New Delhi: “Continental people have sex lives; the English have hot-water bottles.” George Mikes
This provocative statement from Hungarian-born British author forms the muse of Pakistani artist Tazeen Qayyum’s series of 10 works using exquisite miniature technique applied to the hot water bottles. Created as an unexpected and satirical twist to the idea of menstrual pain, Tazeen’s work is part of a most creatively curated group show, titled The Pill, which commemorates the 50th anniversary of the Pill. To be exhibited at Latitude 28, F-208, Lado Sarai, New Delhi-110030, from January 22, 2011 till February 20, 2011, the show includes works by artists from across the globe like Abir Karmakar, Ayesha Durrani, Jaishri Abhichandani, Kaif Ghaznavi, Mithu Sen, Nandita Kumar, Sarnath Banerjee, Swati Khurana, Tazeen Qayyum, Tushar Joag and Vito Tumbarello.
Says curator Avni Doshi: “The concept is not about female interiority. This is about collisions, where private life, body and health find a volatile and polemical interface with politics, access and public life. As we encounter the larger concerns surrounding the Pill, it becomes immediately apparent that its magic has been as deeply mythologized under the banner of feminism as its shortcomings have been by its opposition. The Pill, as an icon for the modern woman, has an exclusionary aspect in that it presupposes a monogamous sexuality, performed by a man and a woman. A categorical acceptance of the Pill as a the most important discovery of the last century would not be compelling in terms of the global dilemma of many deadly sexually transmitted diseases. It would also be assuming a constituency that is heterosexual, educated and affluent. The politics of the Pill is deeply informed by lobbies, which either reify its promises or magnify its side effects. Funded by corporate pharmaceutical interests, which can achieve hegemonic control over the media and public opinion, the politics around the Pill are not only about health and reproduction. There are financially driven decisions made regarding its relationship with public opinion. Perhaps the one point that cannot be argued is simply that the Pill is an icon. Its circulation in language might be the best proof of this: It is described as magical, innocuous and terrifying, a set of three words so radically diverse that they are difficult to equate to a single object or idea.
It is always capitalized. Like Madonna. And God!”As 2010 marks the 50th anniversary of the Pill, Time Magazine discusses this moment in history as a point when, although it has been in circulation in its many forms for 50 years, the Pill still creates multiple levels of controversy, skepticism, fear and misunderstanding. It is also a seemingly innocuous little nothing (which can be taken everyday like a multivitamin) – yet it is powerful enough to elicit debate and change the course of women’s history into the 21st Century. As writer Nancy Gibbs suggests, there is no such a thing as The Car, The Fridge, or The Pain Medicine. The Pill, even as a word, implies its own singularity. The Pill is a global icon, with detractors and supporters alike. It is a means to politicize health, and bind laws and bodies. In its earliest conception, it was a ‘magic pill’, which could change lives and worlds.
Says Bhavna Kakar, Director, Latitude 28: “The battle for bodies, particularly women’s bodies, is not a new one, and the show delves into questions of sex, pleasure, fear and the changing role of women on a global scale.”
Myths and stories are told about the pill and its side effects. It is a signifier of promiscuity. It also dangles that elusive notion of choice. Feminist artists have considered menstruation, abortion in their works, where blood and the stigmatization of the body touch on deeply physical realities. The Pill, on the other hand, seems small and safe. The idea of the “Pill” with its easy ingestion and immediate efficacy has metaphoric value in an urbanized India. In a local sense, India has its own complex relationship with family planning and access to sex education, which, when considered with its growing (over)population and its changing demographics in terms of family size, is fertile ground for imagining the future of the Pill.
According to Pakistani artist Tazeen Qayyum: “While earlier I was looking at a more collective impact of the global concerns of our times, I now move my observations to a more individual and personal level. The work in this show is an observation of the challenges faced by women around me living in a ‘progressive nation’, where abuse has a different face compared to the society I came from, yet it is as real a battle, more pronounced with the changing role of women globally. I see constant struggles with issues of relationships , sexuality, love, equality, health, politics, comfort and stability.”
Tazeen Qayyum’s installation based mixed media works of 10 rubber bottles titled ‘It’s Complicated’, surprisingly a term that seems to be already universally recognized in branding relationships, thanks to popular social media such as Facebook and Friendster, is created by hand painting on old-fashioned, rubber hot-water bottles, carefully filling them with varying amounts of water and presenting them as valuable and precious objects in a museum-like archival display.”
