By Anirban Kapil Baishya
A pair of eyes opens-haunting. Their piercing glance draws your gaze into the black and white universe of the screen. ‘Beauty’, ‘Choice’, ‘Veil’, ‘Resist’ – words interspersed in the viewer’s world as a young woman stands and shaves off her hair.
The grinding industrial sound of an electric buzzer in the background is a gritty reminder of the power behind the act. The girl now alternately dons a burqa and a bindi, her identity caught between these stereotypes of womanhood – and yet the circle is broken by shots of her smoking while in the burqa, or by her stern gaze as she stares at you arms folded defiantly in front of her.
Framed within this play of images, Shaheen Ahmed’s one minute, nineteen second piece Refuse/Resist comes across as a powerful performance of identity-both through the play of stereotypical images of Indian/Muslim womanhood and the courageous forging of an ambivalent identity in which Ahmed probes the uncomfortable question of what it means to be a Muslim woman in today’s globalized world.
Do the stereotypes of “Muslim” and “Woman” still bind the 21st century woman within the rigid constraints of a fixed sense of identity? How does a woman in her position constantly negotiate between fixed notions of gender and religiosity that pre-determine the received notions thereof-notions that violently place her in a position that is at once one of vulnerability and strength?
These are some issues that Ahmed addresses in her piece, scratching the surface of what we consider “normal”. In Ahmed’s own words, her project stems from a “sense of having a fluid identity in the sense of a universal or rather a pan-Indian sense of belonging”.
She says, “In Refuse/Resist, I have tried to re-define the normative notions of gender and religion, and posited questions regarding my identity and choice as a post-colonial third woman.”
Ahmed is a Master of Arts student at the School of Arts and Aesthetics at Jawaharlal Nehru University. Refuse/Resist actually started out as a student work for a course that Ahmed did with the prolific RAQS Media Collective, culminating in an exhibition held at the School in November 2011.
Initially, her work was meant to be played on a plasma screen with a text projection on it. The nature of the text itself is an indicator of the kind of attitudes that Ahmed is trying to probe and subvert. The text was comprised of the transcripts of an informal conversation with the manager of a well known pub in Delhi. In the conversation, the manager, himself a Muslim man, expresses no problems with women coming in for a drink wearing traditional sarees, but when asked how he would feel if women came in wearing burqas, his tone was one of refusal-even anger. In some ways, this text places the video within parentheses, bracketing it within an exploration of the uncomfortable zones that lie beyond the borders of norms of identity.
However, when Ahmed’s work was displayed at the UFO International Digital Film Festival 2012, where it won the prize for Best Digital Art, this text projection was not used due to logistic issues. The text projection added another layer of personal encounter within this narrative of identity. Even without it though, Refuse/Resist comes across as a veritably ‘complete’ work of art. This sense of ‘completeness’ accrues from the sheer grit and power of Ahmed’s performance that places her body in the unstable but productive liminal space between norm and deviation.
Ahmed straddles both, in an attempt to find a voice that is at once personal and collective-her concerns arise from very personal day to day experiences and encounters, but find themselves placed within the ambit of several such encounters and negotiations that take place around us and may be seen as “collective” in the sense that it concerns more than one of us.
The texture of the video itself is noteworthy for its ‘rough’ aesthetics in the sense that it deliberately eschews the finesse of what we usually see in mainstream media?be it films, advertisements, or music videos. This does not mean that Refuse/Resist is not aesthetic enough. If we are to understand ‘aesthetic’ in terms of it Greek root “aisthetikos” which pertains to perception, and compare it to its antonym “anaesthetic” which means “to numb”, then “aesthetic” becomes imbued with a meaning that is more than merely “beauty”. A truly ‘aesthetic’ work is one then that jolts us out of this benumbing effect and makes us undertake an unlearning of aesthetics- verily what the filmmaker Stan Brakhage describes as “The Act of Seeing with One’s Own Eyes” (an experimental short film that he produced in 1971).
