This short essay is published in conjunction of “RRRAWRRR!!!: Emerging Women’s Artist” supported by the Maybank Foundation Balai Seni Series exhibition which opened March 8, 2019.
I received an invitation by curator Tan Sei Hon to write a perspective piece that would be published together with the exhibition catalogue. Naturally I got cold feet. I always get cold feet when I’m asked to write on feminism, in art, especially and it took me a few years to realize why this so. Why was I so afraid of confronting my own gender? Were there things I didn’t want to admit? Even though, now I still don’t have all these answers, I used these questions to fuel my deep desire to address the skeletons in my closet.
This essay is written through a series of anecdotes. They were moments in my life when I became aware of my gender’s invisibility, when the realization came to me in small waves of epiphanies. As I lay out these moments in front of you; my intention is to present the systemic discrimination that exists in the pockets of space and they continue to exist because of we make them invisible.
Part 1: Being Invisible to Myself
I admit; my privileged, middle-class upbringing blinded me from acknowledging gender discrimination. Having lived overseas, well-travelled, well-read with maids to care for me, I had a cushioned childhood with a capital “C”. I couldn’t see or rather didn’t want to see; that being a woman was a problem (because it didn’t feel that way in my house).
But as I ventured further from the nest, things got hairier. Starting my professional life in the construction industry, a male-dominated environment was the only thing I knew. Not only did I have to survive in it, I needed to make living from it. Boys will be boys, I believed and a little damsel in distress or flirting helped sway decisions to my favour. A few times, where I was the only woman in the meeting with men contractors, I felt their eyes undressing me and it left me extremely uncomfortable that I had to leave the meeting. Worst of all, I accepted and internalized this toxic masculinity and even began turning on my own gender when I used derogatory terms like ‘girly’ or ‘pussy’ to mean cowardice or weak.
Then I had a daughter.
Part 2: Being invisible in Public
Without doubt, a woman’s environment gives shape to how she perceives her gender roles to be. In a traditional community, women’s lives revolve around caring for their families and therefore are mentally and emotionally shaped for that role. Penang-based artist, Rebecca Duckett-Wilkinson expressed, “Generally women (and certainly in the Asian context) are still limited to the function of family caretaker; expected to marry, produce children and take care of them and to set aside their aspirations for anything else.”
Initially, I thought this was a truth found only in the villages or rural areas, but it’s more ubiquitous than I could have ever imagined.
A few years ago, I travelled to Japan on a research grant with my 8-year old daughter. Despite its outwardly successes, Japan is a patriarchal society. Patriarchy was even projected onto its public spaces. Once, I watched a local news in Tokyo where the members of the public debated whether baby strollers should be allowed on the trains during peak hours. It concluded with interviews by several passengers who said mothers with kids should avoid peak hours because they often blocked their pathway and slowed people down.
There were not a lot of public spaces where parents could be with their loud and playful kids in public and child rearing; was a woman’s job. I never saw a Japanese man strapped with a baby carrier or pushing a baby stroller. It is always the women who shoulder this, with their guilt-ridden faces, clinging on to their toddlers and praying for a safe passage without any embarrassing incidents (especially since baby strollers are hunted down at train platforms!)
I felt compelled to respond to this discrimination against mothers and their kids. With the assistance of Yamaguchi Center for Arts and Media (YCAM) staff I organized a series of cooking workshops where parents and their kids, friends and spouses could be together and have a loud, good time.Food became a metaphor of connection, between genders, cultures and age groups. During the time spent preparing, cooking and eating together, I successfully created a gender and age neutral space; suspending the patriarchal quality of that public space. People young and old, could enjoy the mess and friendly chatter that comes with food preparation. The highlight of that was when staffers who worked late, popped by our improvised community kitchen with their empty bowls.
Then we ran out of curry.
