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Gender Bender : Part 1

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Having a longstanding interest in gender and how preconceived roles, frustrations and anxieties perform and play themselves out in visual art, I wanted to write a short editorial on my observations and questions on the subject. I often wonder whether it’s useful at this stage to even discuss this, I mean what is the status of gender studies in Malaysia? Do we have Feminist strategies in art to speak of, or is the country still shackled by race and cultural identity that overarching gender dialogues are overlooked by artists and academics? Should we look at men and women separately or together?

Cultural context must also be addressed and a locally specific analytical framework constructed in order to not mimic historical and now outdated methodologies. Ok this is another random stream of consciousness so please do comment on things I am overlooking or may have misunderstood during my time back in Malaysia.

It is a more common strategy to pigeon hole women, to ‘look at women as subject’, by gender and coral them into group shows that talk about their inescapable biology – as politicised sites of desire, fear, fertility as well as their social roles as mothers and wives that impact their individual dreams and acts of self determination. Usually it is also more common to discuss the work of female artists in regards to their gender first and only then move on to academic/art historical concerns.

This is not the case for male artists who represent a universal human condition rather than specific masculine identities (watch out for PART 2 on this) unless looking at gay subject matter where masculinity becomes more specific. And despite attempts to academically frame the work of female artists in group shows, I feel that the word ‘female’ and the female subject is a very loaded word/icon with problematic associations with Feminism, objectification, marginalisation and disadvantage that create strong preconditioned responses from audiences which are not always helpful for artists and discussions on their works.

Obviously female artists don’t all focus on gender in their work, and those who do, use the female image in ways that are much more complex than the initial comments I have made above. Many do not choose to engage in overtly political rhetoric on gender, and root practice in personal questions and concerns, but perhaps one could say that their very status as women coerces them, rightly or wrongly into politicised positions. And when included in group shows, work that does not use gender as content nevertheless gets lumped into the ‘female struggle’ rhetoric. Freud’s statement ‘anatomy is destiny’ comes to mind although criticisms of his own misogyny have tended to discredit the philosopher’s theories on women it seems.

How do we look at the feminine condition historically and in a contemporary sense that transcends such rigid terms to explore the more complex side of gender? How to increase the visibility of female artists in national collections, art histories, and exhibitions without propagating their marginalisation? How to move forward without inadvertently keeping women separate?

‘Female’ exhibitions which although necessary to address the lack of visibility of female artists in KL, Malaysia and the world unfortunately have a backlash effect of only serving to marginalise women as disadvantaged in some way. Is there a need in Malaysia to look at female gender in ways similar to Western Feminist approaches? Many younger female artists that I have spoken to prefer to discuss their unique personal ideas rather than take on the burden of representation and enter into grand narratives that speak of an entire sex. But because of my own continuing curiosity I have been trying to ascertain whether there is a type of gender, feminist narrative that one can research in Malaysia, but where to start? Is it necessary to do this? In addition each cultural and racial demographic have their own nuanced ideas and understandings of women which mean a sense of Malaysian femininity much like a Malaysian cultural identity is very difficult to grasp.

It’s a tricky one and not easy to get right. The Western Feminist moment is now firmly rooted in history and Southeast Asian Contemporary Female/ Gender histories are still as yet cohesively documented. As such the ‘F’ word has become rather uncool with today’s women. So the status of women in the arts and indeed society continue to face numerous contradictions and contestations.

I myself have fallen into the trap of talking about women, about separating them. I meant to write a piece on the masculine subject in art. And I started by discussing women first because it is something I think about a lot and then the post got way too long. So I did the exact thing I wanted to avoid which is talk about each one separately when I meant to talk about gender as a whole. You see how hard it is? Ok so my new strategy for this post is to write a second piece on observations about masculinity which is a bit more specific and then hopefully talk about gender as a whole in a final post to this gender bender trilogy.

Lemme know your thoughts.



This article was first posted on the original Arteri site on 29 June 2010.

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Gender Bender : Part 2