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Ten Mind-bending Art Projects - Gender Bender 2017

Design Log 25 Sep

The third edition of Gender Bender, presented by Sandbox Collective and Goethe-Institut/Max Mueller Bhavan, and supported by The Ladies Finger took place this September 9th & 10th in Bangalore, showcasing ten different WIP art projects that grabbed attention with provocative, creative and reflective content.

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Ibtisam with her project at Gender Bender 

Shiva Pathak, actor, freelance consultant and arts manager and Nimi Ravindran, writer, theatre director and arts manager together started the Sandbox Collective with the idea that there was a need for an organisation which would take on the role of arts administrators for various artists, due to the lack of art managers in India.

Based in Bangalore, their work involves curating, producing and performing shows around the country. For example, ‘Queen-size’, a protest performance played out on a charpoy that is an artistic response to the infamous Section 377, and ‘No Rest in the Kingdom’, a devised theatre work that deals with the daily hilariousness and annoyances of being a woman in this country, and almost anywhere. They also curate and host a variety of festivals and programs, one of which is Gender Bender.

This year’s 10 artists selected to display their work for Gender Bender 2017 were picked from over a 100 entries from all over the globe, by a distinguished jury comprised of Sadanand Menon, Sameera Iyengar, A. Mangai and Jasmeen Patheja. Each artist was given a grant of Rs. 30,000 for their projects fulfillment. The festival was a showcase of their works-in-progress.

Ibtisam’s 'Al Awra: The Intimate Parts'

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Ibtisam painting her project for Gender Bender 

Ibtisam’s name is an Arabic one, which means ‘smiling’ or ‘smile’. She is a mixed African-American self-taught artist who has lived in India, USA, and the UAE through her life.

Her project for Gender Bender was a painting which explores and presents the lives of women and members of the LGBTQIA community in the Middle Eastern society and culture. She created this piece using acrylic paint on stretched canvas, and the painting was divided into three sections that she joined later on.

The first section contains the central figures representing the voices and qualities of women within the Middle-East that are hardly spoken of if ever.

The second section are the borders of olive branches containing visual depictions that address sexual objectification, marriage and the lives or experiences of the LQBTQIA community within the Middle East.

The third section is the map where she has collected narratives and facts regarding the experiences of women within the each country she writes in (Turkey, Egypt, UAE etc).

A closer look at the artwork

The borders contain depictions where there is a lot of play with concept of possession and value. “In the Marriage section of my painting I try to show this by placing an Arab man's silhouette on a vintage monetary scale, having price tags on women, or showing polygamy by presenting four different women wearing beauty pageant sashes. In the LGBTQIA section I tried to show possession, value or validity through the use of documentation such as a visa pages stating ‘denied’ over a trans man/woman, ID cards with ‘invalid’ stamped across, playing cards and birth and marriage certificates.”

And what about the text in the piece? The borders between the olive branch frame and the map are actually words of a famous poetess Al Kansaa's poem, who existed during the time of the prophet Muhammad around 650 BC. As for the Arabic within the oceans of the map itself, it is original prose or analysis of various religious stories pertaining to the lives of women within Islamic history told or analysed from a feminist angle, as well as Ibitsam’s own personal experiences and some quotations of her favorite Egyptian singer Oum Kalthoum.

Madhushree Basu’s ‘Swachhandacharinee’

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Madhushree Basu's ‘Swachhandacharinee’

Madhushree Basu is a Mohiniyattam and Kathak dancer based in Chennai who also writes, illustrates, co-edits a magazine named Aainanagar with Nandini Dhar, and works with a Bengali Band named Kothar Chhori as song-writer. Phew!

Her project for Gender Bender 2017 was a story-telling based on Malayalam poet Vayalar Ramavarma’s poem ‘Thadaka’, and is called Swachhandacharinee. “Thadaka from the so-called original Ramayana - killed by Rama as instructed by his guide-advisor sage Vishwamitra - is reclaimed as a Dravida Princess. In Vayalar's original poem, Thadaka visits a (Dravida) goddess Parvathy. In my re-narration of Vayalar's poem, Parvathy is the narrator. I tried to play with the duality between these two women - Thadaka and Parvathy - deeply fond of one another, but awaiting diametrically opposite fates regarding the acceptance by the Aryans,” she explains.

