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Gender Bender: Part 1

Posted by on Tuesday, 29 June, 2010 at 8:00 AM. Filed under: Essays

Having a longstanding interest in gender and how preconceived roles, frustrations and anxieties perform and play themselves out in visual art, I wanted to write a short editorial on my observations and questions on the subject. I often wonder whether it’s useful at this stage to even discuss this, I mean what is the status of gender studies in Malaysia? Do we have Feminist strategies in art to speak of, or is the country still shackled by race and cultural identity that overarching gender dialogues are overlooked by artists and academics? Should we look at men and women separately or together?

Cultural context must also be addressed and a locally specific analytical framework constructed in order to not mimic historical and now outdated methodologies. Ok this is another random stream of consciousness so please do comment on things I am overlooking or may have misunderstood during my time back in Malaysia.

It is a more common strategy to pigeon hole women, to ‘look at women as subject’, by gender and coral them into group shows that talk about their inescapable biology – as politicised sites of desire, fear, fertility as well as their social roles as mothers and wives that impact their individual dreams and acts of self determination. Usually it is also more common to discuss the work of female artists in regards to their gender first and only then move on to academic/art historical concerns.

This is not the case for male artists who represent a universal human condition rather than specific masculine identities (watch out for PART 2 on this) unless looking at gay subject matter where masculinity becomes more specific. And despite attempts to academically frame the work of female artists in group shows, I feel that the word ‘female’ and the female subject is a very loaded word/icon with problematic associations with Feminism, objectification, marginalisation and disadvantage that create strong preconditioned responses from audiences which are not always helpful for artists and discussions on their works.

Obviously female artists don’t all focus on gender in their work, and those who do, use the female image in ways that are much more complex than the initial comments I have made above. Many do not choose to engage in overtly political rhetoric on gender, and root practice in personal questions and concerns, but perhaps one could say that their very status as women coerces them, rightly or wrongly into politicised positions. And when included in group shows, work that does not use gender as content nevertheless gets lumped into the ‘female struggle’ rhetoric. Freud’s statement ‘anatomy is destiny’ comes to mind although criticisms of his own misogyny have tended to discredit the philosopher’s theories on women it seems.

How do we look at the feminine condition historically and in a contemporary sense that transcends such rigid terms to explore the more complex side of gender? How to increase the visibility of female artists in national collections, art histories, and exhibitions without propagating their marginalisation? How to move forward without inadvertently keeping women separate?

‘Female’ exhibitions which although necessary to address the lack of visibility of female artists in KL, Malaysia and the world unfortunately have a backlash effect of only serving to marginalise women as disadvantaged in some way. Is there a need in Malaysia to look at female gender in ways similar to Western Feminist approaches? Many younger female artists that I have spoken to prefer to discuss their unique personal ideas rather than take on the burden of representation and enter into grand narratives that speak of an entire sex. But because of my own continuing curiosity I have been trying to ascertain whether there is a type of gender, feminist narrative that one can research in Malaysia, but where to start? Is it necessary to do this? In addition each cultural and racial demographic have their own nuanced ideas and understandings of women which mean a sense of Malaysian femininity much like a Malaysian cultural identity is very difficult to grasp.

It’s a tricky one and not easy to get right. The Western Feminist moment is now firmly rooted in history and Southeast Asian Contemporary Female/ Gender histories are still as yet cohesively documented. As such the ‘F’ word has become rather uncool with today’s women. So the status of women in the arts and indeed society continue to face numerous contradictions and contestations.

I myself have fallen into the trap of talking about women, about separating them. I meant to write a piece on the masculine subject in art. And I started by discussing women first because it is something I think about a lot and then the post got way too long. So I did the exact thing I wanted to avoid which is talk about each one separately when I meant to talk about gender as a whole. You see how hard it is? Ok so my new strategy for this post is to write a second piece on observations about masculinity which is a bit more specific and then hopefully talk about gender as a whole in a final post to this gender bender trilogy.

Lemme know your thoughts.



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  1. derp says
    29/06/2010 1:14 PM


    POV of a sperm racing up the fallopian tube

  2. Simon Soon says
    29/06/2010 2:18 PM

    What do u think of the women artists exhibition that was held at Petronas in 2007 – Out of the Mould: Age of Reason?


