'Can You Hear Me?' at the Vermont Studio Center looks at the evolution of feminism

Who is afforded femininity and how do we view the feminist struggle? In conversation with the exhibition curator, Phalguni Guliani, the act of waiting is unpacked as a practice.

by Sukanya DebPublished on : Jun 15, 2022

Can You Hear Me, curated by Phalguni Guliani at the Vermont Studio Center in Johnson, Vermont, United States (April 6-May 25, 2022), presented works by artists Vidha Saumya, Biraaj Dodiya, and Payal Kapadia. Through a centring of feminist practice and setting a grounding in the experiences of womanhood, especially in the South Asian context, the curatorial impetus arrived from artist-poet Vidha Saumya’s biro drawing titled They were not trying to teach us poetry, they were trying to train us. The title of the work acted as a visualisation as well as a provocation that is arrived at through an excavation of so-called feminine experience, gesturing to the socially layered and taught nature of instruction and grooming, from a young age. In conversation with the New Delhi-based curator, an unearthing of context takes place, where she describes the process of waiting that is emphasised through different works on display, as opposed to a supposed urgency as the title of the exhibition might suggest.

On enquiring about the ‘urgency’ in the title, Guliani responds, “There isn’t a sense of urgency in this title for me at all, on the contrary there is an acknowledgement of the long wait. The title comes from my own experiences of being a woman in this part of the world, or any part of the world for that matter. It comes from that feeling of being drowned in a cacophony, which any one of us wanting to be taken seriously have to resist with that much more grit. And it’s a systematic drowning, not an individual affront, right? [...] The works in this show ask pressing questions about the state of things around us, and the need for the change they demand could be called urgent, but what is interesting for me is that the call they are making is not necessarily a clarion.”

Installation view of Can You Hear Me? with works by Vidha Saumya including poetry books and Payal Kapadia | Can You Hear Me? | Phalguni Guliani| STIRworld
Installation view of Can You Hear Me? with works by Payal Kapadia and Vidha Saumya, including poetry books Image: Courtesy of Phalguni Guliani and Vermont Studio Center

There are larger questions at play with the title, that are epistemic in nature, for example - do ‘they’ want to hear us, who is it that is afforded or bestowed femininity, and who gets to speak at all. The wait in question is personal, individual, multidimensional, intergenerational, and collective. It comes to question whether feminist struggles are inherited or mutating with every generation.

How do we characterise this wait?

Vidha Saumya’s work The Reading List is a vinyl poem that was displayed on the glass front of the exhibition space, for visitors and passers-by to witness, a compiled list of scholars and academics that have been left out of global syllabi. There is a cacophony of names that are brought together into a radical reading list, from the likes of BR Ambedkar to Namdeo Dhasal, Meena Kandasamy to Ishwar Chugtai, Adil Jussawala to Akhil Katyal, across genre defying and thought-provoking scholars and poets, who have delved into intersectionality, caste politics, feminist theory from Islamic and caste perspectives and so on. The list is endless it seems, as it is brought out in the form of pamphlets within the exhibition space, for visitors to take home and add in names of their own. The last line of the poem speaks of the wait for academic and artistic spaces to include these South Asian thinkers and provocateurs apart from the traditionally regarded and renowned white male thinkers. The line reads, “Should have long begun / Choose anyone / We will see how / Reading lists must expand now.” It is poignant and almost truth-telling, challenging the pre-existing cultural hegemonies in global thought. The wait is palpable.

Installation view of Can You Hear Me? with works by Vidha Saumya and Payal Kapadia | Can You Hear Me? | Phalguni Guliani| STIRworld
Installation view of Can You Hear Me? with works by Vidha Saumya and Payal Kapadia Image: Courtesy of Phalguni Guliani and Vermont Studio Center

Another one of Saumya’s works stood out, a cross-stitch tapestry work titled Betrayal Day, that took images from newspapers and other news media to recreate events that form a blip in the news cycle, only to hold attention momentarily, as they tend to be perceived as inconsequential to economic and political climates in the face of the spectacle-driven affair. There is an overlapping of images, a virtual pixelation through the cross-stitch form, as if referring to the sensory overload that we experience in front of the 24-hour news cycle. The technique that the artist uses to render or collage the work is immensely time consuming, which is hard to escape given the detail on display. The wait lies in the artistic process here.

The Last Mango before the Monsoon is a video work by artist and filmmaker, Payal Kapadia, that showed two workers setting up night vision cameras in a forest in the Western Ghats of India. The second part of the video work is a conversation between a mother and a daughter over a meal. There are two kinds of waiting that occur in the distinct parts of the work, as the workers wait while an elephant walks through the camera set up, and the mother waits for her possibly late husband to return.

The curator described her response to the video work to STIR, “One’s wait can seem so real and tangibly melancholic to the viewer, while the other can seem so absurd and bizarre. But who is to say that these are not interchangeable adjectives, for the way grief passes over you?”

Reading List (detail), 2022, Poetry on viny, Vidha Saumya | Can You Hear Me? | Vidha Saumya | STIRworld
Reading List (detail), 2022, Poetry on vinyl, Vidha Saumya Image: Courtesy of Phalguni Guliani and Vermont Studio Center

The weight of grief is one that is felt through the process of waiting, not taking place in a linear fashion through time but always lurking in the shadows. One wonders how waiting holds several emotions and experiences together, while at the same time describing a process that is seemingly devoid of action. In the course of feminist struggle for equality and empowerment, waiting becomes a gesture and practice of resilience, while in the knowledge that change does not occur overnight. The exhibition emphasises smaller gestures of resolution, subversion and resistance that take place on a scale that is not loud, but intimate and tangible.

Reading List (detail), 2022, Poetry on vinyl, and distributable pamphlets, Vidha Saumya | Can You Hear Me? | Vidha Saumya | STIRworld
Reading List (detail), 2022, Poetry on distributable pamphlets, Vidha Saumya Image: Courtesy of Phalguni Guliani and Vermont Studio Center
Detail view works by Vidha Saumya and Payal Kapadia | Can You Hear Me? | Phalguni Guliani| STIRworld
Detail view of works by Vidha Saumya and Payal Kapadia Image: Courtesy of Phalguni Guliani and Vermont Studio Center

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