A constant onslaught of harassment, oppressive gaze, and the often unspoken, very taboo power struggle between men and women are all problems that come with inhabiting a woman’s body. Many women artists today address these issues in their work. We had an opportunity to interact with one such artist Sahana Ramakrishnan, a 22 year old whose work appears to explore these issues while also poking fun at these ridiculous, and often surreal, everyday occurrences. Her series “Leda” stitches together Greek myth and South Asian works with contemporary themes of gender identity and relations. This series of drawings, loosely based on the Greek myth of Leda and an Inuit myth about two women who run away from their abusive husband to find shelter inside the belly of a whale carcass, presents a nuanced view of the complexity of being a woman.
Ramakrishnan’s interpretation of the Inuit myth, called “Untitled,” shows two women resting and grinning at the viewer from inside of an ornate space decorated with a thick pattern of hemp rope. Despite their confinement, their contentment is evident in their postures and expressions. One can read this image in conjunction with the Inuit myth – though they are free of their husband, they have to live in a rotting whale carcass. So this issue of freedom is ambiguous – are these women truly free? The rope feels oppressive and bondage-like, though it also provides a tactility and pattern to become engrossed in. Ramakrishnan’s work offers this space for moral ambiguity that is so often missing from contemporary feminist discussion. For example: it may benefit other women in the future if we daily take action against the oppressive issues that face us, yet sometimes it is more sensible to accept the realities and find some way to make peace with them (as the Inuit women have done). In “Leda” and “Leda II,” Ramakrishnan presents another tricky issue that is taboo in many circles – rape. According to Greek mythology, Zeus disguises himself as a swan to “seduce” Leda, with Helen of Troy being the resulting offspring. It is insinuated that Zeus tricked Leda and took advantage of her in his swan-form, so what Ramakrishnan has presented is most likely a rape scene. “Leda” shows her looking quite vulnerable, and in “Leda II” she happily gives the finger to the swans. These drastically different reactions reflect the many possible ways of dealing with male violence and oppression.
The male and female figures in Ramakrishnan’s work appear so complex and grotesque that they defy the binary ideal of how bodies are usually presented. The characteristics we attribute to males and females are subverted– the women are freakish, and the swan bodies of the males are curvaceous and elegant. Ramakrishnan wants us to think beyond the comfortable corners of our minds, and this uprooting of ideas is what makes her work striking, fun, and disturbing.
Sahana is currently producing on a body of work that draws from myth and folklore that use water and the ocean as metaphors for the human mind, consciousness and time. This fall she will be collaborating with a computer graphics engineer to explore and display these topics through digital installations, sculptures, and paintings in New York, Singapore and Mumbai, Delhi, Pune and Bangalore.
Commenting on her inspiration for the new body of work, Sahana stated, “The stories that I’m inspired by are from all over. While Hindu and Buddhist tales usually catch my imagination the most, the text that kicked off this particular project was Einstein’s dreams by Alan Lightman. It’s a surrealist text that gives the reader windows into the more imaginative aspect of Einsteins ideas on time. One chapter in particular related the flow of time to a flow of water – and anyone caught in a back flow would be transported back in time and forever live in anxiety about disturbing the future. This idea struck me on a personal level. I wanted to take this comparison between water and thought and explore it visually.”
We asked her plans for India, “I’m thrilled at the prospect of bringing my work to India, where people have such a different relationship to the source material and stories that inspire the work to the people here. I am curious to see what the reactions would be. For this kind of exhibit the more intimate the space the better, so I will be looking into both gallery and non-gallery type spaces like meditation halls, lounges, basements etc.”
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