between past and present Hindu women through the imagery of archaic practices like Sati seen in
(Sandrasegar 2003). Heer presents a balanced assessment of the cultural significance of Sati, examining Sandrasegar's outlook on the practice. In her artwork, Sandrasegar depicts a woman being burned on a funeral pyre, but a divine figure is not present, which Heer discusses perhaps leaves the burden on man. Heer makes this critical evaluation to show that if it is a man who enacts such violent acts, perhaps the message is about the outdated constraints and standards enforced on Indian women. Overall, Heer feels that the expectation of Indian womanhood to be exclusively modern or traditional is unreasonable. Demonstrating the pressure of coming of age but keeping cultural ties that perhaps Sandrasegar's is expressing in the struggle of finding and exploring one’s feminine identity.
Additionally, Heer discusses a more prominent theme through the use of violent imagery in Sandrasegar work paired with craft in her art practice. Sandrasegar creates a juxtaposition between craft in the delicately cut paper and the violent imagery portrayed. Heer discusses the importance of linking Sandrasegar's work to cultural practices seen as part of womanhood, such as henna on feet, alluding to the rites of passage or the lifecycle of Indian women. Craft is used to depict violet imagery which demonstrate the artist’s view that abuse and violence have become a part of women's lifecycle in India and Asia. Furthermore, Heer describes the work as a sculpture, referencing the paper, the space in between, and the shadow cast as three separate images, portraying a multifaceted piece. Heer proposes that the spaces represent modernity, tradition, and the space between where Indian womanhood exists. Heer's writing provides insight into Sandrasegar work about feminism with discussions surrounding the female identity, womanhood, and cultural practices.
Sandrasegar further discusses the pressure she feels imposed on her and other women in an interview with Art Flow (2012). Sandrasegar discusses feminist ideas in her work through motifs and symbols, challenging the definition of womanhood and feminism. However, an overarching influence on her work is her unique background and experience with the diaspora. In the interview, Sandrasegar expresses how her experience as a migrant in Australia is crucial in forming ties to culture and tradition. She expresses one of her main influences is reading and "the pleasure of text – which has profoundly influenced how I learn about things around me" (Art Flow 2012, para.6). The influence of reading is additionally seen in Heer's (2014) evaluation of Sandrasegar's work
Goddess of flowers
(2003) and the feature of Indian feminist icon Phoolan Devi whom Sandrasegar discovered through reading. The interview provides further insight into how Sandrasegar conveys female empowerment through the reappropriation of goddesses in her work. She seeks to redefine aspects of culture in a contemporary manner. Utilising charged imagery in her works, Sandrasegar redefines the female identity as sexually and politically empowered beings. Sangeeta Sandrasegar’s works are feminist, however, it is also interlinked with an overarching theme of her ethnic background and diaspora.
The central theme of culture also influences Suzann Victor's work, who was previously based in Singapore. The evolving contemporary art scene in Singapore was brought to a halt by the group of performance artists - 5th Passage discussed in the Odeart article by Hugo Ng (2017). According to Victor (personal correspondence 2021) “5th Passage is Singapore’s first corporate-sponsored artist-run feminist art space. 5th Passage and The Artists Village were co-organisers of the AGA event which presented performance art, amongst other genres. One of the many performances was the protest piece about the twelve men arrested for solicitation was the by artist Josef Ng entitled Brother Cane” (see also Langenbach 2003). The group curated pieces in protest of the arrests of twelve men for homosexual solicitation, criticising the authority's treatment and punishment of the men. The performance piece Brother Cane (1994) by Joseph Ng was at the centre of the controversy when at the end of the piece, the artist turned his back to the audience and cut his pubic hair in a show of silent protest. This event caused uproar and consequentially lead to a ban on public arts funding, directly affecting Victor and her art practice by adding a layer of censorship. In the interview conducted by Grace Ignacia See in The Artling (2019), Victor reflects on the significance of the sanctions, using performance art to protest in the works Still Waters (1996). She discusses how the government's actions exposed previously ominous and fluid limitations, bringing into question how organic or genuine artistic intentions are when performing within known boundaries (See 2019). Victor proves herself to be a strong and empowering voice, criticising the Singaporean government in acts of defiance. Victor further explores censorship in the artwork
his mother is a theater
(1994), another work which the artist engages with the female body and identity.
The discussion of female identity is further examined in artists Suzann Victor's practice. Michelle Antoinette, a senior lecturer at Monash University in Melbourne, Australia, discusses these themes in the book Reworlding Art History: Encounters with Contemporary Southeast Asian Art After 1990 (2015). The female identity is portrayed in the work
his mother is a theater
(1994), in which Antoinette (2015) evaluates how Victor addresses culture and the ties to feminism. The use of materiality and choice of words is crucial in the performative installation piece. For example, Victor uses hair to spell ""clitoris," "orgasm," "vagina," "labia," "mammary glands,"…" (Antoinette 2015, p. 443) and other words associated with female anatomy. This piece can be seen as a direct response to the Josef Ng controversy as previously discussed and sanctions placed on performance art. Antoinette (2015) synthesises how Victor seeks to comment on the controls placed on performance art and the sequential dominance on Victor's body. This is reflected in the creative piece through Victor's creation of a female body through sexed words and hair. Antoinette (2015) situates this as Victor's way of performing her art and establishing agency again as an artist. This assertiveness is evidence of female empowerment and Victor's development of a feminist voice. The piece additionally provokes Asia's discount of the female identity, defining ideas of purity. Antoinette (2015) addresses how the use of hair separate from the body disrupts the body's natural order and, in turn, exposes the fragile standards that surround purity because hair is regarded as unclean.
