Kawita Vatanajyankur and Cigdem Aydemir: The intersectional feminine experience

Written by Sophie Malvestuto

Intersectional feminism is a term described as multiple and interacting variables such as race, gender, sexuality and class, which assist in breaking down the influences these factors have on the multidimensional experience of marginalized women (DeFelice and Diller 2019). The term intersectional feminism was developed by civil rights and race advocate Kimberlé Crenshaw in 1989 and into the early 1990s (Carastathis 2016:3). Crenshaw (1991) analyses the ways race and gender intersect to determine the experiences of women. (Cho, Williams, McCall (2013) discusses the notion of “applications of intersectional frameworks or investigations of intersectional dynamics” as a way of understanding the ways in which these interacting factors influence the fabrications of society. For example, the workers positioned to perform in some forms of labour rather than others can be a reflection of gender and race interacting with class. These notions are highly prevalent in Kawita Vatanajyankur’s and Cigdem Aydemir’s practices, as both artists expose the unique experiences of being Thai and Muslim Australian women in Western society, and the ways these multiple factors affect their experiences. Specifically, in relation to consumerism and societal standards. The cultural feminine experience in Western societies is complex and often unacknowledged. Experiences of those on the receiving end of marginalisation, under-representation and misunderstanding have great significance in Western society, yet despite this are unrecognised. In this essay, the ways in which the intersectional feminine experience in specific relation to consumerism and societal standards will be discussed through two female artists who have lived the intersectional feminine experience: Thai-Australian artist Kawita Vatanajyankur and Turkish-Muslim Australian artist Cigdem Aydemir. Firstly, a discussion of the term intersectional feminism and the relevance of the concepts in relation to both artists’ individual practises.

In this essay, I will provide an in-depth exploration into the work of Vatanajyankur and the ways in which she expresses the experiences of female factory workers in Thailand through her video work Dye (2018). Then a discussion of Aydemir’s video work Veils on Veils (2020) will examine the place the headscarf has in Western society and specifically in the advertising industry. Both works and artists’ practises will be discussed in relation to the unique experiences of Thai and Muslim women in the Australian and global landscape. Throughout both works, the artists’ passionately endeavour to tell the stories and experiences of women living in the intersectional feminine experience, who are repeatedly excluded and silenced from Western narratives and culture.  

Kawita Vatanajyankur is a Thai-Australian artist, based in Bangkok and has spent many years working and studying in Australia. As a Thai Australian woman, Vatanajyankur grapples with the feeling of belonging to neither culture (Vatanajyankur, cited in Morelli 2019). Throughout her practice, Vatanajyankur investigates the vexed lives of Thai female factory workers and the social and gender inequities prevalent in Thailand (Bhullar 2020). In doing so, Vatanajyankur aims to expose the lives of the workers behind the mass production industry. The experiences of many female factory workers in Thailand are intolerable and exploitive, where workers are treated as machines rather than people and are frequently pushed to breaking point (Yimprasert 2006). In their writing, author Piya Pangsapa (2011) breaks down the dire working conditions of Thai factory workers expressing the extreme long hours, highly hazardous work environments, verbal and physical abuse and wage deficiency.

These themes and concerns are explored in Vatanajyankur’s practise, where through video and performance, the artist transforms her body into machines commonly used in textile factories throughout Thailand. Vatanajyankur, quoted in Bhullar (2020) states “my own body is being objectified and merged within the tool and being treated as a continuing and working tool or machine”. Through this, Vatanajyankur explicitly addresses the ways in which workers bodies are being exploited for the benefit of global mass consumerism.  

Vatanajyankur’s work Dye, 2018, a 7 minute and 42 second video performance work, depicts the artist suspended upside down, ankles bound with a white yarn mass on the artist’s head. Vatanajyankur wears a flesh-coloured leotard, against a vibrant dusty blue background.  The full duration of the piece shows the repetitive lowering and raising of the artists body, during which the artist’s head is continually submersed into a bowl of red liquid, until the moment where the artist cannot endure anymore (Vatanajyankur 2021). The artist spoke of the symbolism of the red dye, as expressing “violence, flesh and blood and power” (Vatanajyankur 2021), concepts reflective of the exploitation and oppression of Thai labour workers, where workers are pushed to total exhaustion (Yimprasert 2006).

Indeed, this is a recurring theme in Vatanajyankur’s practice. Vatanajyankur  focuses strongly on the pressure to work in order to keep up with an ever-developing consumerist society with the demands of the West. This pressure is personal to the artist, whose father passed away when Vatanajyankur was eighteen as a result of overworking (Vatanajyankur quoted in Morelli 2019). This pressure to persist is embedded in working culture in Thailand and prompts Vatanajyankur to ask audiences: what is behind mass production? Encouraging audiences to become actively engaged in this global concern, Vatanajyankur (2021) emphasizes that “it’s not about my own [Vatanajyankur’s] voice… but actually sharing these ideas with the workers, or brand owners who are trying to fix this issue”. Vatanajyankur (Morelli 2019) emphasises that slowing down mass production will benefit both the worker and the consumer. She emphasizes the harsh treatment and pressure workers face day to day and the only way to ease this pressure is to slow down mass production and the obsession of accumulating more, something that would ultimately benefit consumers.

