A woman clad in a white cotton shirt and loosely fitted navy blue trousers and is seated on a chair. Her left-hand rests on her lap, her legs not resting in a prim-and-proper position as convention would expect a woman to be but facing opposite directions, parted. She looks at you directly with a defiant expression, asserting her presence, almost influential. Her skin is deeply tanned and behind her there is a plant bearing a rich red fruit. In another painting, two women with the same skin tones and similar attire hold a massive glass bottle which looks more like a vase. It is hard to interpret what they are exactly doing as they seem to be either cleaning or treating the glass with something, yet they are focused and very unconscious of you gazing at their portrait. The inspiration for these women come from relief sculptures of Khajurao in India. ‘The sculptures’ conceptual content endorses female sexuality and freedom to express/exercise that sexuality by depicting robust women, equally active and passionate in sexual acts, instead of being passive inert recipients of male sexual desire’, says the artist behind the paintings. ‘I strive to create autonomous female spectatorship-independent of patriarchal values, a spectatorship where identify and relate with the subject and are intellectually inspired to interpret their reality/identity from a woman’s perspective’. Contrary to the artist’s statement, we see no women engaging in sexual acts or showing any signs of trying to exercise or express their sexuality as robustly as men have had yet they are nevertheless assertive, from their very gaze to their posture. Women of Farazeh Syed exercise their prerogative to independence, subjective beauty and their personal choices in this series of works called Re-imagining the Imagined, which was at display earlier in October at Sanat Initiative’s gallery.
In the painting A Family Portrait, Syed challenges cultural norm and gender roles by reversing the role played by a man and woman who have children. As opposed to conventional image making where it is usually the woman in fair skin, seated with a child on her lap, we see the dark-skinned woman standing beside a man in chalk white skin, seated with an infant on his lap. By just changing the positions of the man and the woman, Syed is trying to understand not only the gender dynamics that are a part of our narrative but also seems to challenge them, for the best we hope, through the facial expressions of the subject which seem confident and relaxed simultaneously. In what seems to be a self-portrait, the subject stands in a relaxed position with one hand holding a big barrel gun or a Kalashnikov as the other hand rests on the chair situated on her left. The chair can be her throne where the woman authenticates her presence and her reality which is complex yet liberating from what convention has always reduced it to be. In no paintings we see women engaging in sexual activity as the inspiration drawn from the erotic Indian temple sculpture sand relief would suggest. However, Syed manages to capture the strength of the female by challenging the set stereotypes that women have faced incessantly.
What Syed paints is a reality, a myth breaker and a different narrative that so many artists across diaspora are trying to achieve- being the liberation that women are seeking from conventional beauty standards, patriarchy and gendered politics. The exhibition ruminates over the standards we ascribe with womanhood- from the physicality of relaxing on a couch and sitting postures to which role belongs to whom in a neutral family. This certainly augments the discussion of women realizing and understanding their space as so many different groups and individuals now join this conversation. Farazeh Syed certainly makes her space in this realm by creatively re-imagining what has always been flawed and limited in its imagination and scope.