Madhushree Basu's ‘Swachhandacharinee’

For the movements for Parvathy, she has been trying to find a certain subversion of her classical training, while looking at human bodies during her everyday travel. “Whereas, for finding movement for Thadaka, the credit goes to my co-choreographer and performer Anoushka Kurien - a contemporary choreographer herself. We were looking for a stark contrast between the two sets of movements - depicting the above-mentioned duality,” says Madhushree.

Maarten Visser - contemporary music composer and saxophone player - helped her create, record and mix the background sound to this piece which was so interesting, and peppered with English dialogue as well. The voice-over is done by Akila - a singer and contemporary choreographer in Chennai.

The masks were made by artists Pranav Sreerag and Vijay Ravikumar. The upper layers of both the masks were made by paper mache and painted with acrylic. “The changing effect that it is generating on stage - mentioned to me by many audience members - is yet to be experienced by myself - not having seen a video of the performance yet! But the Parvathy mask definitely changes how I feel as a performer on stage. In a way, it gives me courage as a co-performer.”

Sukriti Sureka’s ‘Berang Se Rang’

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A reversed version of the Rasaleela in Sukriti's hutment installation at Gender Bender 2017

Sukriti is a 24 year old self-taught artist from the small town of Bihar, Muzaffarpur and is currently living in Mumbai. ‘Berang se rang’ is her installation of Madhubani paintings on a small hutment. On the outside it is in the process of being decorated with Madhubani art. On the inside, it showcases a series of Madhubani paintings which depicts several forms in which women face bias and discrimination on the basis of their gender. These paintings have been created by 4 women artists, including Sukriti, who are from rural areas of Bihar and are Madhubani painters by profession. She met these wonderful women for the first time in June, 2017.

A collection of Madhubani paintings from Sukriti Sureka's ‘Berang se rang’ installation.

“The idea behind ‘Berang se rang’ is born out of presenting a traditional form of art which is practiced majorly by women, in a contemporary form to depict what these women are facing in our society. While education along with several other factors have brought a lot of positive change in some sections of our society, women in small rural parts are still struggling for basic rights and freedom. Their voices are not heard enough and their art is not respected enough. I chose Madhubani as the medium to do this, because not only is it a beautiful form of art which provides livelihood to so many women of Bihar, it also dates back to a time when men and women were equals,” says Sukriti.

Arunima Bose’s ‘In Full Bloom: Playing With Pleasure’

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Arunima Bose’s at her exhibit for Gender Bender

Born and raised in the Middle East and South Asia, Arunima is a self taught artist and illustrator, who has worked in the developmental sector as a researcher and facilitator around the ideas of Gender and Sexuality. “In my time spent as a researcher, I felt the conversations about the body, self, identity was limited in to words, which did not fully capture or express the gamut of one's experiences. That's when I felt the desire to shift to the arts,” she says. She runs art classes for Afghan refugee children in Khidkee extension, Delhi and contributes to public art projects as a production manager.

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Her project is an interactive installation titled ‘In Full Bloom: Playing with Pleasure’ which hopes to initiate the move away from the shame and taboo attached to women who touch themselves, or are desirous of the same. “Before this, I was working on ‘In Full Bloom’, which was a series of ink on paper and chalk on paper, where I attempted to capture my moods in the forms of vaginas. I felt the series moving in a new direction, to include a tangible, tactile experience to the project,” she says.

Shots from her installation ‘In Full Bloom: Playing with Pleasure’

Each vagina is different, and she portrays this by creating vaginas of different shapes, sizes and textures. One vagina is made of dried leaves and flowers, while another is made from nylon and jute ropes. There is another made using sanitary napkins, panty liners and tampons. The idea was to include different textures and use materials that we use on a daily basis, to engage one's tactile senses. Each vagina took about 3-4 days to conceptualise and 4-5 days to create. The base was created with foam, cotton and plaster of paris, and then she built on top of it with the different materials.

