The public response to the Johnny Depp-Amber Heard trial, for some, is a testimony to the stagnation in the #MeToo movement, which gained prominence in 2017 but failed to provide women a safer space to come out about oppression or abuse. Bangladeshi artist Tayeba Begum Lipi’s work Unveiling Womanhood, which serves as the cover of this week’s issue of Outlook magazine and sees a woman covered in a veil of razors, is a powerful reminder of what is at stake if we don’t continue having important conversations about the position of victims of abuse. Outlook Editor Chinki Sinha spoke to Tayeba about the work, and its resonance in light of the trial and its verdict.
We wanted to talk to you about your work 'Unveiling Womanhood'. Could you tell us a little about the piece?
I did this project for the Kathmandu Triennale initially. I was exploring the psychological changes of the women in my society. I found that a lot of people want to cover themselves. Not they are pushed to do it by their families, but there is some indirect pressure from society. There is a sense that if you don’t cover yourself, you will be abused or raped. When somebody is abused or raped, the first question is invariably what she was wearing. I frequently encountered this idea that if you are not properly covered, it’s a man’s right to do as he pleases with you. Were you wearing a burkha? A dress? Was it sleeveless? The issue is never with the men, but with the women. There was a recent incident where a girl was wearing a sleeveless top in Narsingdi district in Bangladesh, she was also with her friends, and there were attacked. Women attacked them too. When I did the project, I found that a lot of my friends and family were covering themselves with hijabs and burkhas. Once they covered themselves, they started applying lots and lots of makeup, something they never did before, which has always confused me.
That is a function of patriarchy as well as unrealistic beauty standards. Neo-liberalism runs against the interest of women. You have beauty products that you advertise, there are unrealistic beauty standards that women often fall prey to. Where did the idea of your collective come from? Places in South Asia like India and Bangladesh are deeply, deeply, patriarchal societies. To address gender from the vantage point of these areas with a razor blade, like you’re doing, could you speak to the function of your collective? What is it for?
At the time, Bangladesh didn’t have a space for people to discuss these issues and talk about what we wanted to talk about. Bangladesh is a new country, and we had very few galleries that don’t represent any artists. We have very good institutions and buildings but I still think the education is very backward. In our time, you can imagine just how backward it was. I founded Britto Arts Trust with another artist formally in 2002. It was a need for something like that that brought it about. We realized that individual practice is one thing that you do in your studio, but if you always think about your own career instead of your whole community, nothing will come out of society. Countries like Bangladesh needed communities to stand up with their own work, discuss their own work. In that kind of environment at the time, there were very conventional policies and education, and you couldn’t do much. It was like a trap. You needed to create your own space for your space and secure others. We do a lot of projects that are related to other communities, not just artistic communities, but beyond that. We work with artisans and makers. It all contributes to the contemporary art scene. You are supporting the craftsmen but you can also decide to do something with it. There’s a lot of freedom, and we wanted to create a lot of windows. It became an alternative art platform for many. We’ve seen a lot of small and big organizations and platforms come up over the years and we feel like we might have had something to do with that.
You’ve mentioned that the razor blade represents your childhood memory of cutting the umbilical cord, and you’ve also worked with a lot of other domestic objects. Why did you employ the razor blade in your work?
It separates the child from the mother, but a razor blade is also a part of the man’s life. My brother and father would use them all the time to shave. We all grew up in a pretty small town. It’s a tool for many things. It’s not just related to the female body, but the male body too. It was like a personal entity that we carried all the time, to be used whenever it was needed. That’s how it came to me. When I was in Pakistan, the first work I did in Lahore was at a residency, I realized that Pakistan and Bangladesh shared a lot of the same political issues. Pakistanis and Bangladeshis have a fractured relationship but somehow we share a lot of the same issues. At the time, Bangladesh had a ‘caretaker government, a temporary government for three months during elections, that stayed for two years. It was like a shadow army government. When I arrived in Lahore, I realized that they were experiencing a very similar situation. During this period, a lot of my friends were caught by the army who wanted to write something about the situation. There were teams that would come to your house in the middle of the night and take you away. Many of our journalist friends disappeared. I arrived with a very heavy mind that day, wondering about what I could do. I was going through the local bazaar looking for sharp, shiny objects that can cut your body, something I could use for my art. When I saw two razors of different colours in the market, I decided to use razors as my material for my piece. I have used razors in my paintings but never for making installations or sculptures. It was finally at the end of the exhibition hall and people were really attracted to the look, they wanted to touch the work but it could cut your hand. That’s the position of the work, the desire to engage but not being able to.
What happens to political art? We live in an incredibly politically fractured time but we don’t see very many artists coming out with politically motivated works. Your work is highly, highly political and seems to fill up this gap. What is the artist’s position in the current cultural and political climate? And why does there appear to be an apprehension among artists about making statements?
That’s a difficult question, especially for Bangladesh. These days, we don’t really talk about politics much. It has become a part of mono-culture. Political discourse through an artistic medium does happen at places like documenta, where we are currently working on a project on food politics.
The response to the Johnny Depp Amber Heard Trial seems to repudiate the notion of sisterhood that initially bolstered the #MeToo movement. What has happened to it?
In Dhaka last month there were demonstrations protesting the incident I spoke about earlier. Another artist did a performance about sisterhood and they came out on the streets, but there were very few people around. Everybody needs to come out in support of women. It’s not a question of gender issues. It is a human rights issue.