Refuse/Resist does exactly this-by using standard media images and stereotypes and placing them in a different context, Ahmed forces us to see beyond the “taken-for-granted” nature of these images and asks us to see them with our “own eyes” and not the ones that have been provided to us by hegemonic systems of representation. Consider, for example, the set of images of female models that succeeds the text caption “Beauty”-in the background the sound of the electric buzzer continues to grind on, rendering these images with an unsettling uncanniness that makes them seem almost “spectral” and devoid of any identity except as “types”. This is immediately followed by slowed down, trailing shots of Ahmed cutting her hair off with scissors and then shaving it off completely with the buzzer. Immediately, Ahmed sets up an argument between the essence and the appearance of these constructed images. This is followed by the text caption ‘Choice’-Ahmed stares, bald and defiant at the viewer, as if questioning the category of beauty itself. The sound of the buzzer is now replaced by discordant drum beats as more shots of female models are now intercut with shots of women in burqa.
Here, we have the setting up of yet another dialectic-between beauty and choice, and the two appear almost as incompatible and exclusive halves of a fixed, ordered structure that cannot be questioned.
Yet, Ahmed does question this through her performance-the defiant stare and the bald head (antitheses of patriarchal notions of feminine beauty) on the one hand and the synthesis of the burqa, the bindi and the cigarette (that push the boundaries of the prescriptive norms of womanhood in patriarchal society) on the other, unsettles these received notions of gender, religion and identity. The work, like Ahmed herself here, is not “beautiful” in the commonsense notion of the term.
Instead, it transcends the narrow confines of “beauty” and is imbued with what Pablo Picasso once described as being the nature and purpose of art-“an offensive and defensive weapon against the enemy”(See “On Art as a Weapon” in < http://www.goodart.org/picconf.htm>).
One of the most powerful senses of the “collective” in this short piece comes when Ahmed pushes her work into yet another register-that of the now common and easy association between “Muslim” and “terrorist”. Ahmed describes her work also as arising out of “current milieu of Islamophobia, in the current politics of the banning of the burqa in so many so-called liberal countries”. Thus, her work straddles both an inside and an outside-the “inside” of her own location, her own social position, and the “outside” of a global world of notions about Islamic identity. The text caption “Resist” is followed by shots of Ahmed holding up a slate as if in a criminal’s mugshot. “Woman”, “Muslim”, “Burqa” “Not a terrorist”-she holds up the slate with these words scribbled on it in separate shots, as if to immediately drive home the point about the negotiation between gender, religious identity and choice.
Here, the burqa itself becomes a totem of resistance-a sign of identity that is caught up in the association with patriarchy “inside” and resistance to neo-oriental notions of the “savage Orient” in the “outside” that is the West. The collective sense becomes clearest when we see footage of Ahmed intercut with still shots-media images of protesting burqa clad women all over the world, and shots of newspaper reports of burqa banning globally (France, Italy and Israel for example).
Refuse/Resist then, is not merely a personal message or an esoteric message. In straddling the personal and the collective, the local and the global, Ahmed’s work becomes one
that has urgent political ramifications. “Politics” here must be considered both in the commonsensical notion of an active, explicit negotiation within the political sphere, and also in a more layered, implicit sense in which case it includes negotiations in the everyday-be it at home, in the street or in the workplace. Ahmed “performs” this play of identity in a compelling and powerful way by positioning her body as the site where these contradictory signs play out their war.
In making herself the “subject” of her own work, Ahmed manages to create a convincing space wherein the debates around gender, identity and religion become explicit. Ahmed offers no answers, no solutions-it is not the business of art to provide answers. But it is the business of art to raise questions, and Ahmed’s Refuse/Resist succeeds at this in every possible way. From being a student project at JNU to achieving success at the international digital film festival UFO IDFF 2012, Ahmed’s work has gone from strength to strength.
Refuse/Resist is one of the few works to have been selected from India to be part of the prestigious World Event Young Artists (WEYA) to be held at Nottingham in September this year. It is also scheduled for exhibition at the Gandhinagar International Film Festival in August 2012. One of India’s foremost art curators Gayatri Sinha has selected this to be part of an upcoming art exhibition and digital festival in Delhi later this year.