Aarthi Murali’s 'Amma Is In Town'

Aarthi grew up in Salem and moved to Bangalore to graduate from Mount Carmel College with a degree in Communication Studies. She always turned to writing when she didn't know what to do with  her feelings. A course in Communications helped her understand writing as a craft that must be laboured over - and she realised it's important to labour over feelings in similar ways too. She is interested in the subtleties that writing can bring out - especially at times when most things around seem loud and clear. “I've worked on a couple of projects in college that include a compilation of seven Bhakti poems, a personal essay about my sister, and a lyric essay that looks at the jitters before and after my date with a poet. My other projects include a student film that documents conversations with Kashmiris in Bangalore, and a research paper that looks at the erasures in the construction of Jayalalithaa as 'amma' - an analysis of the film Adimaipenn” says Aarthi.

Her project is a lyric essay titled ‘Amma Is In Town’ that explores the dynamics between a mother and daughter. The narrative is built around the things they say and do on a normal day, and examines what strains or eases the relationship when it comes to matters of love, marriage, and sexuality. “It begins at the end of a fight where I tell her I want to leave home. And the idea is also to urge a reader to look more closely at their own families to understand what might be restricting them from making free choices” she says.

Shilpa Mudbi Kothakota’s  ‘Yellammanaata Mela’

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Shilpa Mudbi Kothakota's play 'Yellammanaata Mela' 

Shilpa is a filmmaker, theatre practitioner, and singer born and brought up in Bangalore. After completing her Masters in Filmmaking from the University of Technology Sydney in 2008 she returned to Bangalore and began making films on agriculture, rural development and women's empowerment. She worked as a manager/actor/singer/songwriter for Indianostrum Theatre: a Contemporary French-Tamil troupe in Pondicherry. She is documenting, researching and studying folk art forms prevalent in Karnataka starting with Yellammanaata, and putting together a collective called 'Urban Folk Project' .

'Yellammanaata Mela' is derived from the devised play ‘Land of Ashes and Diamonds (2015)’ by Indianostrum Theatre, Pondicherry. 'Land of Ashes and Diamonds' told the stories of war victims. ‘Yellamma’ was interpreted as the mother of all victims in the context of war and as a character was introduced into the play by Koumarane Valavane, Director of the troupe. The central plot of the play showcased a mock Yellammanaata enacted by two folk artists – Dasappa played by Shilpa and Yellamma played by Siddhanth Sundar.

Shilpa helped devise and compose songs in Bidari Kannada while attempting to depict the entire 6-hour play in under 30 minutes. “With the approval and blessings of Koumarane Valavane, I attempted to revisit these characters and the story as a stand-alone piece with the help of Jogathis and Devdasi's of Yellamma around the North Karnataka Region.  Along with my partner Adithya Kothakota, I headed towards Saundathi, Belgaum to find mentors for this project. Manjamma B Jogathi and Radha Bai were the two invaluable mentors we found by the end of several trips to the region. In this piece, a man is performing a woman’s role and a woman is pretending to be a man, thereby questioning the gender stereotypes in performing arts” she says.  The two young actors - Swapnil Sharma and Teenasai Balamu, joined them a month before this production, catapulting the process.

Elisabeth Pfahl’s ‘Architecture of Humanness: Passages from one state to another’

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Elisabeth was raised in an academic background and moved every few years to various US 'think tanks’ with her parents who are both Ivy PhD’ers. She studied Visual Anthropology and Semiotics at Cornell. While at Cornell, she did a semester at Pune Film institute with Ravindran and became very interested in documentaries. She did a residency at Chicago Art Institute Photography collections, taught sculpture and had a design company in San Fransisco, CA. She has lived/traveled a fair amount in Brazil, Mexico, Alaska, Canada, SE Asia, Japan, Myanmar, Egypt, Europe, China.

Elisabeth’s project involves the creation of an installation made with bras. In the wake of her double mastectomy, these bras represent an object whose utility has changed from being an item that renders support to human architecture, to a symbol of change and loss.

“Everyone experiences loss and we are all wired with a vast range of emotions (coping mechanisms or responses) that enable us to find peace and grounding or get caught in drama, a carrot on a stick chase, self- pity and regret in the long-term. I want the work to be about these universal emotions and opportunity for each of us to create a positive outcome in any situation,” says Elisabeth.