    **update: I actually found a review of the exhibition by Carmen Nge here: http://www.cacsa.org.au/cvapsa/2008/2_bs_37_1/nge.pdf

  3. mooo says
    29/06/2010 4:06 PM

    “gay subject matter”

    …wut is dat?

    “This is not the case for male artists who represent a universal human condition”

    Pick any movie playing right now and 85% chance that the lead is an action orientated hetero male. Being a buff good looking aggressive hetero male “represents a universal human condition”?

    Men are as caught in gender roles as women are:(

    A Nightmare On Elm Street (18)

    The A-team (PG13)

    Avatar (3d) (PG13)

    Bounty Hunter (PG13)

    Clash Of The Titans (PG13)

    The Crazies (18)

    Edge Of The Empire (18)

    Fire Of Conscience (18)

    Frozen (PG13) New

    Happy Go Lucky (PG13)

    Haunted Room (18)

    The Haunting Lover (U)

    How To Train Your Dragon (U)

    Ice Kacang Puppy Love (U)

    Iron Man 2 (PG13)

    Kapoww: Atoi The Ajaib Boy (U)

    The Karate Kid (PG13)

    Kecoh Betul (U)

    Killers (PG13)

    Knight And Day (PG13) New

    Kutrappirivu (18)

    Lagenda Budak Setan (U)

    The Legend Is Born: Ip Man (U) New

    Letters To Juliet (U)

    Love In A Puff (18)

    Magane En Marumagane (U)

    Marmaduke (U)

    Nanny Mcphee And The Big Bang (U)

    Once A Gangster (18)

    Prince Of Persia: The Sands Of Time (PG13)

    Prince Of Persia: The Sands Of Time 2D (PG13)

    Raajneeti (18)

    Raavan (U)

    Raavanan (U)

    Sex And The City 2 (18)

    She’s Out Of My League (18) New

    Shrek Forever After (U)

    Shrek Forever After (3d) (U)

    Shutter Island (18SG)

    Singam (U)

    Toy Story 3 (U)

    Toy Story 3 (3d) (U)

    The Vanquisher (18)

  4. mixedgender says
    29/06/2010 4:17 PM

    Any difference between these, Women/Female Art (if there is such a label), Feminine Art and Feminist Art? Do you think these might help clarify some confusion in Malaysia, or could help us understand why some artists prefer to be identified as ‘women artist’ then ‘feminine’ or ‘feminist’ art?

    by the way you could also read this paper by Kathy Rowland at

    Page 165 of pdf file for “MALAYSIAN WOMEN IN THE ARTS:Business as Usual or Cultural Movement?”

    Prior to 2007, if I am not mistaken, Laura Fan had twice curated shows on ‘women artists’ at Galeri Petronas too.

  5. Eva says
    29/06/2010 5:31 PM

    Hey guys, what I meant by gay subject matter refers to work that is focused on homosexuality, that looks very much at male gender, sexuality and identity that links the subject back to the body, body politic, objectification, othering, desire, marginalisation, empowerment, fear, violence, love etc. Such as Mapplethorpe and Jun Kit’s Come into My World Post.

    In terms of a universal condition cinema is not really my area of focus, but what I meant was these male figures in Art are not mediated by audiences through their bodies/biologies as Women are. The body is kept at a safe distance, and we do not interrogate the heterosexual male body as we do the female body. So therefore the gender roles of men are not really contested (to my knowledge) as much so the personal narratives of being a man are not really revealed in art but more the symbolic, universal questions, problems of mankind, of Man.

  6. afrodite says
    30/06/2010 1:38 AM


    is anyone commenting female? can we have more female voice?

    i am m/26/kl

  7. Eva says
    30/06/2010 10:28 AM

    Dear mixedgender,

    Thanks for your comment. The whole semantics surrounding the word female, feminine, feminist is so confusing to me. each seems so burdened with history, politics and stereotype. i am not saying let’s come up with new terms/rhetoric because the same process of politicisation will just happen. It reminds me of spelling women like womyn thus taking out the men bit in order not to subjugate women to men, it just ended up seeming a little militant and ineffectual anyway. I don’t think looking at women specifically is about being anti-men at all just to clarify as well which the Feminist movement in the West seemed to be perceived as which it wasn’t always at all.

