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The Sum of Her Parts: Revealing and Concealing the
Female Body in Preema’s Paintings


Melia Belli Bose
Assistant Professor of Asian Art History
Department of Art & Art History, University of Texas at Arlington

Throughout her nearly fifteen year career, women have been a perennial subject in the work of Bangladeshi artist Naiza Andaleeb Preema. In her often large-scale, vibrantly-hued, multi-media paintings, Preema explores aspects of women’s public and private lives, identities, and desires, as well as their bodies. Preema’s best-known depictions of women feature in two ongoing series: Staring Women, begun in 2009, and Objectified, begun in 2012. Paintings from both are displayed in this exhibition. In these series the artist offers opposing manifestations of womanhood that challenge widely-held stereotypes of women’s agency and objectification both in Bangladesh and beyond. Echoing rising contemporary trends in her country of covering the female body, the artist depicts the women of Staring Women in hijabs and niqabs. However, rather than cast them as victims or as exotic, as in many renditions of veiled women, the paintings provoke questions of women’s identity and personhood. Conversely, in Objectified, Preema focuses on individual parts of the female anatomy, in response to what she perceives as a global tendency to reduce women to fetishized body parts, and the erosion of their individuality and agency.

Reversing the Gaze: Staring Women
Bangladesh is a new nation that is currently undergoing both rapid globalization and religious conservatism. One of the most visible impacts of the latter is the increasing popularity of veiling among women. This, Preema asserts, leads not only to women’s (literal) invisibility, but also to a broader social tendency to view them as passive, unexpressive, and subservient. Preema asks: “If women are not seen, how can they be heard?”

In the early 1970s feminist art historian Linda Nochlin and film historian Laura Mulvey called attention to the fact that the visual arts are structured with a presumed masculine viewer. Globally, visual culture tends to depict the world and the female subject from a masculine point of view, and reaffirm inherent imbalances of power. Thus, until the later twentieth century, women were depicted in art primarily for the visual pleasure of the male gaze. Throughout South Asia, the gaze is also a gendered performance of power in everyday life. In much of South Asia the characteristics of shame and reserve (lojja in Bangla) are among the most favorable feminine traits. Manifestations of lojja include veiling and not meeting the gaze of an unknown male. In South Asia men are not bound to such social conventions and thus enjoy more opportunities to gaze directly at women. Hence, in many South Asian socio-religious traditions, veiling is the most active way a woman can preserve her lojja. In Staring Women Preema examines confluences of lojja, agency, desire, and the feminine gaze.

Paintings in the Staring Women series depict wide-eyed, veiled young women resolutely making eye contact with the viewer. The majority of the staring women reverse the gaze by brazenly peering out from their canvases and meeting the audience’s gaze. Perhaps more unsettling, other women in the series focus their gaze on a distant object of desire and dismiss their viewers. Preema frequently depicts the staring women’s eyes with a network of red veins, suggestive of a silent rage or profound longing. In so doing, the artist assigns greater complexity to her staring women. Rather than passively fading into invisibility, they delight in the empowered female gaze and express their individuality through desire.

In several paintings from the series Preema complicates issues of women’s global objectification. In these works, she juxtaposes her painted veiled women with supermodels she cuts from the pages of fashion magazines, presenting them as if in a standoff, or clash of civilizations. However, as Western media, entertainment, consumer goods and depictions of women in Western clothing are now readily available in Bangladesh, these once sharply defined categories are becoming ever more porous and hybrid. Preema also hopes that Staring Women provokes her audience to reconsider issues of women’s agency and objectification, particularly with regard to their own body and self-expression. Ultimately, as the artist highlights, agency and objectification are not dictated by geography or a singular culture. She makes explicit through her depiction of these two extremes of womanhood: the veiled Muslim Bangladeshi woman and the impossibly slim, statuesque, surgically-enhanced Western supermodel. These two examples highlight how women throughout the world are pressured to conform to culturally dictated gender norms.

Fetish and Scandal: Objectified
There is a long and well-established history of the female nude in Indian art. However, as historians of Indian art such as Tapati Guha-Thakurta have aptly noted, India’s relationship with the nude is nevertheless fraught and complex. While pre-modern depictions of nude female divinities enjoy widespread appreciation, more recent renditions of the subject, particularly in secular contexts, have been the subject of scandal and censorship. There is also precedent in modern Indian art of female artists rendering the nude. Rukmini Varma paints women from Indian mythology as nudes and Amrita Sher Gil paintrd living women, herself among them, in the nude. While their work was the subject of widespread criticism when it was first displayed – Varma in the 1970s, Sher Gil in the early twentieth century—their nudes are now among the most celebrated works of modern Indian art.

