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Gender Bender : Part 2

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It’s normal to see all male shows and predominantly more male solo shows than female in galleries across KL. Is this because there are less female artists (and if this is the case why?) or because female artists are being overlooked by galleries and museums or simply less prolific? The reasons are for sure much more complex than this. Malaysia has a very significant roster of successful well respected female artists. But the statistics are nevertheless still the same. Nadiah Bamadhaj, very generously contributed her perspective on the position of female artists, ‘women exhibitions’, the complexities of body politic as well as a glimpse at the situation in Yogyakarta where she is practicing as an artist. But this post is not about women it aims to present a small contribution to thoughts on masculinity, and by that I mean from an academic point of view. It would be amazing to have any comments from male artists or indeed anyone about this, and once again my observations are always in need of more research but personally I am very interested to discuss this and hope others are as well. As a side note my views expressed are all my own and based on my continuing curiosity on gender so I offer them up in their infancy, to our audiences for your response.Now, what I would be interested to see are shows that look at masculinity, which I have yet to come across despite the popularity of the male subject in art whether as a personal exploration of self or public commentary. A self- aware ‘male show’. This could include (depending on the curatorial/artistic points of inquiry and urgency) work that looks at class, at race, at sexuality, at video games, silat, local hero legends, music (rock music in particular for me), family, love and war amongst a huge variety of other things. It would be cool if artists wanted to look at their work in this way (they probably don’t see this as a priority as it hasn’t happened yet, but I am still curious) because gender roles are very much a part of who we are.

But despite the abundance of male bodies in Malaysian art that also function as sites of fear, desire, fertility, violence, politics and formal beauty, these observations in a masculinist context are often overlooked because I feel we have been preconditioned to accept that these subjects represent the universal questions of humanity, of Man. Therefore the male position and of course the male body despite being unique to every man and as such a very personal site of individuality, often can be generalised to the extent of becoming almost invisible. And if body politic is not the overt concern then just a clearly articulated perspective that looks at male viewpoints (as artists, cultural commentators, consumers, fathers, husbands, sons and everything else). Perhaps this separatism is not the way to go. But I think it is safe to say that even with powerful and formidable female figures in public and private spheres in Malaysia we still live in a world where the structures of society (management styles in particular come to mind) are set by a majority of men in power.

This post is not an attempt to turn the tables on men, to marginalise, objectify, vilify or lampoon masculinity as a type of female vengeance, yeah you see how it feels now! No. Gender roles are one of the major defining aspects of individual and public identity as well as race and class that impacts how we view ourselves, how we perform our lives in relation to social environment. Perhaps this lack of focus is also due to the fact that men have difficulty talking about themselves in relation to their gender/body. The strong silent man is a compelling stereotype; as such masculinity is a very under discussed topic, compounded by the fact that men do not seem to mediate their identity through their body as much as women do. By this I mean it could be said that menstrual cycles, pregnancy, menopause as well as intense media scrutiny and objectification bring practical needs of coping with the body and identity negotiation through body appearance, into play far more for women than men. What does it mean to be a man in today’s 21st Century Malaysia, a Chinese Man, a Malay Man, an Indian Man, a Straight Man a Gay Man?

However there are so many Malaysian male artists who create iconic male subjects in their work! What is the legacy of the Malay warrior in contemporary Malaysian art for example? Wouldn’t it be appropriate to look at male gender in a more focused way? Or is it too sensitive and uncomfortable a topic to put under the microscope? Are there more important issues to address before this is tackled? Is this separatism too problematic? Perhaps a show on the complexities of gender in a considered way might be some food for thought?

Lemme know what you think!


This article was first posted on the original Arteri site on 9 July 2010.

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