Telling Relations: Sexuality and the Family

Visual art in review
By Karlyn Koh

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There are many stories and many secrets to be told. How then to write about the divergent and specific (re)creations of family and sexuality without falling into generalizations and compartmentalisations? Certainly I write not to review, but to respond to this celebration of (re)telling of and (re)departures from the sites of identities. I realize that my response will never be impersonal, and that my story, my looking will be intrinsically tied to theirs.

Telling Relations brings together works of several women of colour in an attempt to express the complex variables that constitute 'identity' in a context where women of colour are the primary audience. The show is informed by several groundbreaking explorations and discussions around the issues of race, gender and sexuality (Tapestry, to visit the tiger, [Vol. 1, No. 4] Gatherings, Voices, Yellow Peril: Reconsidered, Piece of My Heart and Many-Mouthed Birds). Yet it pushes new boundaries by addressing what curator Larissa Lai calls 'the grey area' where sexuality and family intersect in the lives of women of colour.

Between sexuality and the family is a centre of power, like a source of water buried deep beneath the surface. It can be a site of oppression; it can be a site of release, of reclamation, of reconstruction...

"Let me tell you a secret...The kinds of things one chooses not to talk about are the things which show the underlying power structure for what it is—but often at a great risk, or even a great cost, for those who choose to tell. Tell me a secret, woman to woman, sister to sister, because in that way, I will know where your strength is and where your struggle is. In the telling, a secret emerges, as though from a cocoon, transforming itself and its environment as it takes flight."

— Larissa Lai, May 1993 Telling Relations: Sexuality and the Family curatorial essay

Entering this grey area, I find that it is a place of beginnings and (re)departures, not an end-point to arrive at. The banners of 'women of colour' and 'sexuality' and 'family' fragment into specificities of strategies, locations, directions and objectives. I look at the works, am led to the works, savouring these individual fragments—gifts from the women. I cannot, do not want to, assimilate the pieces, or pose any of them in opposition. Each installation, each carefully put together artwork, seems to be a translation of self which cannot be fixed or arrested, but is always in process. For the artist and possibly the onlooker, these processes are often difficult, sometimes disturbing, and yet potentially empowering. Yes, complicity is always there, in its varying degrees of awareness. And so my eye traverses the room...

Anne Jew's piece consists of a set of four frames, each divided into four squares and contains three colour photocopies and one black, blank square. Entitled Life's, the images offer snippets of a life— two girls laughing on the beach; a delicate doll in kimono left out on the balcony; feet resting on an ottoman; light coming through from under a door, a headless female body... In the centre of each frame is a diamond shape also divided into four, with the numbers one to four seemingly put at random in each section. The suggestion is that of the childhood game of Chance, in which the choice of a particular number reveals one's fortune.

Life's what? Memories? Choices? Fortunes? Mysteries? Miseries? Laughter? The images are a mixture of innocent childhood and its unexplained/unexplainable fears, terrors and taboos. I stare at the black squares. The moments of stillness and blankness, which the black squares seemingly contain, suddenly betray movement—and then a reversal of perception takes place. So much is going on within those oak frames that the latter become almost ironic for their inability to contain anything in the end. The subject of this piece retains the power of naming... and withholding. The black spaces—the flip sides of the images of happy childhood—contain echoes of ominous and ambiguous images. What is it that cannot be told, even after so much has already been revealed? Childhood abuse? What kinds of shame still need to be hidden? The images collapse into those black spaces, and I think I can make sense of the movement that might tell the full story. But it still eludes me. I am left with only my own image reflected in the glass protecting the framed images. I hear the story but am ultimately confronted with the limits of knowing the elusive.

Sulih Williams' installation, African Artifacts, Circa the Past, consists of a headless model, hung from the ceiling, and draped with layers of material—some bloodied, some parts of old pyjamas, some unplaceable. There is writing on the wall behind the model. Below it, on the floor, lie more items: a cocoon in the corner; pieces of cloth; and handkerchiefs laid out variously on a piece of canvas. Deanne Achong's Blushed, Cameo, Flushed is a series of three photographs. In the left and right frames are images of the torso of a bare-chested woman powdering her breasts white. 'Family' here is present symbolically through the paraphernalia of her father's and mother's medical professions—surgical gloves, stethoscope, and bandages.

What do Williams' and Achong's work say? Theirs is a celebration of voices and identities and, sometimes, necessary silences. The intimacy of the revelations also carry with them some degree of ambiguity. Telling Relations; the telling of relations and also telling in relation to the family and the viewer. Perhaps it is enough to feel and share the energy coming through the work, and to respect the contextual boundaries that the artists have defined for themselves. Williams' writing behind the installation strikes my eye/mind: "Who am I/ to speak/ my voice." Is it—"Who am I? To speak my voice."

Or— "Who am I to speak? My voice." Or— "Who am I to speak my voice?" I am now thinking of the strategies of language and images used by these artists. In what ways are written language and images accessible, effective, or deliberately multivalent in an? How is language used to challenge the construction of meaning, to reclaim the power of articulation, and to break the master narrative? The visual images in the show subvert ideologically loaded modes of representation, so that the relationship between artist and viewer is constantly repositioned and the act of 'looking' no longer allows privileged entry into the subjects' texts, nor does it allow the spectator to position the subject as desired object in his/her own discourse. 'Woman of colour (re)presentations that ring with recognition and/or non-recognition. Moving across the room, I encounter fragments that blend together, are familiar, and are in conflict.

