10th October 1999

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Creating her woman

"Narratives to Think About":
My thoughts on My Narratives,
An exhibition of paintings by Anoli Perera

By Asoka De Zoysa

My Narratives, a solo exhibition of paintings by Anoli Perera is on at the Gallery 706 from October 8 to October 17. A dialogue between the artist and the public is almost unknown in Sri Lanka: plays are put on stage, numerous books are being launched and art exhibitions are held regularly. But seldom do they bring about a discussion.

Since her last solo exhibition "The Vehicle Named Woman" held at the Heritage Art Gallery last year, Anoli Perera has been provoking visitors to enter into a dialogue with her through the medium of art at almost every exhibition where she has exhibited her work. Her installation "An Auspicious Situation" presented at the 3rd International Artists' Camp Exhibition brought about a rethinking of the woman's situation, where she critiques the notions of the "barren woman" as an inauspicious member of society. Her series of works "My Erotic Journey" exhibited at the 'No Order Group' exhibition held at VAFA Gallery in August, was an intervention at the taboos confronted by the woman as spectator and consumer of sensual pleasures.

Her present exhibition My Narratives, confronts the visitor with new themes. Using form, shape, colour as well as letters, words and texts she presents herself and her very personal agenda. Some visitors to the exhibition may find it disturbing that Anoli seldom depicts the female body or female face as a whole. She places fragments from different pictures, usually taken from advertisements and various magazines, together to form a composite picture.

These fragments are not just parts of a mosaic nor are they so ill-matched that they become parts of a grotesque collage. Just as the cubist drew the face or human body from different angles and constructed the face or body from different perspectives, Anoli reconstructs the female in a particular fashion out of the dismantled 'accepted standards' of female beauty.

Looking back into European art of the past two centuries, it is evident that female representation in art oscillates between two prototypes; the seductress, may it be Eve, Venus or Diana and the Virgin Mary. Similarly, the South Asian artists too have left us with counterparts of the voluptuous yakshanis and apsaras and a multitude of mother-goddesses symbolizing universal compassion to be seen at Hindu, Buddhist and Jain shrines. Any deviation from these standards handed down through centuries since Hellenistic art, are regarded as 'disproportional' or discarded as 'ugly'.

Anoli's quest is to break up this female concept of beauty into fragments. She is of the firm conviction that the concept of the woman as seen in the visual arts, is nothing but a conglomeration of notions and stereotyped set of values and codes of conduct as well as cliches - of course a construction of the men's world.

According to Anoli, the single unit central to this composite construction is the 'gaze', which is the male gaze. It is through the fragmentation and analysis of this 'gaze' or rather the intentions and ultimate objective of the gaze that a more realistic concept of the image of woman could be understood. The 'gaze' rests on a complex structure, which defines the 'woman' in a society.

These components are internalized by the woman through the socialization process that she undergoes in the family and her immediate social environment. At every stage of the woman's life - as girl, and then when she is presented to the marriage market, as a wife, as mother or even when she is tolerated as a destitute - she is confronted with the fact that she is merely an 'attachment' to a centre and never the 'centre'.

As such, the female is webbed by fine strands making her alien to herself. Of course, the majority of women have internalized these constraints, sometimes accepting them as inevitable 'karma'. Women have consumed constructs of the male gaze for so long so much so that women themselves have become the most faithful advocates of the male point of view. Anoli confesses that the woman herself is unable to explore herself, the limits and boundaries of which her body and mind are capable of, because she is enmeshed in the 'male gaze'. In one of her works, she uses an old window where she has framedher fragmented and re-constructed images and texts. Peeping through this window gives an idea of the complexities that surround the search for the 'authentic self' by a woman.

As against the fragmentation of the 'female image' in certain works, Anoli goes to show the female body as a whole in other works. In one such work, there is a very direct representation of women in the act of masturbation.

However, in these, Anoli has not used the female nude in the sense of the classical model of the nude body as it can be seen in today's pornography. What she depicts is not the construction of a 'male gaze' or an object for male spectatorship. Anoli simply depicts women exploring themselves indulgently or one may say, pleasing themselves.

Sexuality has been taboo for women and generally, any form of sexual pleasure that is not aimed at reproduction is regarded as perverse. The woman is always the giver of sexual pleasure and not the consumer of such. Her work of masturbating women as well as the series of work titled 'My Erotic Journey' (exhibited at the No Order Group Exhibition) confronts this aspect of female sexual politics.

As confirmed by Anoli, her purpose in this exhibition is not to shock the art audience by confronting them with images of masturbating women. Hopefully, her narratives will reach a wider audience and prompt at least a few liberal minds to re-think certain values and notions as well as question the validity of the construction of 'female image' that is circulated and consumed in present society.

(Dr. Asoka de Zoysa is a senior lecturer at the University of Kelaniya).

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