By Elaine Chiew
(1,050 words, 6-minute read)
Now in its fifth edition, Objectifs returns with its annual showcase in the Women in Film and Photography series. From its early years of blockbuster-ish exhibitions held in conjunction with Magnum or featuring other groups of women photographers, the Objectifs showcase in the last two years has carried a theme (2018 was “Collective Power”). This year’s theme, “Remedy for Rage”, references consciously, but I would argue, not reflexively, social movements such as #MeToo and Occupy. On the whole, the exhibition – featuring works of six women photographers and five commissioned video works made by Singaporean female artists – conveys loss, fear, even satirical joy, but not so much the eponymous “rage”.
Photography’s relationship to social documentary has a special testimonial power akin to “tell the world and shame the devil”, and previous years at Objectifs have seen powerful works, such as Wong Maye-E and Kristen Gelineau’s All I Have Left Are My Words (2018), which documented the systematic rape and sexual assault of Rohingya women by Myanmar’s military in refugee camps in Bangladesh. Similarly, this year, a harrowing work by Ashfika Rahman entitled Files of the Disappeared depicts Bangladeshi survivors of random arrests, torture and imprisonment whose faces Rahman has partially covered with stitched gold thread to protect their anonymity. These photographs are mounted against a photographic landscape of Northern Bangladesh, where bodies of some who did not survive were recovered. Talking to Rahman, however, I realised that these photographs, beautifully shot as they were, are but one step within a complex cycle of counselling, healing, surviving and dealing with trauma that Rahman undertakes with these survivors. Despite their exhibitionary nature, they are not to be viewed as the sole purpose or “end-result”. Photography’s function of bearing witness thus pales within Rahman’s larger project of activism that grapples with insoluble pain and lifelong damage, amidst an overriding climate of fear instilled by the Bangladeshi police.
By contrast, Hoda Afshar’s stunning black and white imagery of Australian asylee refugees who have been languishing for more than five years on Manus Island, Papua New Guinea, raises more troubling questions: to what extent are audiences just passively consuming trauma and victimisation, when evidence of the photographer’s activism is less manifest, or avenues of activism aren’t offered or public forums for discourse not available? It is particularly unsettling when contemplated against the words “remedy”, which feels like a call to action, and yet none is offered, or “rage”, which feels subdued or buried.
As three other works in the showcase testify, the faces depicted are the forgotten ones; in the case of Afshar’s work, “forgotten” isn’t even the right word, it is more a case of institutionalised criminal negligence. Taslima Akhter’s project Stitching Together: Garment Workers in Solidarity memorialises the women garment workers who perished during the 2013 Rana Plaza collapse in Bangladesh. More than the photographs, the memorial quilts sewn by volunteer quilters physically brought to the artist talk speak to loss and the tragic continuation of such exploitation. Mathilde ter Heijne’s postcard project in Woman to Go offers a curious mismatch effect where the photographs of anonymous 19th century women, found in albums or antique shops, do not tally with the printed, more public, women’s biographies on the back. The Nepal Picture Library project (curated by NayanTara Gurung Kakshapati and Diwas Raja Fc) re-inserts women into Nepali public life, in tune with many feminist projects globally, and value-accretion lies in the corner of the globe it shines a spotlight on. Two centuries on from 1839, which dates the advent of the daguerreotype and the earliest extant photographs of Heijne’s project, the artistic processes of rescuing women from obscurity continue doggedly, one after the other.
Here is my rage with exhibitions that forefront women’s projects but privilege the visual (even if it is photography): why accept social movement utility or feminist discourse effectiveness as a truism in the artistic archival impulse to historicise women, in light of a trend that treats the excavation of history as if it’s the next shiny new coin? Why blithely accept tropes such as “art as change, art as empathic pathways”, especially in an art economy that ropes in women-centred discourse as hip and woke and gets more foot-traffic (whether art is for sale is less relevant when there is spectacle aplenty, and women are consumed all over again)?
While I concede with dismay that women-centred projects such as Women in Photography 2019: Remedy For Rage are necessary, there is a sense of squandered opportunity with Objectifs’ fifth showcase; collective goals like “awareness” and “empathy” are espoused in curatorial introductions but feel like a hackneyed trot that affirms a status quo that renders women less invisible, but still trafficked, objectified and consumable. I come away feeling icky and disgusted having gazed at these photographs of dead women garment-workers or refugee prisoners being doused with cold streams of water, re-connected to my humanity for a few split seconds and made to feel good that I still ‘care’.
The only work in the exhibition that tackles “rage” head on is Yanyun Chen and Sara Chong’s short film Women in Rage, featuring an amalgamated fiery red creature, appearing tentacled in certain frames or spider-armed in others, where breasts function like eyes, and connotations to the monstrous-feminine are inescapable. Here, I felt not just feminine rage, but also danger. Yes, feminine rage is raw and dangerous. It is inexplicable and illimitable.
Exhibitions that treat feminine rage as a doorway to discourse, an encounter in its own right, is an opportunity to deepen the gender discourse surrounding women-centred works, the connections to documentary photography, the phenomenon and aetiology of rage, and the channelling and diversification of rage. If rage is indeed dynamic and motivates social movements, then what about spectator rage? What about the absence of rage? Is rage gendered? What would be its flows? Our responses to such works may be more complex than we have bargained for. As an example, my complicity in the fashion economy may be fore-fronted by Akter’s work, but is compounded by a coerced complicity in exhibition consumption (if I hadn’t gone, I might have been more ignorant, but less guilty) and a more acute sense of global apathy (at least six causes are on offer here, how to select just one or care about them all sufficiently?), generating a kind of anomie and impotent rage. These nuances of rage remain private, unobserved, unexamined, and ultimately, unharnessed.
Women in Photography 2019: Remedy For Rage is on show at Objectifs in Singapore, until 17 November 2019. More info here.
Guest contributor Elaine Chiew is a writer and visual arts researcher. She has written for ArtReview Asia, ArtsEquator and Ocula.