Clothes, Cloth and Culture Group meeting in February featured a collaboration between two young artists, Raisa Kabir and Raju Rage. They described how they use their art and textile practices to address gendered South Asian queer identity and the meanings of cotton cloth on the brown queer body. Raisa Kabir brought along examples of her woven textiles and Raju Rage dressed in a sari printed with archival photographs.
The artists worked together on the project "There is More at Stake Than Just 3 Metres of Cloth" which represents the migrations of South Asians from North India/ Panjab to East Africa to Britain and the symbolism encoded within the turban. Sociologist Nirmal Puwar offered her thoughts and questions followed by comments from the intrigued audience.
Read more about the participants on the webpage and an audio recording of the event is available below.
The politics of cloth as a tool of resistance, and the queer brown body.
Join us on Thursday 19 February 6:30 - 8:30pm to hear artists Raisa Kabir and Raju Rage and sociologist Nirmal Puwar.
Two young artists, Raisa Kabir and Raju Rage, use their art/textile practice to address the violences of colonialism, gendered South Asian queer identity, and the meanings of cotton cloth on the brown queer body. They use cloth as a decolonising tool of resistance and metaphor. Sociologist Nirmal Puwar will respond to their presentations.
"There is More at Stake Than Just 3 Metres of Cloth" A cloth to be worn as a turban, conceptually conceived by Raju Rage, was collaborativly designed and hand woven by Raisa Kabir. Exemplifying the migrations of South Asians from North India/Panjab to East Africa to Britain, and the symbolism encoded within the turban. It signified a visual recording of this complex migration history, the colours which begin brightly coloured as worn in India, are symbolic of the transition of culture, as they migrated again and again, in order to survive the racism, and violences of living in the Diaspora, the colours sobering until the cloth is rendered plain black. The final woven turban was then used in a performance piece by Raju Rage who wore the cloth on their non binary body, reiterating the struggles of having to define gender, culture, race, ethnicity and sexuality in the Diaspora.
"Your threads cut my fingers, they bleed yet again and again"
A part live "woven" art piece evoking violence in the history cotton cloth production, and the resistance of the queer brown body. Focusing on racialised labour, migration of textile workers, and the Bengali Diaspora, the work re-links the geographies of the cotton towns Oldham and Dhaka. Raisa looks at the extreme labour processes of hand weaving as a metaphor for the racialised queer body, and the histories carried in cloth/the body.
Raisa Kabir is multi-disciplinary artist, weaver and writer, who uses contemporary textiles, sound and photography to interrogate, and question concepts around the politics of dress in connection to space, gender, race, and sexuality.
Trained as a weaver at Chelsea College of Art, she utilises the embedded histories of cloth, to comment on the compacted social histories that are encapsulated within material culture. She has written about South Asian queer dress identity and culture, queer femme of colour invisibility, as well as cultural appropriation, ethnicity, diaspora and dress.
Raju Rage is an interdisciplinary artist, creative-critical writer and community organiser who is proactive about carving space, self-representation and self-empowerment using art and activism to forge creative survival.
Working in live art, Raju focuses on de-con-structive techniques of resistance such as interruption, confusion, disturbance and anti-performance, primarily using embodiment and working with assemblages of sculpture and multi-formulations of unspoken narratives. Raju Rage's current project 'The Dilemma of the Diaspora to Define' examines the tensions and conflicts of negotiating complex diasporic identity using culturally coded sculptural objects such as cloth.
Nirmal Puwar is a senior lecturer in Sociology at Goldsmith's College, University of London. As a leading sociologist she looks at issues of race, gender, space and body. She is the Director of Methods Lab, which initiates a series of projects at the intersection of academia and other public, as well as private, realms.
A selection of the series "In/Visible Space." A series of visual essays that explore the interwoven links between dress and space, as components in the construction and visibility of South Asian LBTQ identity. Questioning how gender, sexuality, race and ethnicity affect how queer presenting brown bodies are read and perceived in context to public/private space in contrast to their own gaze. The montages have been shown in London and Amsterdam. http://www.in-visiblespace.co.uk/
"South Asian Queer femme women, because of the way racialized gender is culturally coded as heterosexual are often rendered invisible – partly because of their feminine presentation, as many femmes will attest, but more so because of the way their gender and ethnicity are inextricably linked and defined by others. Their queer authenticity repeatedly questioned, and their sexuality framed only when in proximity to a visibly queer presenting person or occupying a LGBTQ space, and even then their entry into those spaces may be denied.