    In terms of defining female, feminine, women, feminist art. I feel conflicted. On the one hand such distinctions are clearer, more helpful on the other they constantly change as time and culture progress, and can become limiting. And since there is no Feminist moment (again that I know of) in Malaysian art we run the risk of inserting the wrong type of meaning. But I do think it is an important subject to look at for sure.

    I myself am dying to do more research on this and try to find some answers or at least more questions to the issues I keep on thinking about. Hopefully this will happen soon.


    PS do you have any suggestions on the definitions that you discuss in your comment? Would love to know more of your thoughts.

  8. Nadiah Bamadhaj says
    01/07/2010 1:53 PM

    Hi Eva,

    These questions (paragraph 1), though important, seem to be worded for academics – people who study women in art – rather than Malaysian women who practice art. The analysis of gender in the arts has probably been tackled less, but feminist practice in Malaysian art is very much alive – though I think in a more muted post-feminist context. I think in their very practice – even at the level of pure abstraction – Malaysian women artists are ‘quietly’ pursuing the subject matter of their work in how it pertains to themselves as women, and consistently attempting to practice on level playing fields with their male peers. By ‘quiet’ I mean that women artists (due to their substantially increased access to quality art education in the last 20 years, rather than some ‘Asian’ thing) no longer need to voice out their insistence that their practice is ‘equal to men’s’. Even amongst the women least comfortable with the term feminism, they know full well their equality in skill and subject matter development is a given.

    However from an academic standpoint, and I think we’ve discussed this before, there is a lack of analytical depth in how to study and portray women artist’s work. I don’t have a problem being invited to participate in ‘women only’ shows – but only on the condition that a curator develops the show around the SIMILARITIES (or at least interesting juxtapositions) IN THE CONTENT of our work, rather than the mere fact we all have breasts. Now this would result in women only shows of about 4-5 women artists at a time — depending on genre — but the quality of those shows will be clearly enhanced by a more thoughtful depiction of content. Women Only is OK – lumping us ALL together tends to diminish our specific areas of practice, and yes thats marginalising.

    Now bear in mind this viewpoint is extremely contextual. I would happily participate in a women only show in Malaysia, within the criteria outlined above, because there are large numbers of great women artists there. But would I do this in Jogja – I’d think twice. There is an alarming lack of confidence amongst women artists in Jogja – perpetuated by blatant sexism in academic and art institutions, and the tremendous pressure to marry young – that does translate in artwork development.

    On the issue of pigeon holing women artists, yes there is a tendency to talk about/invite women artists in relation to how their work deals with their bodies, issues of fertility, caregivers, etc. Personally – at this time – the tendency to pigeon hole women into ‘body orientated’ work is because women artists still have tremendous pressure placed on them to perform roles in social life that are directly related to their bodies. This artwork cannot be dismissed because it panders to a certain stereotype; it is the stereotype that needs to be dismissed. How women tackle body related issues in their work today is not how it would have been dealt with it in the 70s. These pressures come in different forms, and the way women manage and negotiate those pressures are changing.

    Another outcome of valuing women artists through body orientated work, is it tends to create the idea that women who don’t deal with these issues are anomalous – and therefore it is unclear how they should be ‘categorised’. I’m not saying that women should be recognised for making ‘male’ work, I think the concept of women’s art should be substantially expanded. By making work about architecture and identity that does not make me ‘like a male artist’, in fact what I am critiquing is the very masculine practice of building monuments to power in public space, (which is gender orientated), but this has yet to be included in the theoretical orbit of what women’s art is.

    I wanted to respond to paragraph 3. I think you’ve kind of pigeon holed ‘masculine identities’ into male bodies/sexuality (haha good one); and that somehow ‘universal human conditions’ and ‘masculinity’ are mutually exclusive. The preoccupation with universal truths – 1 idea, 1 nation, 1 national religioun, 1 national collection – the elimination of fractions and the streamlining of inconsistencies – is (to me) a very masculine practice. (Why? That will take all day.) And, if I could stick my foot in a bit further, this masculine practice is no more evident than in the categorisation and demarcation of artists by ethnicity.

