Support BLM Movement, But What About Patriarchy & Colourism Here?
The lockdown has led to a vibrant pop art movement on Instagram over racism, patriarchy in the backdrop of BLM.
“Sharma aunty is posting Black Lives Matter stories all over Instagram but she still wants a fair daughter-in-law,” says one of the characters made by pop artist Aastha Sahdev on her Instagram account.
Scroll down and you will see another woman in a bridal attire, flinging a newspaper ad on a matrimonial column that reads, “Homely, glowy and lovely bride wanted”.
Another example by Sahdev is Roxanne. She represents the embodiment of the modern Indian woman who refuses to conform to restrictions and stereotypes. Inspired by the song of same name by Arizona Zervas, Roxanne is a flamboyant, bold and layered character who serves as a perfect antidote to patriarchy.
“There’s a general thought process that women who dress traditionally are more homely, subdued and have better values. I am just trying to break that stereotype with my art,” explains digital illustrator Sahdev.
Sahdev’s women mock the singular idea of beauty whose paradigm is race and patriarchy. They ridicule tokenism moves of the beauty industry like replacing “fair” to “glow” in fairness creams.
The lockdown has spearheaded a vibrant pop art movement on Instagram that is criticising racism, patriarchy and the idea of Indian beauty in the backdrop of the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement. While artists have been vocal about critical issues in the past as well, the digital medium has democratised the process over time, especially during the coronavirus-induced lockdown.
“We can see mini versions of artworks that are like miniatures of #MeToo. There’s a #MeToo for being a victim of racism, of rape culture, of blatant sexism at the workplace, among other things,” says Hyderabad-based illustrator Trace.
Equally, the internet has weaponised and enraged ‘haters’ who are easily offended by empowering artworks.
Chennai-based illustrator Aishwarya says she has received rape threats and abuses for her art.
“In the beginning, I would never voice my opinion as I felt this is something that we all already know. But you see, we are not doing anything about these vices. So during the lockdown, I created artwork to voice them. I did face a lot of criticism and abuses – rape threats and even death threats for some art. At the same time I wonder how an artwork can enrage people so easily?”
Aishwarya’s illustration on “God is a Woman’ critically bellows on rape culture and normalisation of racist, gendered slurs against women.
Criticism For Speaking Against Colour
Meghan Nagpal, one of the three women who started the petition to have the fairness filter removed from the matrimony website Shaadi.com, has been trolled by patrons of patriarchy and racism.
“A strong, opinionated woman is often reduced to mere object of desire by male gaze. The focus is on their physical attributes rather than the subject she is addressing,” said Nagpal.
Sahdev’s art has also drawn flak for drawing semi-naked and coloured women.
“The said gentleman wanted to ‘exercise his right to marry whoever he wants’ because according to him ‘everyone prefers fair people in real life’ and according to him ‘fair & lovely is doing us a favour.’ He thinks ‘girls just create drama’ on social media for attention,” she says.
While such comments have normalised rape culture in India, it has also necessitated dialogue on understanding of race in feminist discourse and how women’s bodies were always used to exhort agendas.
‘Conception Of Beauty & Caste Lens’
Women’s bodies and the idea of beauty have always been a site of contention due to the East’s rendering of “culturally pure” image and the West’s colonialism and capitalism. While many shall put the blame on colonisers for breeding this racial superiority complex in Indians – including the British, Dutch, Portugese, Mughals, Afghans, and so on – there is enough evidence that the Indian caste system has been perpetuating racial biases since time immemorial.
“The histories of colonialism and globalisation are interlinked with entrenched hierarchies of caste in India. Therefore, conceptions of beauty and desirability in India have to be read through the multiple lens of caste and race discrimination,” says writer Navaneetha Mokkil, who teaches Women’s Studies at JNU.
In national imagination, a woman’s identity is seen from the lens of honour of the nation, largely controlled by a masculine state. As a result, successive governments have rendered a parochial understanding of who the modern Indian woman is, by putting a baggage of cultural purity on her.
“Woman is codified with traits like domesticity, sacrificial, submissiveness, docility, shyness that have long subjugated her identity. These are often attached to the making of essentialist notions of ‘Indianness’ in relation to upper caste Indian women.”Navaneetha Mokkil
Post globalisation, while India liberalised its economy for the beauty market to openly capitalise on beauty products, a conservative section still feared that ‘the degeneracy of the West’ will malign the idea of ‘Indian beauty’ that are perceived as a bastion of the Indian culture.