In this series, the hot-water bottle is a metaphor for the female body, along with the association of comfort and pleasure with the object itself. Accompanying this work, Tazeen also shows a sculptural piece titled “Thee Only do I Love” created using commercial ice bags. Each canvas bag is painted with images of flowers, such as Martle, Purple Violet and Jonquil which, in Western symbolism are associated with fidelity in love and faithfulness.
On the other hand, US-based Jaishri Abhichandani’s wall mounted installation, titled No Way Home, made of leather whips, paint, wire and jewels, focuses on the fetishizing of the female body, and feminine identity. This piece in particular uses a number of whips, which are wound together, and covered in crystals. This work can also be understood as a contemporary reworking of her one of her most controversial sculptures, Roe vs. Wade, which takes its title from the controversial American Abortion law of 1973. As a counterpoint to this earlier work, Abichandani has created No Way Home (gupta/o’keefe). Paying tribute to two famous artists, Abichandani considers the meaning and location home, and the complex word “diaspora”. The pink whips, nailed to the wall, and covered in jewels, came together to form a shape that fell somewhere between a bullhead and a diagram of a uterus. This work was at once a nod to the Wild West and India’s scared cows, with the sign of female reproductive anatomy enmeshed in between.
According to Lahore based Pakistani artist Kaif Ghaznavi who creates a photographic installation titled Maang out of approx fifty 8x8 inch photographs: “My work considers situations of anxiety and fear, loss of place and identity. I am interested in the practice of reiteration of traditions, which get embraced as standard living codes. There is no escaping from age-old institutions and rituals, but highlighting the artificial social constructs, despite their inevitability is vital to my practice. By using my own body I am striving to realize what behaviour can be engaged in to increase the feminine power, her well being and vitality. While realizing this project I was confronted with various dialogues between myself and different women who readily accepted the positions of angst and diminution as normal; something to live with constantly so much so that it becomes a standard and customary state of being.”
Kaif Ghaznavi, thus, uses the persistent references to the moon by women. Each lunar phase had a story connected with it, which dictated some cardinal rules for these women crucial to their reputation and respect. It was therefore a common practice for women, using their respective lunar calendar as an indicator of fertility. What was perhaps most intriguing for the artist was the way women loosely connected the birth of the female child and fertility with reference to the full moon which is a ‘constant’, an event that ‘has to occur’. So, either the crescent or the full moon becomes a pointer for the date of birth.
New York based artist Swati Khurana’s two sculptural works, one using pill boxes and bindis and the other embroidery hoops with drawings are titled Family Planning appropriate consumer packaging from birth control pills into packaging for bindis, commenting on reproduction and adornment. Both the bindis and estrogen articulate the interdependent relationship of the import-export industry and women’s bodies, and who controls and defines what is appropriately feminine. The work links how contraception is imported for and tested on Third World Women, while bindis and henna, as markers of feminine beauty in South Asian culture, are exported.
Delhi-based Sarnath Banerjee will be using the curatorial note of the show to intervene into the concept of the pill through a series of elaborate drawings. This is to incite debate and question the set of assumptions normally associated with the birth control pill – particularly with regards to health, and feminist rhetoric.
Born and raised in New York, Vito Tumbarello says of his photograph titled Chloe: “My parents taught me to never be afraid of anyone, they also encouraged me to be myself. I identify as queer, I am neither gay, nor straight. A lot of people believe there are only two kinds of sexualities, but how do you explain a man with a girlfriend who is attracted to transsexuals? Queer is the gray in between the black and white. Transsexuals are another shade of that gray. I wanted nothing but to capture the essence of Chloe.”
Says Tushar Joag of his mixed media work titled Collateral Damage: “Whatever said about the pill offering the woman emancipation, it is still an intrusive method of birth control... one is ingesting chemicals into the body and disturbing the natural rhythm of the female body. In the ‘war’ between the sperm and the ovum, the female body is the site of collateral damage…offered up as the sacrificial lamb.”
During her growing up years in Peshawar in Pakistan, Lahore-based Ayesha Durrani had attended fashion design school but soon realized that she did not want to spend the rest of her life making clothes. So she went to art school instead – and found her true calling. Her current work is all about the sacrifices women make and how they start falling apart in the end. She explains: “The contraceptive pill is one of the most controversial inventions of the nineteenth century, surprisingly even more so then the atomic bomb! We have accepted the existence of the tool that can annihilate mankind , but we are still arguing over the right of women to control the functions of their own body. I see the pill as protection. A protection not only for women’s health but also from the consequences of mistakes.”
Other artists too delve into the issues of the feminine, both hidden and overt, through their artworks in the show that promises to be The Pill you can never get OTC!