    I know this ethnic splitting comes across as a bit ironic in the pervading 1 Malaysia discourse. However this campaign (to me) suggests an expansion of the fields of tolerance, which tends create environments of ethnic tokenism — not an elimination of ethnic categories altogether. The only 1-ness in this campaign is the idea we are supposed to get behind.

    Your idea that Malaysian femininity may be difficult to study due to ‘nuanced ideas and understandings of women’ by ‘culture’ is I’m afraid a product of this ethnic demarcation. I think Malaysian women artists, of different ethnicities, have far more similarities than we can imagine. There are however limited spaces where the articulation of these similarities can occur, and a certain mystification of each ethnic category (from each other) is perpetuated.

    Is there a glass ceiling in Malaysian contemporary art? – Yes. But it does not only apply to women. The prevailing glass ceiling is in the maintenance of a certain cultural/political/ethnic status quo — and there are women artists pinned under this ceiling, and their numbers are increasing.

  9. Eva says
    02/07/2010 1:56 PM

    Hi Nadiah,

    THANK YOU so much for your comments, they are so helpful for me and our readers. It’s nice to hear something from an artist perspective.. will reply more soon.


  10. Bernice Chauly says
    05/07/2010 12:57 AM

    Allow me to share a few thoughts. This is a point of particular interest to me as this is precisely what my book and thesis are about. I will speak mainly in literary terms and use and contexts as that is primarily the genesis of my creative work at the moment. I hope that this will add further discussion to the issue at hand.

    In searching for female narratives in English, I have had to contend with only three writers who have translated their life into words. The first being WW2 heroine Sybil Kathigasu, the doctor/midwife who was also a communist sympathiser, who later died after being tortured by the Japs. She started writing her memoir whilst on her deathbed in London. “No Dram of Mercy” (1954) was recently serialised by director Bernard Chauly in the TV series “Apa Dosaku”. Shirley Lim’s memoir, “Among the White Moon Faces” (1996) is anecdotal, politically and historically resonant, as well as being brutally personal. She writes about growing up in Malacca, being a student at University Malaya in the 60s, losing her virginity and then later moving to the US. This effort won her the American Book Award in 1996. Hilary Tham (also a UM grad), like Shirley, a poet/writer, wrote her memoir, “Lane with No Name” (1997) which also depicts childhood, love, marriage and life in the US in poetry and prose. Sadly, Hilary died five years ago of lung cancer. Few Malaysians know of her and of her work. These 3 books are of utmost importance to the premise of Malaysian female autobiography.

    Why are not many Malaysian women writing about their lives? Are our lives deemed unimportant? Less worthy than men? Why are there so few biographies? Memoirs? To answer this we have to perhaps refer to the premise of Western feminist writing and literature. The pathos of “the madwoman in the attic” was a tangent which was explored greatly by the Victorian writers. Women who suffered from depression and undiagnosed maladies were often subjected to harsh treatments which often involved isolation and depravity. We suffer from the same polemics as Western feminists, in that the struggle to find our voices, stem from centuries of patriarchy and fear.

    Shirley Lim, wrote in “Semiotics, Experience and the Material Self – An Inquiry into the Subject of the Contemporary Asian Woman Writer” (1988) “The Asian woman writer like women everywhere, continues to be constituted by a Male Other. When we look at ourselves in maturity, the gaze we have is re-constituted from our culture is male”. She adds, “in Asia, the Asian man is not free of constraints either, but there has been a long tradition of the male as writer that has been denied women – the Confucian scholar, the Brahmin priest, court advisors, bureaucrats and priviledged nationalists”… these men who were not necessarily more privileged than their female friends, they were just deemed more important.

    The French feminist/poet/philosopher Helene Cixous said that” In order to start living/writing, there has to be death”. According to her, writing becomes a gesture that is linked to an event that has evicted one from the world. Writing then becomes an act of revolt, one that stems from the body, a gesture that is physical as it is creative. She thus coined the term “ecriture feminine” or feminine writing, saying that women write from the body. The body speaks of experience, it holds memory, and therefore, truth.

    Where is this heading? The book that I am currently writing seeks to address these issues. I write because, like Cixious, I lost my father at a very young age, and by writing, am trying to write myself back into the world. To find meaning, when it has been lost. This is where I can begin.