Such views relegated a woman’s character to profanity if she wilfully chooses to control her body, mind and space. This male chauvinism on rendering a woman’s body as ‘pure’ is exacerbated when society lashes out at women who openly discuss taboo subjects like female sexual pleasure, menstruation and hygiene.
“Your art ain’t gonna change anything, stop picking such subjects” is what one of the trollers said to Aindriya when she made an artwork on female sexual pleasure.
“Despite the threats, it is important to not let the dialogue die. My art is an antidote to the regressive mentality and abuses I receive.”Aindriya
She has normalised taboo subjects like menstruation, sexuality and female pleasure, giving liberty to her female subjects to enjoy their bodies.
Hegemonising of ‘White’ by Capitalists
Since globalisation, dominant Western capitalist forces have shaped the idea of ‘ideal beauty’ based on the white supremacist racist ideology – the caucasian. A need has been inculcated where beauty requires to meet flawed standards of whiteness and slimness.
“The beauty model regards a woman’s natural, bare, and uncontrolled body as a stigma, as ugliness – something to disguise, to modify, to improve. Thus, the woman is placed in a no-win situation. She is expected to embody a ‘timeless’ cultural fantasy that is removed from the diverse and changing world of the living. But her special beauty is not really innate, and it takes a lot of effort to maintain. The effort to control the body is evidenced by the proliferation of a ‘weight control’ culture, and cosmetic surgery,” writes author Efrat Tseelon in Ideology of Beauty.
After 1991, capitalist forces have been picking beauty pageants to thrust a cultural hegemony on developing nations by selecting winners from low GDP nations.
A study of Miss Universe winners between 1990 to present reveals that about 60 percent titleholders were from Asia, Africa and Latin America. Miss World titleholders from such developing nations for the same time period are nearly 59 percent.
As a result, the beauty products market reached a whopping $4,075 million globally in 2017 with highest growth in Asia-Pacific region, according to a Market Research study. Gradually, home remedies and laser treatments came into being to attain fairness.
Though the women who entered beauty contests did feel empowered and liberated, but this time, too, the woman’s body and colour was not hers. She was commodified and made to be part of advertisement campaigns for fairness. Many of them, like Priyanka Chopra in recent times, have regretted endorsing fairness creams.
The boom in the cosmetics industry not only intensified racial divide, but also widened class divide. A certain class of middle class educated women consumers was born. In words of New York University Professor Arvind Rajagopal, it was the women who “had the time, money and desire to attend to her physical appearance and opt for an ‘aspiration space’.
Post globalisation, this class was convinced through advertisements, films, songs, posters that fair skin makes you desirable and achiever at any phase of life – education, job or finding prospects in marriage.
Eurocentrism seeped in the skin of South Asian women to the extent that it, today, demonises darker skin tones, calling them – “exotic”, “uncivilised” and “unrefined.”
But pop artists are taking the social responsibility to liberate women’s body from manacles of the West and the East by rendering them freedom over their actions. For instance, Trace’s depiction of coloured women in Indian ethnic clothes scream south Asian representation. Her women defy patriarchy, racial prejudice and cultural appropriation and loudly assert their identity.
“I use rich brown skin tones contrasting with neon colours because darker women are always told to wear light colours because bright colours won’t look good on their brown skin. I use bridal attire because I want it to portray that women cannot or don’t get any boring or less stronger when they get married, their life doesn’t and shouldn’t revolve around just marriage, that they can definitely focus on their dreams and careers even after marriage.”Trace
Being Apolitical Is Privilege
“I am for an art that is political-erotical-mystical, that does something other than sit on its ass in a museum” – this thought of American sculptor Claes Oldenburg states how his art was created with a purpose to critique vices of society, such as consumerism, gender inequality, and war in 1960s postmodern America.
The artist detests the idea of ‘muse-fying’ art and wants it to be consumed as part of the popular culture. From the vantage point of high aesthetic art movements, pop culture was looked down upon as low culture. But the internet and digitalisation has revamped it into a formidable, inclusive and powerful art movement.
While Indians support the BLM movement, it’s high time that in this unlock phase – we do unlock our minds and acknowledge the prejudices at home.
Race in feminist discourse has been perpetuating patriarchy, colourism and consumerism, all of which have been drawing their agendas on women’s bodies. It’s time to claim them and let them breathe freely!
(Priyamvada Rana is a correspondent with MEA Worldwide. She writes about art and pop culture. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)
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