The Aesthetics of Empowered Womanhood: Jasmine Wahi’s Zabardust at Twelve Gates Arts

In a conversation between Nigerian feminist writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and British-Jamaican novelist Zadie Smith, Adichie reflects on a question she is continually asked, “Your female characters are so strong, why are you doing that?” She goes on to muse, “[F]or me, I’m writing about women who are familiar. Not to say all the women I know are strong. . . they’re not. But to say that idea of a woman being strong—simply being strong, not to prove anything, or not to be unusual—is normal to me.” Adichie understands the necessity of strength and confidence in women without pretense or contrivance, what Smith elucidates as “women who don’t have a moment’s doubt about speaking their mind, who are somehow always themselves, always confident.” The simple, easy and yet immeasurably powerful phenomenon of women just existing unhampered by imposed stereotype, pretense or scrutiny manifests in Pakistani-American curator Jasmine Wahi’s art exhibition Zabardust, which collects and showcases a series of pieces exposing the aplomb of women and articulating their aesthetic empowerment.

"The Least Dutiful Wife" by Anjali Bhargava

“The Least Dutiful Wife” (digital print, Anjali Bhargava and Swati Khurana)

Zabardust premiered early February at Twelve Gates Arts in Philadelphia, a gallery and nonprofit organization that specializes in South Asian art and displays intellectual handiwork on the progressive margins of society. The unique and rhotic title of the exhibition catches the regular passerby off-guard, for the word Zabardust is not in English, and its bursting immediacy captures an exoticism that simultaneously affronts and intrigues, but which is deconstructed by the sheer force of its aesthetic and eclectic flavor. For Urdu-speakers, Zabardust means ‘terrific’ or ‘excellent’, always conveyed in an exclamatory style and never with cursory boredom or indifference. The title of the exhibit is only microcosmic of the show itself, which assembles diverse depictions of women—from majestic Bollywood heroine to pop cultural icons to human rights victim to girl next door—and posits them in a humanizing light, illuminating their essential and abstract personhood.

Untitled (mixed media in lightbox, Leila Lal)

In a sense, Zabardust vocalizes the untold stories of women forgotten by history or rendered voiceless on the margins of society. Angela Fraleigh’s sensuous, sweeping oil paintings choose as their subject the nude woman lounging in the background of many a painting in Western art history, dominated by the men around her, and objectified by the viewer. Fraleigh paints from the vantage point of this minor character, amplifying her perspective with sumptuous color and lush strokes of oil on canvas. Similarly, Mata Ruda’s haunting portrait of a Latina woman with her eyes squeezed shut, blood and dirt matted on her skin, face tensed in dire anticipation, and the symbolic fish and knife hanging over her head, captures an episode in the life of an undocumented woman. Incisively titled, “Six Out of Ten (Women Are Sexually Abused While Crossing the Border)”, the painting shows the daily reality of the undocumented woman worker who is abused and exploited, without relegating her to one-dimensional victim or the object of contrived dogma, but allows the viewer to witness the intimate pain and exhaustion of her struggle.

“I Am Your Air” (collage, Maria Berrio)

Indeed, the exhibition is about women taking control of their own images and subverting the objectifying gaze that constructs them as dehumanized Other, whether that gaze is male, white supremacist, or fundamentalist. Anjali Bhargava’s photographic portraits of South Asian women, excerpted from her “UnSuitable Girls” series, play with popular stereotypes of the oppressed brown woman, attaching a negative superlative to traditional, sanctified titles, resulting in “The Least Orthodox Goddess” and “The Least Dutiful Wife.” Bhargava’s subjects tantalize patriarchal convention by assuming egregious poses in sacrosanct settings. “The Least Orthodox Goddess” portrays a woman sitting atop the marble-white altar of a church, the half-naked, chiseled body of a man lying prone across her lap, and “The Least Dutiful Wife” shows a woman lounging on her bed in the domestic household, surrounded by teeming towers of books and several teacups that presumably are not for her husband. Bhargava rewards her subjects for subverting the monolithic view of submission when it comes to brown women with physical trophies created by Swati Khurana, which are present in the digital prints. At the crux of Bhargava’s work is South Asian women reclaiming and asserting agency over their own images, making it even more significant that the artists are women themselves. Wahi, who modeled for “The Least Orthodox Goddess”, called the project a “self-elective environment. . . It’s women-created stuff.”

Mixed-media doll sculptures (Rachel Mason)

Maria Berrio’s mixed media collages continue the theme of gender subversion albeit in the new light of South American folklore. Her collages “I am your earth” and “I am your air” illustrate children with emblematic infants bundled in verdure on their laps. But the specific genders of the children are not readily apparent, throwing them in esoteric ambiguity and perhaps alluding to pre-colonial gender paradigms. Berrio suffuses “I am your air” with rhinestones illustrating the transcendence of the folkloric subject matter. This same epic quality affects other artworks in the exhibit that more explicitly aestheticize iconography, such as Leila Lal’s mixed media artwork of Rekha in the classic Bollywood film Umraao Jaan, a regal, crimson-attired heroine, juxtaposed against the golden milieu of the Hall of Mirrors at Versailles and glowing in a lightbox. Rachel Mason’s caricatural doll sculptures of artistic and pop cultural icons like PJ Harvey, Beyoncé, Ana Mendieta, Eva Hesse and Frida Kahlo are clad in jagged shards of mirror, signifying the fractiousness of creativity and how women who rise to fame and make a name for themselves are anything but palatable.

Zabardust is an energetic assortment of artworks representing diverse forms and depictions of women. When asked what inspired the title of the exhibition, Wahi smiled self-effacingly and replied, “This may not be the answer you’re looking for, but it was a word my mom always said.” Indeed, the theme of Zabardust always circulates back to womanhood and the under-appreciated vitality of women in art, and it’s no surprise the very title of the exhibit was inspired by a strong woman in Wahi’s life. On a panel of the artists and curator hosted by Twelve Gates subsequent the premiere, Fraleigh reported that only five percent of Chelsea art galleries have female artist representation. Zabardust vitalizes representation of women in art, but resists a singular and monolithic characterization of womanhood, instead arraying a diverse picture of who and what women are. It posits contrasting images of women, the undocumented worker of Mata Ruda’s painting polarized with Mason’s dolls of celebrities, some of whom enjoy net-worths of millions. Fraleigh’s Western-centric art and illustrations of white women diverge from the women of color predominating the rest of the exhibit. This variegated, and at times contradictory assemblage of feminist artworks embodies the multiplicity of feminisms existent in the world today. At the exhibition’s heart lies the innate confidence of women, a confidence that surpasses borders, ethnicity and ideology. “It’s about being who you are, and being strong,” Wahi explains. Zabardust unapologetically illustrates these contesting feminisms, culminating in a pluralizing vision of womanhood.

This article originally appeared in The Friday Times.

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