    The study of Western feminism helps point us in the right direction, but for Malaysian women writers/artists, we have (yet) to set new paradigms, new idioms for ourselves. There is very little scholarship in this area, and this is what I am trying to do.

    The issues of race and ethnicity come into play as well. My father came from a patriarchical, ultra-conservative Sikh, Punjabi family in Penang. He was sent to study teacher training in Kirkby, England, the first of his siblings. His mother was illiterate. My mother who came from a Cantonese merchant family studied Melbourne, Australia. Her mother was also illiterate. This is because they were products of WW2, subjected to remain at house and home, fending off Japanese marauders, simply trying to stay alive. They survived, and told me their stories.

    The 3 books I mentioned earlier were published in the 50s and 90s, not long ago at all. Female literary narratives in Malaysia have only just begun. Putting things in context is of course, crucial; we have to understand history, social and religious contexts and the workings of the region that is South East Asia. Indian writing and thought is far ahead; writers like Kamala Das, Arundathi Roy and academics like Gayatri Spivak have had head starts, which differ greatly from the social and academic context here.

    Women, who are artists, but also mothers and wives, struggle constantly with roles that beg everything of them. I remember interviewing the artist Sophia Vari, wife of Fernando Botero, and she said this, ” as women, we are wives and mothers first, and we wait, and wait for the time when we can make art again.”

    I think we are at a point now in our social and political history, where we are making art and also contextualising and theorising it in ways that make the work we do important and relevant. It is up to audiences and readers to make the work matter, but more importantly, we have to make work that matters to us, and to all women. In reading Louise Bourgeois and the reasons why she made art, the reasons are clear and simple. Her father’s mistress traumatised her and those scars remained. Her work sought to alleviate that pain and trauma and to make it beautiful and profound.

    The Asian woman has, in the past, only been an active agent in the most domestic of situations – which is why weaving, basket making and batik constitute the majority of our female narratives. This was allowed, when writing was not.

    The key as artists is to make work that transcends the personal, so that it becomes work that is universal. But the Malaysian context is crucial in that respect. We have to learn to separate the ‘who’ from the ‘what’ and allow the work to be seen and heard, and therein accepting it. In dealing with Asian society, many taboos have to be dealt with and certain secrets are often thought to be best left unsaid. We can appreciate openness and frankness in art from Western female writers and artists, why can’t we expect the same from here? As artists, we have to first and foremost learn openness, to release ourselves from the chains of conformity and tradition, to flirt with tradition and modernity. Not easy at all. And easier said than done. We risk being judged, and told that (by male critics) ‘your work is too personal’.

    The issues that surround women here are the same the world over. We have had to deal with religion, fundamentalism, patriarchy, sexism, social constraints, domestic violence and more. The understanding of feminism here is referred to in Western terms and polemics. We didn’t have a Mary Wollstonecraft or Virginia Woolf to speak on our behalf, but we did have Mahsuri, Puteri Gunung Ledang and freedom fighters like Raden Adjeng Kartini and Samsiah Fakeh. We have had a history of strong, powerful women, but the medium in which we remember them is retained largely in myth and legend. Ms Kathigasu is not mentioned in our history books and she does not matter in the minds of most Malaysians, perhaps because she was not Malay and she was a communist sympathiser. And so we rewrite and erase our own history.

    However, crucial to this argument is the fact that there has to be some kind of transformation to occur for the personal to become political, Julia Kristeva believes that “no socio-political transformation is possible which does not constitute a transformation of subjects”. Where do WE begin to draw upon the boundaries of the semiotics of the Self? How do Malaysian women artists and writers see the ‘bio’ and ‘auto’ in our geographies?

    In lieu of the infancy and (lack of) critique of Malaysian female narratives in literature, we have to be aware and understand his/herstory and (primarily Western) theory to further understand the practice of our art and why we make and write what we do. We have to not just be practitioners, but theorists and agents of transformation in what we do. The inclusion of thought and process is crucial in placing contemporary work in today’s marketplace. But the primary underlying factor to any kind of mobilisation and creative genesis is transformation.