The theme of establishing female agency is also expressed in Sangeeta Sandrasegar's work which Soo-Min Shim (2018) discusses in an article for Art Almanac. In the series Quite Contrary (2018), Sandrasegar explores and expands on existing representations of Mary Magdalene through a feminist perspective. Sandrasegar examines the different depictions of femineity to reclaim feminine agency and identity, which Shim (2018) explains are not mutually exclusive. Women and femineity exist on the thin boundaries between "demonisation and heraldisation" (Shim 2018, para. 6). Shim also discusses how the use of paper in Sandrasegar craft is flat and small, mimicking the expectations of women to occupy as little space as possible "as they are denied facets and subjective nuance" (2018, para.6). Like Heer, Shim identifies the use of shifting shadows in the creative work as a separate space, representative of the multiple and malleable caricatures women are expected to uphold with shifting environmental conditions, further demonstrating Sandrasegar's feminist voice.
Similar to Sandrasegar’s exploration of cultural pressures on women, the history and culture surrounding purity are also explored in Suzann Victor’s installation
third world extra-virgin dreams(1994). Using Cabania Fortress in Havana, Cuba the background for the work, Victor examines colonial powers and Asian women and children. The site-specific works create an atmosphere of colonial past. Victor divulges how the bed symbolised both beginnings and endings: "birthing and death, sex and sleep" (Victor). The bed represents sacred space, whilst the glass quilt implies elements of poverty, class, and female labour within the piece. Victor synthesises how the blood trapped between the glass slides could be hymenal blood and represent scrutiny surrounding purity.
Additionally, Victor addresses the use of blood and how it is as if the body is reduced to a valuable commodity, virgin blood, alluding to the sex trade of girls in Asia. The use of glass and light portrays the boundaries between strength and fragility, creating the question of whether the body is ascending or descending. Victor's writing provides essential insight into the creative works and the feminist undertones. Antoinette also discusses the use of light in the article See Like A Heretic: On Vision and Belief (2018), commenting on how the use of glass creates a fractured lens in which to view "a sense of connected yet multifaceted human experience"(2018, p.28). Victor discusses pressures surrounding purity and sex in her work and how it is embedded in female identity, demonstrating the intersectional experience of Asian artists and being a female in the creative space.
Victor discusses further what it is like being a female in the creative industry and the importance of maintaining an artist identity in the interview conducted by Dewi Nurjuwita in Lifestyle Asia (2018). Although she admits some progress has been made in funding, support, and educating young female artists, Victor divulges the difficulties she faced in a male-dominated space, navigating through gender biases in the '90s. Within the interview, Victor also expands on her relationship with feminism and how she believes the best way to portray feminism is subtle to " create change and growth" (Victor 2018). This statement is better understood when considering Binghui Huangfu, a curator at Earl Lu Gallery and their analysis of Victor's work. They identify how Victor uses the isolation of females as a metaphor to better approach restraints on females and their identity in a cultural environment. Therefore, Victor's work has a subtle edge because it tackles an array of issues about individuals who feel marginalised and not just feminist issues.
In conclusion, both artists demonstrate the in-depth issues surrounding the female identity and feminism in their art practices whilst discussing their struggles in finding their footing within the art world. Victor and Sandrasegar cover feminist issues of cultural pressure within Asia, such as womanhood and the expectations to adhere to caricatures of the ideal women. Although Suzann Victor approaches issues of culture and femininity with subtlety, the underlining message is still there. Whereas Sandrasegar is more pronounced, using the image of Hindu Gods, Mary Magdalene, and other feminist icons to characterised female tropes, indicating that tradition and modernity can co-exist. Overall, both artists demonstrate how gender, class, race and sexual orientation work together in the creative works to discuss layers of intersectional feminist ideology.
Figure 1: Sangeeta Sandrasegar, Untitled no. 1 (from ‘
Goddess of flowers
’ series), 2003. Paper, beads and glitter. Purchased 2004. Queensland Art Gallery Foundation Grant/Collection: Queensland Art Gallery. Photographed by Sharmila Sandrasegar. Copyright Sangeeta Sandrasegar
Figure 2: Suzann Victor,
His Mother is a Theatre
1994. Personae I, 5th Passage Pacific Plaza, Performative-sound installation comprising human hair, baby rocker, velvet, woks, bread. Singapore Art Museum Collection. Photograph: Simon Thong
Figure 3: Suzann Victor,
Third World Extra Virgin Dreams
1997. 6th Havana Biennial, Cabania Fortress, Cuba. Site-specific Installation comprising human blood, glass slides, metal clips, metal bed frame, cable. Singapore Art Museum Collection. Photograph: Alwin Reamillo
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