Dress is an integral component in building visible connections to various aspects of a cultural identity, such as identifying with a youth culture, expressing one's gender or sexuality, and sometimes an ethnic identity attached to diasporic roots. We know that dress can equally be instrumental in the construction of queer identity, though popular representations of queer identity and culture are often implicitly racialized as White, while 'authentic' queer identity is visually represented with Eurocentric formations of queer masculinity, or femininity.
Through examining the use of dress as a tool to resist these norms of Eurocentricity and heterosexuality, we can highlight the ways race, gender, culture and sexuality are ascribed to particular bodies in particular spaces, and how radical dress can affect the visibility of South Asian femme women in relation to public/private space. A different look at racialised representations of queer femininity, and the making or (un)making of gendered ethnicity. This piece begins to investigate the role of ethnic and queer femme performativity in constructing racialized queer femininity. Through visual case studies and interviews, it explores the intrinsic relationships between dress, identity, and culture in the formation of South Asian queer femme identity." Raisa Kabir
- Uncovering the intrinsic movements between space, objects, and dress, in relation to how queer presenting brown bodies are read and perceived, in context to public/private space, and the affect of these dimensions upon the queer brown body and it’s own gaze.
South Asian Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgendered or Queer persons, it can be argued, are only read as queer in relation to the space they occupy, or who they are next to. Often because of the Eurocentric projection of LGBTQ identity, South Asian queer persons are rendered invisible. In (hetero)public space, layers of sexuality and the codes of queerness in relation to ethnicity, race and gender, can be lost or erased and often are reliant on queer space to “confirm” their authenticity.
“And they looked at us both on the street, holding hands, they stopped and the car stalled, while we waited to cross. Angrily paused, the driver settled her eyes on me, and flashed disdain before driving off. My queerness was erased, because you passed as a teenage boy, or she chose not to see you as a woman. And it was me who was shamed, who was shamed for holding a white boy’s hand in public, shamed for being a brown girl with a white boy. I was angry for being made to feel small (again), angry that our queerness was taken away from us, and angry for having to carry this gender wrapped inside of me, painted such a shade of Asian.”
The proposal asks different self identified South Asian LBTQ women, and trans/genderqueer persons, where do they feel the most visible, or safe to be LBTQ and South Asian simultaneously? Does such a space exist? If not - can it be created and re-imagined? How do South Asian queer ID persons see themselves reflected in these spaces?
These initial questions sparked the concepts and ideas to create the photo essays, and were a working collaboration between the participants and I the artist, who then became the facilitator to create and document these spatial interactions.
The photographs begin an enquiry into the construction of private/public space, utilizing dress, gender presentation and objects to hint at how race, gender and sexuality affect spaces and perceptions of the queer racialized self.
The individuals I was working with, were Indian, Pakistani and Bengali, who either struggle to reconcile these polarized parts of themselves, or were able to successfully knit their culture, family, and heritage alongside with being open around their sexuality
The series employs the connection between the subject, their own narrative, and reflection on what that means to them. It is a range of photo stories – abstract montages that read like essays or commentary on the struggle for visibility (and space itself). It also provides documentation, spanning age, class and gender presentation, as well as providing a UK context in exploring the interconnected social constructions of race, ethnicity, gender and sexuality.
Alongside the exhibition in April at the Rich Mix, I have been given space, to hold a participatory panel discussion and/or workshop on the 27th April from 2pm. With an initial focus on the position of South Asian queer visibility over the past ten years, by bringing cultural producers, practioners, academics, artists, or film makers together, to discuss the politics of space, identity and diaspora, and it’s affect on the current visibility of South Asian LBTQ identified persons in the UK today.
1. Sita was interested in subverting public male heterosexual space, where she as an identified lesbian would often get her haircut in a Pakistani barbers shop in Whitechapel. The simple interaction of her sexuality and gender presentation occupying a space usually reserved for Asian men, her presence asked many questions about perceived homophobia in South Asian communities, and how race and gender is usually theorized.
2. Thoughts around longing for a time when they were able to pray alongside her father in Bangladesh, and not feel the oppression to conform to prescribed notions of gender initiated this piece. Where being a queer Muslim Bengali woman, the act of prayer in public religious space was near impossible and the space to do so safely, non-existent. We were able to create and document instead a space, where all these intersections were visualized and realised, using male Islamic clothing to ungender prayer. It was in creating space that powerful conversations occurred, and weretransformative in how they saw themselves.