    The emergence of powerful Asian American female voices has helped this argument to a certain extent – Maxine Hong Kingston, Amy Tan, Marilyn Chin and Nieh Hua-ling have helped contextualise and (re) invent the study of identity politics and alienation in the US; in dealing with the Other and the immigrant Self, the (female) writer seeks to find balance and address imbalance in the continuity of one’s process.

    So how do Malaysian women write? What is the point of departure for us?

    Do we write from the perspective of the Indian/Chinese/Malay/or other? Or do we write from the diasporic memory of our forefathers? Do we write from the body as Cixious purports? Or do we attempt to write from what many have long waited for – write from all of the above and try to create the distinct voice that is Malaysian? What is a Malaysian voice? Importantly, what is a female Malaysian voice? Is it in English or Malay or Chinese Tamil or Iban? Most crucial to this being – Does it matter?

    About a year ago, the Malaysian poet Wong Phui Nam announced, “Malaysian writing in English is dead”. I assume he was referring to Malaysian writers (male and female, domiciled here and abroad, dead and still living) that this was the case. But was it ever alive (or great) to begin with? We have had good (maybe verging on great) writers and poets, but the principle legacy of Malaysian writing in English is a primarily male 50-something creature.

    I apologise for this apoplectic diatribe, being a writer/artist/educator/academic of sorts, but this points to a serious lack in our creative and discoursive landscape.

    To answer the question, which begs of Malaysian female narratives, all I can say is this, there is not enough of it, and there is much work to be done.

  11. Virginia says
    05/07/2010 9:55 AM

    Widen the scope of what is accepted as art and literature.

    Think of all the women who were employed in education and secretarial work. Forget for a moment the value of these positions are tied to their salary. Simply consider the necessity of these positions to make society function and how they give meaning to our lives on a daily basis.

    By adopting traditional standards of quality, you ignore all the craft women made in schools with children, the reports they wrote to parents, the business contracts they made possible, etc.

    These kind of writing and making are stacked to the brim up all over the country and the world. Why not collect, study, and celebrate these contributions.

    Imagine if you found a stack of report card of a student who somehow had the same teacher his entire primary schooling. Wouldn’t this constitute a narrative of extraordinary value?

    The work of craft teachers in kindergarden can set the tone of how a child may view art over a lifetime, so why not an exhibition for them at a chic gallery or national institutions to promote quality and excellence. No, we are to focused on personal issues and building individualistic careers.

    If you continue to play according to the rules set by your dead white male masters, the game is always going to be frustrating and winning never possible.

    Democratize our perception of what constitutes culture and reinvent the game.

  12. 4M says
    05/07/2010 11:08 AM

    Frankly, as with the White Christian Male power structure, we have the Macho Muslim Malay Male to define/position everything against/with.

  13. Woman artist says
    05/07/2010 3:29 PM

    Virginia FTW.

  14. LOTR says
    06/07/2010 12:13 PM

    My woman is too busy baking a kid in her belly and making cake in the kitchen to comment.

  15. politically correct female says
    06/07/2010 12:45 PM

    Hey, I just want to mention that you make babies and bake cakes, not the other way round.

  16. hoycheong says
    07/07/2010 3:03 PM

    “The Western Feminist moment is now firmly rooted in history and Southeast Asian Contemporary Female/ Gender histories are still as yet cohesively documented. As such the ‘F’ word has become rather uncool with today’s women.”

    hi eva:

    Am wondering what you mean by this – “Western Feminist moment”? which period or moment are you thinking of? Where does this rather definitive statement emerge from?
    You claim that western feminism is fully ensconced in SEA – again what do you mean?

    perhaps you might want to consider other forms of “feminisms” here in malaysia (& sea); for example, which are not western based. just look at the matriarchal minangkabau communities, the working women of kelantan, the early feminist movements in malaya like awas and kaum ibu – days before Western feminism was “firmly rooted” even within the west.

    Also in terms of women/gender studies, there have been many books – case studies, historical analysis,etc – published in Malaysia as well as SEA. also women’s ngos are particularly active in indonesia and philippines. But perhaps you are only referring to writings within the visual arts realms.

    Which sector of women in malaysia are you referring to who thinks that the “F”- word is uncool?

  17. Maternal issue says
    29/11/2010 6:33 PM


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