Turkish-Muslim Australian artist Cigdem Aydemir unveils the experiences of Muslim women and people who wear the headscarf in Western societies. Aydemir’s work Veils on Veils (2020) is a three-minute video piece composed of three single channel videos. In the videos, the artist is pictured wearing brightly coloured and extravagant headpieces made of assorted satin like fabrics, posing in an editorial style. The videos resemble a shampoo commercial, where Aydemir wears headscarves to mimic glamourous hairstyles common the Western beauty advertising (UTS 2020). The videos reflect a “drag and kitsch aesthetic” (Aydemir 2020) and are inspired by the way drag performers parody and challenge the gender binary. Aydemir shifts the satirical focus of the gender binary to the binary of Western and Muslim women, parodying to the notion of the idealised Western female (Aydemir 2020). Through this, the artist exposes the power structures between Western women and women of other cultures, where Western female representations outweigh cultured representations.  

The binary between Western women and Muslim women in Australia was intensified through media representations after the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Centre in September 2001 (Aly 2007), where the Australian media constructed the narrative that Muslims and Muslim Australians as other. This emphasised Australian Liberal and Islamic values as polar, “reinforc[ing] the idea that the two entities are diametrically opposed and incompatible” (Akbaezadeh 2010:7). Through Veils on Veils, Aydemir aims to blur this divide by wearing the headscarf in a Western advertising context, challenging the idea of hair as being a symbol of Western femininity and beauty (Aydemir 2020). Through this, the artist shines a light on the experiences of Muslim women in Australia and the misunderstanding of the headscarf. Akbaezadeh (2010:8) breaks down the common Western belief that the headscarf is solely reflective of the oppression of Muslim women in society, a belief which excludes women from social life and freedoms. A notion which Aydemir challenges by contending that hair can act as much as a disguise as the veil can (Aydemir 2020).

Although the feminine experiences of both Vatanajyankur and Aydemir differ in the artists being individually Thai and Muslim Australian women, their practises and messages share a similar goal. Both artists expose the intersectional female experience as complex and often misunderstood. However, to expose the experience of marginalised women in Western society, both artists aim to provide a platform for these voices to be understood.

The common use of video and performance allows both artists to express their interest in advertising and consumerist culture. Use of this medium allows for Vatanajyankur to further reflect her interest in exposing the challenges of the workers behind consumerism. In Dye (see Figure 1), the use of vibrant and contrasting reds, blues and yellows parallel the visual imagery of commercials and consumer products (Downes 2020). In an article written by Daniel McDermon (2017), Vatanajyankur explains, “you see those beautiful packages and you don’t think for a moment about the labour that’s behind them”. In using a digital medium, then, enables Vatanajyankur to explicitly reference the pop aesthetics of contemporary advertising to create a direct connection between the themes in her work to the broader global issue.  

Similarly, this notion of consumerism in Western society is prevalent in Aydemir’s video works Veils on Veils. As discussed, the videos depict the artist mimicking the poses typical of hair models in advertising (see Figure 2) but challenges the idea of hair as being a symbol of beauty by wearing the veil associated with Muslim culture (Aydmir 2020). To emphasize this, the video works were displayed on the University of Sydney Broadway Screen, a large billboard in the CBD of Sydney (Downes 2020), resulting in viewers and passers-by's potentially reading the work as a hair product advertisement. In addition, through displaying the video works on the billboard, Aydemir confronts the tropes the Australian media pushes on Muslim Australians through subverting the typical advertised image of Western female beauty. Through video, the artists interrupt the viewer, demanding the audience to engage with the work and the broader themes explored. This interruption positions the viewer to look at their place in society and to become involved in the experiences and stories being told.  

Both Vatanajyankur and Aydemir uniquely explore the complex and often unjust power dynamics between Western and Asian women in Australian culture. Specifically, both artists engage in these ideas in relation to consumerist culture. Prompting audiences to consider whose voices are heard and listened to and whose are left out. Yasmeen (2010:21) defines exclusivity of groups in Western idealised society as a “state, outcome of condition in which individuals and communities across generations may find themselves in a position that is characterised relative of absolute denial of resources (social, economic, political and cultural) that are expected as the norm by the majority of society”. This notion is relevant to the intersectional feminist experience, where due to intersecting factors, marginalised women are excluded from societies. Vatanajyankur exposes the unjust power structure behind mass production and the division between the labourer and the consumer, as a result of exclusivity of stories and experiences. While Aydemir aims to shine the light on Western representation and misinterpretation of Muslim women and the veil and the power of the beauty and advertising industry. Both artists intentions are to emphasise the voices left out and promote the excluded to become included in Australian narratives.

Throughout both artists’ practices, Vatanajyankur and Aydemir explicitly and passionately emphasize the importance of actively recognising the struggles of the intersectional feminine experience of Muslim and Thai women in Australia. While the artists’ have specific focuses on consumerism and advertising, the overall messages expressed in their practices are to challenge Western representations of the marginalised woman and their own experiences as Thai and Muslim Australian women. The work of both artists’ is significant in a global context as the collective goal in communicating the voices and stories of Thai and Muslim women through art has impact on all who engages.

Figure 1: Kawita Vatanajyankur (2018) Dye, [HD video still], artist website, accessed 10 August 2022. https://www.kawitav.com/dye

Figure 2: Cigdem Aydemir (2020), Veils on Veils, [video still], artist website, accessed on 10 August 2022. https://cigdemaydemir.com/VoV.html

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