Part 3: Being Invisible in an Art Exhibition
Two years ago, I exhibited my artwork in an art gallery for the first time. A gentleman; an artist and someone of position in the gallery; looked at my artwork and said, “It’s hard to believe a woman made this!”. Something similar was said to Malaysian artist Kua Chia Chi when her drawings were likened to that done by a man because she used wild and bold lines that seemed to be associated with a man’s work.[i]Even famous abstract expressionist artist Lee Krasner tutored under Hans Hoffman, said,”…one day he (Hoffman) stood before my easel and he gave me the first praise I had ever received as an artist from him. He said, ‘This is so good, you would never know it was done by a woman.”[ii]
It’s appalling that women, across time and geographical locations and especially someone of Lee’s calibre, are made to feel worthy by art men in position, only when to compared to a man.
At the same time, when asked to comment onthe subject of women artists banding together, forming an all-girl network, forcing more recognition for themselves, Lee Krasner replied,”I wouldn’t become part of that,” she said, “I’m an artist, not a woman artist.”
But then, “…she changed her name from Lenore to the sexually ambiguous Lee.”[iii]
Part 4: Being invisible towards each other
Last year, I curated an art exhibition called Merata Suara where artists partnered with collaborators from different marginalized communities. One of the artists, Victoria Cheng was excited to be paired with silat guru named Puan Norzihah Kasim, fondly called Kak Ji. During her trip to Kedah to visit Kak Ji, a guy from the silat group asked why Kak Ji her subject of interest, to which she tried to explain she was keen to know about Kak Ji and feminist struggle. The man vehemently replied, ”We don’t have those here. Don’t bring your city problems to our village!”. His defensive respond did not surprise Victoria, but Kak Ji’s reaction did. She simply quietly nodded and said feminism was not something she believed in.
Expressing indifference or admonition towards any form of feminist discrimination is a symptom of society’s systemic conditioning. Such responses allow the cycle of gender discrimination to continue, because it creates a protection barrier from queries, allowing it to form institutionalized thinking. Even more surprising, the ones who perpetuate this discrimination are the successful and strong women in all layers of society.
The recent Pakatan Harapan government’s lack to fulfil their manifesto’s promise of 30% woman representation[iv]in the cabinet[v]resulted in a public showdown between Tan Sri Rafidah Aziz and Marina Mahathir. The former’s remarks on “merits over gender” was where she urged Malaysians to look for quality instead of only gender representation initiated this response from Marina, “It’s not fair for women to think ‘if I did it then other women can do it too’ because not all women come from the same background or are competing on a level playing field.”[vi]
Final Part: Decentering the Feminist Discourse: Lessons in Listening
One of the biggest lessons I learned from ‘Merata Suara’ when one engages with marginalized communities, one needs a sound grasp of the Malay language, especially in its ability to translate the nuances, to start the conversation. In Victoria’s case, the issue started with her direct translation of “feminism” (a liberal, Western and Kuala Lumpur centric perspective) into the traditional silat community in Grik, Kedah. Although nobody could’ve anticipated their reactions, we discovered that to the rural Malay folks, feminism is an alien concept and has no place in their community. So instead of opening new doors of conversation, it slammed shut-leaving us out in the cold.
I looked for another door to enter this conversation and searched for universal truths that brought women together. Motherhood was the one common and revered character I noticed in all the collaborators and soon, I discovered that starting conversations relating to their experiences as a mother or their mothers, would put them at ease. With their guards down, I was now able to discourse. Once we associated of this brand of feminism as ‘kebondaan’ (from the Malay root word ‘bonda’ which means mother), their stories became more approachable as they revealed their invisible worlds to me.
The feminist discourse must be culturally appropriated and made relevant to the community it serves. By doing so, it helps women by giving them different entry points to share their struggles so that every story is an important one.
Before we can find ways to solve the problem, we must first admit that we have one. A lot of women (and here I am describing Suzy Sulaiman in her 20’s) refuse to acknowledge the discrimination and that’s a completely normal. For the fear of losing one’s job, livelihood, position, influence over men or just being seen as ‘not one of the guys’, would be enough for any woman to keep quiet. They do not want to be ostracized by same social circle they’ve worked hard to get in, even if means denying the rights of other women.
“If she’s the only one who succeeds and nothing is gained for women in general out of her success, then what’s the point? It’s not about individual cases, we want opportunities for all women.”-Datin Seri Paduka Marina Mahathir.
[i]Artists’ Chat Room. (2017). Di Mana (where are) young exhibition catalogue, National Visual Art Gallery. Pg.17 (unpublished)