Entitled Last Night I Dreamt that My Mother and Lover Stood Together in a Line Up at a Corner Store Discussing the Indian Restaurants in Vancouver, Shani Mootoo's colour photocopy installation consists of a written text placed between collages of interposed images of herself and her father. The lines between woman-man, daughter-father, self-other become blurred. What constitutes identity? Certainly it is a point of (dis)placement. The eyes that look out at the viewer are both Mootoo's and her father's. The beard, the hair, and the clothing, all of which blend in disjunctive continuity. The text tells a moving story of a daughter's coming out to her father and the accepting love of the father. At the end, Mootoo writes: "But when I stepped out of my apartment on to the street I could still be bashed to bits by some stranger who would not give a damn about what my parents thought." Even when the family is supportive, the larger 'family' is out there to mete out judgement.

Mootoo uses the power of words, but even more so, utilizes the striking poignancy of images. The piece plays on like father, like daughter; but each is still so much another, where familiar/familial relations are destabilised and where Same and Other are less distinguishable. In my eyes, the images which frame the text trace and retrace relations (of family, gender and sexuality) in order to reposition them. I wonder at the tenuous connection between the subject's sexuality and her family. How is lesbian sexuality (reconfigured in those terms? There is no origin and end to turn to. The piece signals the ongoing dialogue in which the viewer is invited to share.

Another piece which attempts to dismantle fixed categories is Sarinah Haba's mixed media work called Second Wife. In the piece, there are two photographs of two women in traditional western wedding costumes. In one photograph, one is the groom and the other, the bride. The roles are reversed in the second photograph. The piece is presented in a style, suggested by the wallpaper, table frames, and the poses of the models, which resonates with nuances of a certain time, place and context.

Upon reflection, I see that it is all a play again. Once more, man-woman, husband-wife, east-west, past-present, heterosexual-homosexual and butch-femme relationships are displaced so as to subvert the norms. Also apparent is the tension in these representations between working with the normative structures and not being subjected to them. A simple and provoking piece.

Sur Mehat's mixed media installation, The Spectacle of Things that are Suspect, engages the viewer's active participation. Covered with patterns from the carpets from her home, the piece uses round windows of various sizes which open to reveal words and/or images. Some of the windows are permanently open due to their position in relation to the pull of gravity, some remain closed until someone lifts the lid, while others stay open only if an adjoining window is open or closed. Beside the piece is a letter, dated some time after the piece was completed, addressed to Mehat's mother. The letter is Mehat's response to her mother's anger at being used in this work. The artist apologizes for trespassing into her mother's private world.

I spend much time in front of this piece lifting lids to read all the words, many of which are painful in their honesty. I also look at the representations of the human heart, one a scientific rendition, the other the romantic symbol, alongside the images of a younger mother and a much younger Mehat. Stories laid bare in the always opened windows— 'Why is my anger always so inappropriate?' Stories that still lie hidden in the closed windows of childhood memories contained in the photograph of the girl. My own heart swells with fearful anticipation and/or excited voyeurism each time I open another closed lid to discover what is underneath. The addition of the letter layers on another development by signifying the in-process nature of the work I wonder at the many works in this show which continually point back to themselves as subjects-in-process, pushing the limits of knowing what one is and what one is not. Speaking from sites of hybridity, the works come before the reflexive questions of when, where and how sexual, racial, gender and cultural identities are (re)presented.. The letter reminds me of the secrets the artists have chosen to reveal and of the presence of their families and memories always there in their works. Sometimes this presence/memory resists involvement, while other times they are often inextricably intertwined with the subject, frequently imparting pain and/or liberation to the respective parties. How far should one go? How many windows does one open?

Kathleen Dick's acrylic painting, Demeter's Despair, shows a young woman in the foreground, looking straight out at the viewer, while an older woman stands behind her, her gaze averting the onlooker. In both the foreground and the background, there are signs of fertility and blossoming youth, through the use of fruits and flowers and vibrant colours. Juxtaposed against these is the darkened face of the mother whose eyes are blackened out spaces.

At first I am attracted by the sheer sensuousness of the play of shapes and colours, and then I am disturbed. A link has been severed and the pain of that is reflected in the dark abysses of the mother's eyes which the artist daughter can not paint in. As with some of the other pieces, the eyes and poses say so much. While the younger woman in the painting is discovering hersexuality, the older woman wears the blank white cloth of society's ageism. Her sexuality is the unwritten text of no-sex and the silent space that is rendered invisible. Where and how can mother and daughter meet in this polarized context? I find no answers here.

The works in Telling Relations continue to challenge general social stereotypes with the realities that make up individual lives. In the show, there is a preoccupation of the subject with her selves, a process which involves the double gesture of reflexivity and vacillation. It is no longer enough to proclaim 'I am a woman,' or 'I am a lesbian,' or 'I am black/chinese/south asian/mixed heritage.' Rather, one must grapple with living life with differences and contradictions without desiring some sort of metaphysical synthesis.

Memory. Desire. Identity. The pain, frustration and joys of un-naming so as to (re)name. I have come to the end of the show, but I know that the stories will go on. They must go on. Already, they play inside my head. They are gifts I take back with me to (re)create in my own stories.

Frieze and handprint design by Sherazad Jamal.
Redux Handprint
Karlyn Koh
Karlyn Koh contributed to Rungh Volume 2, Number 1 & 2.
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