Romanticized love is perhaps one of the most volatile energy systems thriving in our local psyche. Arguably an import from the Occident, this thought has undergone years of domestic breeding. Additionally, dissemination from the media has programmed us to live with beliefs circumambulating romantic love, such that we now hold it as the only form on which our marriage or relationships can be sustainably based. Pornography has glamorized love and sex and has operated on to give it an unrecognizable face that we all admittedly try to impersonate. Within these currents are the added nuances of the pervasive gender disbalances. The male gaze has been handed an authorized status with a louder voice. A woman expressing her sexuality or even savoring her inherent lustful nature is dealt with a question mark if it hasn’t sought consent from the male gaze. For a woman to speak on love and sex has been a longstanding taboo.
Marium Agha enquires this bewildering atmosphere in her latest solo exhibition curated by Amra Ali, and much to viewers’ discomfort, challenges our perception around love and relationships that years of social training have cemented in our brains. Agha plays with thread in multiple ways; including weaving into detailed tapestries which seemingly engage viewers with their compositions, only to confront them with horror. The adept manipulation of the fabric itself evokes semblance yet mayhem, beautifully capturing the chaotic absurdity of our reality so aloofly taken as norm. The rabbits adorning Victorian outfits in a surreal landscape serve a fantastical reference – an escape into a wonderland where everything is representational, deceiving as reality.
Many deem her work provocative, as it boldly questions the traits society strongly attaches to love. Agha in fact unyokes the two, and examines the sensual nature of love itself. Sexual desires, or lust, is commonly misrepresented as real love. Physical intimacy is placed on a pedestal and revered as the be-all and end-all of a successful relationship. And in doing so, one neglects the more charismatic, more concrete bond between the souls. This phenomena has infected other aspects of our lifestyle where rape, for instance, is glorified; the want of flesh determines the way a woman should dress her body and a culture where newlyweds are stressed on the importance of a healthy sex life to nourish the love between the two.
The process itself echoes her visual polemic where she sets free from the burdening expectations of presenting oneself in a perfect marriage. One of the reasons Agha engages with fabric is the lack of opportunity it provides to rectify errors. The marks left cannot be undone. The artist is exposed before viewers with gestures unerasable. Undeniably, the honest mistakes heighten the transparency. Nothing can be concealed. Perfection isn’t necessary. And of course to take the mask off is more liberating than to constantly appease one another.
Ostensibly an ordered disorder is present in Eat my heart out. A herd of animals is out on a hunt; blinded by the thirst for coital gratification – they are ravenous for flesh. A heart melts on the fabric as an eaten carcass lays bare amongst the frenzy. For Agha, the process of courtship itself is similar to a hunt. Something intrinsically animalistic underlines the process of searching for love; grotesque is prevalent. How much can one really consume, or is the gluttonous appetite insatiable?
Agha sought a set of handkerchiefs gifted by her mother during her wedding to work on as her surface. Much to her mother’s dismay she sew graphic imagery on the inherited fabric, and added found text and tags resonating with the visual. She critiques the absolute significance given to managing a prosperous love life, and derides the otherwise perverse tradition of handing down advice on painting a flawless marriage and to be the perfect wife. Indisputably, more often than not, women themselves submit to this man-driven mindset, and invite this climate upon themselves.
Sensuality oozes from Agha’s pieces. The melting, the disintegrating, the pixelated evoke a visual pun on the carnal. The bondage like ropes fall fluidly. There’s a sense of suffocation yet euphoria of letting loose – broken free from the harness of aggression and sexual desire. Unlike us who live every day of our lives living other people’s ideas and ideals, the images retaliate. The unease of viewers is not surprising as the dissection unearths the ugly.
Intriguingly, to make and present these pieces was as daunting a feat for Agha as the visuals itself may have been for viewers. She felt vulnerable and uncovered laying forth her deepest thoughts before an audience. In an installation titled Walls of my heart Agha not only attempts to recreate and re-shift her studio space but also capture the essence of her memory and a frame of her mind – an even more personal realm. The pungent odor of Karachi’s seaview is brought in as a bed of sand. A video projects the repetitive motion of the waves – its arrival and departure is immortal. While the heart-beat like rhythms of the sea may soothe several, realizing that the pulsations are infinite can be an unnerving experience in contrast. Love is, after all, an abstract thought left loose in the air. It is one of the most understated yet overstated feelings. According to Agha, love has no end. It overlaps, collides, or evolves. But it never ceases to exist.
Agha correlates sexuality and the desire for flesh dominating an individual to one’s public and private space. She inherently picks up a private space and relocates it into a public sphere, yet maintaining the privacy within the constructed walls. But inside one also experiences a public arena of the iconic Clifton beach. The romantic dating spot metaphorically addresses the gnarly, nauseous aspect of lovemaking. On the walls are intimate writings, and what few may consider profanities. Used undergarments hang and the hackneyed icon of love – teddy bears are nailed to the room. Agha felt naked in sharing such a personal space and thought, and ironically viewers felt unguarded in response, with very few daring to step in and experience the overbearing disorientation.
The oeuvre protests the strong internalization of sexual prohibitions during the socialization stage, or the enforcements by external precautionary measures. All societies endorse different attitudes and activities to men and to women. And most of them try to vindicate these social instructions by stating the physiological differences between the sexes, even though the actual prescriptions are almost entirely driven by culture. Our culture has set the ground on which men and women seek wholeness, transcendence, and ecstasy. When it comes to free expression of love or lust, women are evidently bound more than men on religio-cultural grounds. Society has internalized ethics of premarital chastity and post marital infidelity, hoping that it will habitually suffice to prevent exploitation of one’s liberty whenever a favorable opportunity is met with. Men on the other hand are permitted to repudiate and be polygamous.
Does this mean male sexuality is considered promiscuous, and lax? Does civilizing only the female sexuality perhaps indicate that it is in fact, highly active, and not passive as the population and media may preach it to be? An unsettling thought for many, one may believe recognizing female sexuality as active can be an explosive acknowledgment for the social order and have far reaching ramifications for its structure as a whole.
Marium Agha’s solo show “BUT, MY DEAR, THIS IS NOT WONDERLAND AND YOU ARE NOT ALICE” showed at Chawkandi Gallery from March 3rd-15th, 2016 curated by Amra Ali