The name of the current exhibition at the Ahuja Museum for Arts is Women! (January 23-April 15). One cannot help wondering about the significance of the exclamation mark in the title. The exhibition itself has nothing that would merit an exclamatory response. It is quite a mundane show with paintings gathered haphazardly and displayed with little thought.
The subject of the exhibition — put simply in the title in a single word — is amazingly simplistic too. The show displays random paintings of female figures by random artists. It claims to have challenged the notion of the “ideal woman”, and to have portrayed “changing” aspects of femininity in the modern world. However, most of the paintings cling to stereotypes — typical Bengal School portrayals of rounded, demure women, and kitschy works, drawing on familiar idioms and motifs.
The works of most of the women artists in this show reflect a particular craving for ‘feminist’ signatures. Naynaa Kanodia, for example, has achieved an edge with a female figure staring out of her canvas into the eyes of the viewer, and therefore contesting the idea of the averted female gaze. But Kanodia’s noticeable affinity with Frida Kahlo’s technique makes her woman all too predictable. And Subhamita Dinda’s Tapaswini, while creating alluring textures, is predictably fiery and erect.
The female body has always been the ‘object’ of artistic exploration. One of the transformations achieved by modernity is the ability to view the woman as a ‘subject’ instead. But in this journey from being an object to being a subject, the woman’s own perception is vital. However, exhibitions that take up ‘women’ as their content often give the impression that a woman still views her own body with the eyes of a man.
In this show, only one of the woman artists has, to a certain extent, broken free of this mould. Priyanka Lahiri, in her gloomy canvases depicting curvy mannequins with price tags and electronic codes, has covertly reproached the commodification of the female body without participating in it. The most ‘feminine’ temperament is expressed in the work of Stephane Delapree: the happy, single mother with her kids on her back on a sunny beach — the cartoonish pop-art style and the handmade-paper texture reinforcing the sense of contentment (picture).
While looking at the paintings in this exhibition, it is difficult not to think about that exclamation mark in the title. Perhaps there is something outrageously exclamatory in the exhibition after all — the very existence of the exclamation mark after the word, “women”. The gendered categorization of art without a defined aim can sometimes make a travesty of the declared subject.