3. Rita has been out as a lesbian since she was sixteen and feels strongly attached to her Indian and Bengali heritage. Where being a Mother is synonymous with South Asian female identity, it is in heterosexual motherhood that it is lauded. She wished to question the possibilty of what it would mean to be a single lesbian Indian mother, if she were to take that venture and what it would mean for her cultural identity, as well as refections on mapping out a future of possibilty.
A Muslim woman wearing a Niqab walks in the British northern town of Blackburn, 2006 Getty Images.
Unemployment rife, our welfare state is being ravaged and the numbers that are turning to food banks is steadily rising. Creating an aversion by picking on Muslim women is easy political fodder; though the practice of a minuscule, minority of women being disproportionately portrayed as a pressing issue was achieved quite successfully, in part because of the imagery used.
Over the past two weeks we’ve seen the stock images of voiceless and nameless Muslim women on the front covers of newspapers and blogs in the UK, wearing the niqab. The wearing of a piece of cloth, in schools, hospitals and courtrooms, is suddenly a contentious issue; “Ban the veil!” we hear newspapers cry.
This contemporary dialogue obviously affects Muslim women here in the UK; it stokes our political climate of Islamophobia, with revived EDL marches, and creates legitimacy in attacking visibly Muslim women and communities. Though wider global narratives cannot be ignored, neither can popular visual culture. Cultural and visual media do not happen in vacuums, and the deeper connotations behind these islamophobic images, expresses how western society positions Muslim women.
The representation of women who wear the niqab, or burqa in prominent media is important in justifying these politics, but we can recognise, that they are themselves a byproduct of the imperialism from the past decade, revalidating racist ideology. Where actual Muslim women are derided as oppressed, uneducated and divorced from western society, this loaded garment and symbol of “oppression” is being co-opted in fashion, ready to be consumed.
A photo essay, entitled "A Thinly Drawn Veil" shown at the London Analogue Festival 6th - 9th September 2013
It uses concepts of gender and sexuality in Islam, to visualise one Muslim woman's desired space for queer prayer. Interrogating assumed heterosexuality, the (un)gendering of prayer, and the creation of private queer Muslim space. Space that allows conversation around intersecting plural indentites and is a counteraction to public realms; where Islamophobia in LGBTQ spaces and intolerance in religous spaces may be encountered.
The South Asian Queer woman turns her back on the diasporic expectations and traditions her body is supposed to signify. Her sexual morality is turned upside down; her LBTQ identity is a rejection of the projection of “Nation” being a space on her body. Which leaves her occupying a limbo space, one that is hung between the South Asian diasporic communities at one end, and being termed too “Westernised” at the other far end of the spectrum. When you become part of the LGBTQ community, you’ve gone “too far” into Western culture. This binary between the South Asian identity and a Queer identity, completely ignores intersectionality, and therefore discourse in intersectional dressing. Is there such a thing as Queer South Asian dress, and how is it formed and identified? What are the conscious or sub conscious factors of dress when examining the dress identities of the South Asian Queer woman?
Dress is an important aspect of maintaining a link to shared culture, or the past histories of your diasporic heritage. But dress can be equally important in forming LBTQ (Lesbian, Bisexual, Trans and Queer) identities, as a huge aspect of being seen as involved in queer culture, could be in being identified as LBTQ itself.
Yet dress trends come from sub culture, pop culture, representations and stereotypes in the media, of what having a LBTQ identity looks like. And often there is only a Eurocentric view of how a LBTQ person will typically look like, thus omitting Black (in the political sense) LBTQ identities in the process and rendering the South Asian Queer woman invisible.
Added to that, South Asian dress stereotypes exist as well. The elusive creature of South Asian LBTQ identities is still something that is unequivocally hidden from mainstream view. Confined to “safe spaces” and rarely “out” in the sense of being identified by Western codes of queer dress and style.
There are factors of no representation of Queer South Asian women, and simultaneously occupying an invisible identity. Films such as Nina’s heavenly delights (2006) and Fire (1996) seek to correct the misconception that Asian women can’t be gay. The films still show women who fit into stereotypes of South Asian women, and the ethnic dress and ethnic markers that go hand in hand with that identity. Though interestingly, there are scenes in both films where the use of dress, and the subverting of the expected codes of dress that are held on to brown women’s bodies, are employed to suggest queerness. Which makes a link to dress being a powerful visual tool to indicate queer markers in cinema. It is when we try to examine the cross sectional area of being both a South Asian woman and LBTQ, that we can find out how women navigate these plural identities with dress. Are there conflicts that arise, when managing this dual/plural landscape, between sense of belonging and un belonging?
Extract from my dissertation introduction. Raisa Kabir 2012