She feels that the medical community pushes reconstruction to younger patients and that this is not necessarily a woman’s best alternative. Each person has their own best solution but being flat is a very viable, healthy decision. “One of my mastectomies was prophylactic and chosen after trying reconstruction (exceptionally painful & plastic) and one-on, one-off - neither of which felt natural/balanced to me. I faced the option to take Tamoxifan which can cause uterine cancer or remove my other breast, the latter being my best option. I encourage women in such a situation to ask many questions and be strong in owning their options that will keep them healthiest number one, and feeling the most natural and desirable, number two.” she explains.

Sreecheta Das: 'Idol Hands'

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Sreecheta with artisan Chaina Pal

Sreecheta studied Print at the Asian College of Journalism and worked for nearly four years as a political correspondent for two English daily publications. Though her job was exciting, her heart was pining for something else – to tell stories of people whom she had met in my reporting days, to document lives, to focus on issues, to play with visuals and sounds.

She left her job, much to the concern and displeasure of her family, and joined the Satyajit Ray Film & Television Institute in Kolkata for a post graduate programme in Direction & Screenplay Writing. She is in her final semester over there currently. Women and marginalised communities are some of the recurring themes in her works thus far.

Having grown up in Calcutta, Durga Puja was the biggest festival/experience one could be a part of and as a child, Sreecheta did not know a single female artisan who worked on creating the idols. Her project is a short film on the one woman who silently broke into the male bastion and has brought about a quiet revolution in Kumartuli, traditional potters’ quarter in northern Kolkata: Chaina Pal.

“I had heard about Chaina Pal from one of my colleagues at The Indian Express. The moment I saw the call for proposals from Gender Bender 2017 I knew whom to make a film on.

It's been more than two decades that Chaina has started off as the sole female artisan in Kumartuli. For her it's been a constant two-way struggle: to make herself better as an artist and find acceptance amidst her colleagues. Her passion to stick on to the art has rewarded her with a family outside of her family: her workers. My film portrays how simply, by doing things which we generally call mundane, this woman has been silently and consistantly breaking barriers and gender stereotypes over the years,” says Sreecheta.

Fields Of View’s ‘Made To Order’

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Fields of View is a not-for-profit research group based in Bangalore, that designs games and simulations to help make better public policy.

“The game we created for 'Gender-Bender' is called 'Made to Order', a physical multi-player game that will let the audience take a step back and explore the intersecting dimensions of gender, caste, and class, how they frame our view of the world, and how intricately they are bound. Players have a firsthand immersive experience of the conflicts and constraints these dimensions pose. The game draws from real-life data, both qualitative and quantitative.”

To design 'Made to Order', they first created a model based on data from their research, and other sources such as newspaper articles and academic papers. Acoording to them, a good game needs to model the real world with just the necessary amount of detail - if you make it too simple, the game loses touch with reality, and if you complicate it with a lot of rules and information, the game becomes hard to play. “We have an interdisciplinary group, with people whose disciplinary backgrounds range from arts, design, social sciences, and technology, and we drew from different kinds of expertise to create the game,” explains Sruti.

Himani Pant's 'Hysterical Hysteria'

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Himani Pant is a performer, theatre maker and a theatre facilitator currently teaching dramatics to young adults in Delhi. Her project, titled “Hysterical Hysteria”, is being compiled through data gathered through questionnaires and telephonic interviews with women of various age groups and countries. The devised production aims to investigate the etymology of the word ‘hysteria’ to constantly arrive at what it stands for in the modern time.

"It's more like project on the disease of female hysteria. A topic that became very personal when I was diagnosed with high functioning depression and anxiety. I then found a correlation between my present condition and what used to be believed as gender specific disease," she explains.

The play will open next year, although at Gender Bender it was a fifteen minute presentation that Himani collated out of interviewing women of different countries. The research and data collation will continue and next year she will open up a full length version. UEMHAF (Universal Education and Mental Health Advancement Foundation) had also sponsored her research and still are on board helping her meet with female patients and doctors dealing with mental health.

Design Log is a weekly design document logging every relevant art and design occurrence in India. 

Image source: Mandakini Menon, Sandbox Collective, Chill Panther Media and the artists themselves