Curatorial Notes: the earth and her skin
Curatorial Notes by Kimberly Shen for the earth and her skin at Art Porters Gallery, 21 March - 3 May 2020.
“You only have to look at the Medusa straight on to see her. And she’s not deadly. She’s beautiful and she’s laughing.”
― Hélène Cixous, The Laugh of the Medusa (1976)
A sexualised symbol of female monstrosity and fury, Medusa – with her slithering locks and an insatiable desire for destruction – has been the enduring subject of fascination and revolt. From her ability to turn men into stone with a swift and deathly gaze to her eventual demise – tragically decapitated by the demigod Perseus, Medusa has become a scathing metaphor in today’s male-centred narrative: the projected fear of a terrifying yet excruciatingly beautiful woman. This reading is so deeply entrenched that we often forget that Medusa is also a complex figure of redemption. Her origins prior to her monstrous transformation and her furore of being unjustly vilified are overshadowed. Rather, her defeat is glorified through the symbolic act of conquering, in the transference of power and might.
The premise of Priyageetha Dia’s the earth and her skin is similarly conditioned by fury and derived from a place of raw, visceral power. She harnesses the transformative potential of brown female anger in the reclamation of self, identity and narrative. Created in the past two months, the featured works are autobiographical allegories, symbolising tensions between the private/public, body/space, and castration/desire.
The portrait of Medusa, painted in the artist’s likeness, frames the exhibition as a subversive emblem of resistance and empowerment. Presented alongside are various artist-made objects – a hair whip, a cluster of breasts, soft phallic sculptures – quietly arranged on a carpet familiar and commonplace in local Indian households. Grotesque, perverse but strangely beautiful, these fetishised objects are the embodiment of her Indian identity, while the carpet is the symbolic housing of the brown body. The conceptualisation of home as a site of belonging is noted as a “fluid location where common ground is found and differences are accepted” (Alaoui, Moreira, Pattisapu, Shukri and Calafell, 2017). A home becomes the confluence of differential belonging which nurtures multimodal and intersectional identities. For the artist, this inclusion of plural bodies elevates the visibility of brownness; as legitimisation and recognition of her trauma, stories and experiences.
To question the way brown bodies are read and consumed, Priyageetha unpacks the tokenisation and de/construction of identity, and the normalisation of racial hierarchies. A communal (brown) body is subjected to depersonalisation through perpetrated institutionalisation; their identities “created and defined by others rather than subjects who define their own realities and history” (Hooks, 1989). The desire to prescribe gestures and claim ownership of coloured/female/bodies suggest a constant subjugation of existence and being. Priyageetha’s latex works prompt tactility in the grotesque and confronts the epidermalisation of the brown body. Alluding to feminine flesh, these delicate ‘skins’ are analogous to the interior (self) and the exterior (environment) – serving as a metaphor to the threatened existence and marginalised representation of brown gendered bodies in socially-imbued spaces.
In black feminist writer Audre Lorde’s poem Coal (1997), she ruminates over “the total black” of coal drawn from the “earth’s inside”, personified through her heritage and identity. Lorde deliberately names herself “black”, thereby reasserting her own terms and source of power. As coal eventually transforms (“as a diamond comes to the knot of flame”), she creates a sublime and profound power of being black. In mediating anger and crafting her rage, Priyageetha subverts the fetishisation of her brownness and becomes the force of change. the earth and her skin is an ode and manifesto of female agency – for she is earth; sensuous, potent, and the body of civilisation.
Alaoui, F. Z. C., Moreira, R., Pattisapu, K., Shukri, S. and Calafel, B. M. (2017). My Name Is Not Maria/Samira: On Interchangeability of Brownness in U.S. Pedagogical Contexts, Underserved Women of Color, Voice, and Resistance: Claiming a Seat at the Table. Lexington Books
Cixous, H. (1976). The Laugh of Medusa, Signs, Vol. 1, No. 4 (Summer, 1976), pp. 875-893 (19 pages)
Hooks, B. (1989). Talking back: Thinking feminist, thinking Black. Cambridge, MA: South End
Lorde, A. (1997). The Collected Poems of Audre Lorde, W. W. Norton and Company Inc.
Download exhibition catalogue here.