In university, I was a member of an on-campus human rights organisation. For each of the ten weeks in a semester, the group presented on a different human rights issue, occasionally inviting an external speaker to give their perspective on topics such as homelessness, LGBTQ+ rights, etc. As the weeks wore on, my initial excitement morphed into an inescapable sense of doom – the more I understood an issue, the less it seemed likely that it would ever be untangled. I found it increasingly difficult to see how learning about these issues could change anything at all. Is raising awareness of an issue enough to make a difference, I wondered?
My visit to Objectifs’ fifth annual Women in Film and Photography exhibition held up a mirror to my cynicism, forcing me to reflect on what I had allowed to fester. This year’s theme, Remedy for Rage, “seeks to explore how rage against discrimination, repression and injustice can be channeled into a force for awareness, action and change through art”, echoing the rage and frustration that fuelled movements such as #MeToo, Black Lives Matter and the Occupy Movement. While the prominence of racists, misogynists and the obscenely rich underscores how arguably little society has progressed, photographs from the Nepal Picture Library for the Feminist Memory Project are a reminder of how change often starts small.
The photographs are of Nepali women engaging in political life, shaping public opinion, breaking social norms and pursuing education in the face of “common wisdom that saw girls’ education as an aberration, as waste or even a threat to social order”. These feminist pioneers were among the first to put themselves through school, changing the tide for generations of women to come.
Alongside the broad pictorial narratives that seek to amplify the visibility and role of women in Nepal’s social and political history, however, are personal letters and other memorabilia that detail the minutiae of women’s lives. One that struck me in particular was a handwritten letter from one woman to another with practical tips on dealing with her menstrual period. The pragmatism of her advice belies how empowering it is to witness women supporting each other and building one another up. It is also undeniably political – women’s bodies have long been the dominion of men who know and understand little about how they actually work. Transmitting intimate knowledge from one woman to another contributes to a sense of ownership over our own bodies. Photographs of women leading political gatherings emphasise the message: even the personal is political.
Women to Go by Mathilde Ter Heijne pairs constructed images with personal narratives to create an avenue for women to re-enter the public, political sphere. Lined up against the wall are racks of postcards, less like an exhibit and more like a museum shop display. In the vein of museum merchandise, each bears a photograph that looks like it should belong in a museum – old, exotic, ethnographic, collectible. On the back of each postcard are the biographical details of another woman – different from the one pictured on its front. Ter Heijne pairs the images of various unknown women, captured by a (often colonial) male photographer, with the biographies of women who achieved prominence despite the rigidly patriarchal society of the 19th and early 20th centuries. These pairings are meant to “help one another become visible again”. But doesn’t using postcard images of “Other” women only serve to perpetuate their exoticisation? The title Women to Go certainly conjures the notion of convenient consumption. Are the personal lives and likenesses of women so easily interchangeable? The answer to this is perhaps found in the difficulty I had digesting each discordant narrative. Is this erasure or inclusion? I have yet to decide.
A haunting introduction to the short films in Remedy for Rage is Hoda Afshar’s Remain, consisting of a series of portraits and a double-channel video (watch an extract here). It was made in collaboration with men detained on Manus Island, an island in Papua New Guinea that the Australian government used to process asylum seekers until its closure in late 2017. They convey the pain of isolation and hopelessness through poem and song against a gorgeous backdrop of blue skies, glistening waters and lush jungle. The tension between their suffering and the beautiful natural surroundings is a cruel juxtaposition that gives weight to the work’s title, Remain. Like Women to Go, the work’s exhibition proclaims the existence of these men in, or despite, an oppressive system – one that discriminates against women and men. All men are equal, but some more than others.
The short films in Objectif’s Lower Gallery shift the tone from stoic to rebellious. The darkened room of Yanyun Chen and Sara Chong’s Women in Rage has red lanterns on either side, giving the room an otherworldly glow. The animation onscreen is similarly drenched in red. Breast-like parts grow from the portrait bust of a woman, then sprout tentacles that move together with careful grace. After watching for some time, I start to recognise the all-female motley manifestations of goddesses, demons and monsters, making me think of the characteristics Man has bestowed his immortal women. They are feared, revered; they have the capacity to wield their power and yet are benevolent instead. The text accompanying the animation implies this is not by choice. And so Women in Rage seems to smoulder endlessly, anger on a loop for which I wish there was release.
Suaraku Bukan Dosamu (My Voice Is Not Your Sin) by Mysara Aljaru reclaims the gallery’s physical space in a manner that seems most remedying of all. Long passages are printed on two curtain-like panels that carve out the space, of snippets of a conversation with a Grab driver, monologues and the script of a television soap. Together, they illustrate the expectations imposed on Muslim women in Singaporean society, a weight subsequently lifted by the space within. There are posters along the pink walls and books on the floor. There’s a television in the corner. You have to take your shoes off to get on the mat – while it almost feels like home, it’s a space I do not occupy. The television plays a video of women who are of the minority, some who have found offline and online channels through which to explore their identities. The work is enlightening, not just for me but, with any hope, for women who seek a similar safe space.
In my second and final year in the human rights organisation, I became a member of the committee. We collectively decided to take more direct action, to get more involved with the issues we were passionate about. As I grew more cynical, I failed to see how advocacy was working in me. The films and photographs on display in Remedy for Rage may not effect immediate, tangible change, but if there is ever a time when you think art with a cause is but a drop in the ocean, know that its ripples spread farther than you can imagine.
Objectifs’exhibition, Women in Film and Photography 2019 : Remedy for Rage, is on till 17 November 2019.