Arahmaiani and Ayana Evans in performance during 21st Century Suffragettes at Grace Exhibition Space.
The term “suffragette” was coined in 1903 by London journalist Charles Hands to mock and ridicule members of the Women’s Social and Political Union in the UK. Long since reified, curator Jill McDermid uses the term to conceptualize a contemporary “suffragette” in her Spring performance art series at Grace Exhibition Space and Rosekill Farm, 21st Century Suffragettes. The right to vote is analogized here by a right to perform, to speak, to present viewpoints and personal histories, to effect change regarding the positions and situations of women around the world.
Performing on Friday, April 29 at Grace’s famed second-floor loft on Broadway, neither Arahmaiani Feisal (who goes only by Arahmaiani) and Ayana Evans claim to represent all women, or put forward any specific changes to legislature. Instead, their feminist activism is personal, social, and rooted in the political contexts of their embodied lives.
Arahmaiani appears initially without costume, without need for a signifying white dress favored by late Edwardian-era European suffragettes and previous performance artists in this series alike. She wears jeans and clogs and walks into the center of the performance space carrying a white candle and meditation bells. Matter-of-factly, she describes her history of persecution and political censorship in and forced expatriation from her home country of Indonesia.
She begins by stating simply that she will ask audience members to perform. Because, she says, “in 1983 I was forced to leave my home after being arrested by the military…”
As a woman with mixed religious background and as a columnist, artist, and human rights activist, criticism and challenge to fundamentalist Islamist military regimes in Indonesia and Malaysia have left Arahmaiani under attack throughout most of her adult life. She has received death threats (to “drink her blood”) due to her art works "Ëtalase" and "Lingga-Yoni" and her columns and writing about LGBT issues and Buddhism in the newspapers Suara Merdeka ("Voice of Independence") and Kompas have endangered herself and other members of all-women artist groups. Arahmaini has escaped to Sydney, Perth, and Singapore, each time she is attacked refusing to stop criticizing the politicians and corporations that, Arahmaini writes, are usually supporting radical Islamists, using fear and terror to distract people attention from the “real serious problems politically and economically.”
Arahmaiani references “morality police” (shariah law enforcers) near the end of her speech and we are reminded of the 2013 proclamation in Lhokseumawe that women must sit side-saddle on motorbikes, since straddling is “sexually suggestive,” “unfeminine” and “un-Islamic.” In this light, Arahmaiani’s casual and “masculine” performance garb make sense and appears to be far more political than it may seem to Western women; instead of bloomers and short-brim round late Edwardian hat, Arahmaiani presents herself partially through her lack of a headscarf, her bare forearms, her powerful gaze coolly pouring into the eyes of the audience members sitting, crouching, and standing in a semi-circle around her.