The female nude has enjoyed a similarly declining popularity in Bangladeshi art. While the numerous Pala and Sena Buddhist and Hindu sculptures featuring voluptuous female nudes are among Bangladesh’s national treasures, there is essentially no tradition of the nude in contemporary Bangladeshi art. One exception is the paintings of Shahabuddin Ahmed—the most commercially successful Bangladeshi artist in the country— in whose work nudes of both sexes often feature. Factors that may account for the perceived acceptability of the nude in Shahabuddin’s work is the fact that they are rendered with their genitals discreetly hidden, engaged in activity, and perhaps most important, they were painted by an older man.

When Preema displayed paintings of the female nude form her Objectified series in 2012 at the Bengal Art Lounge, one of Dhaka’s premiere art venues, they were quickly removed due to public outcry. What was so scandalous about Preema’s nudes?

To understand why the artist’s paintings of nude women caused such a stir, something should be said about the manner in which the female boy is depicted and the context in which they were executed. Each canvas in the Objectified series offers a delicate, pastel, earth, or jeweled-toned sketchily rendered and softly focused depiction of a part of a woman’s body: a leg that terminates in a pedicured foot, a breast, or the supine lover body with legs languidly parted to expose a vagina. Certainly, no other Bangladeshi artist had ever presented the female body in such a frank and straightforward manner before, and even Dhaka’s cosmopolitan, avant garde gallery goers were shocked. Undoubtedly, many were also (unacceptably) titillated.

Then there is the story of the paintings’ origin, which Preema, who subscribes to notions of artistic freedom and candor, frankly shares with her audience. During a trip to Paris in 2012, the artist was marooned alone in her hotel room on a rainy day. She ordered a large pot of coffee, which together with the contents of her make-up bag, used as art supplies, producing a series of provocatively posed nudes, several of which later inspired oil paintings. Perhaps the scandal arose from the fact that Preema’s nudes are seductively posed, clearly welcoming the male gaze, and painted by a woman. Knowledge of the paintings’ origins—having been created by the artist when she was alone—also suggests that they are self-portraits, a subject about which the artist prefers to neither confirm upon, nor deny. The title of the series, however, is unambiguous—Preema takes control, objectifying and offering herself for visual consumption. In so doing she places herself on par with woman across the world who are reduced to fetishized body parts by the media, entertainment, and advertising industries, and the male gaze.

Viewed together, Staring Women and Objectified address the double bind Bangladesh women confront today. As Preema notes: “Showing a women’s body is a tabbu in our society, but how can we not show that which has been objectified for so long!” Is a woman greater than the sum of her parts? One wonders how Amrita Sher Gil, who grappled with the various parts of her identity, sexuality, and background, might have answered this question.
Preema's Art: Enduring enigma of Veil

Abed Chaudhury
Biologist and Art critic

Obscurity-revelation is the dialectic of visual art. While a frontal depiction of an object may clarify, educate, and inform, it is obscurity or mere suggestiveness that brings in an interest in art. Evolution has endowed our brain to like a visual game, similar to a jigsaw-puzzle, and to feel rewarded with a "aha" type discovery when a obscured image is interpreted after a visual search and chase.
That is why suggestiveness of a tree shrouded in fog appears more interesting than the full frontal botanical depiction of a tree. A veiled woman’s face creates novel and interesting challenge for an artist, particularly a female artist. From an evolutionary neuro-aesthetic paradigm, a woman’s face is much more interesting than a random object of nature; in general for a fellow human, or in particular from the point of view of a male member of the species.

A woman’s face is a very important cue for a child, where the clarity-obscurity of the nourishing mothers face has implication for the survival of the child. For a young male shrouding of a female face is interesting in its suggestiveness, where visual cues might have been used as a device to attract, suggest, or even to deny. A face covered in a burqah where only the eyes are shown leaves the rest to interpretation; covered hair invokes questions about its length, texture etc. A selectively obscured face is clearly an enigma, something art loves and celebrates.

Preema's painting plays on this aspect. To her veiling is clearly an artistic device to explore in an elemental visual way but also perhaps in a socio-political way. From purely neural evolutionary analyses it brings into play ancient questions of human gender interactions and how the reciprocal visual exposure and obscurity of male and females have remained deeply ingrained our brains and now informs not only our sociology and art but also deep imageries of our art.

Preema is passionate about women and painting. She celebrates such passion through a series of paintings called "Staring Women" where women's eyes are revealed but the majority of the face is obscured. In one of her painting called "Flower and Veil" the visual essence is depicted cubist-like as interplay of visual elements. The gestalt of veiling is celebrated in so many other painting in novel and innovative ways. To me what is interesting is that a fundamental dualism of art itself, e.g., revelation-obscurity, or veiling, is deconstructed perhaps as a deliberate feminist device bringing in very interesting questions at the interface of gender interaction and art.

Faced with such artistic celebration of the veiling of a woman’s face, what would people say about Preema's art? Veil has become an ideologically loaded word whose emotive discussions in intellectual and political circles make it less prone to subtle artistic understanding. Inspire of this political interest in veiling, or perhaps because of it, Preema's painting will find instant interest in contemporary times. My hope is that after such an interest is generated, a subtle deeply nuanced artistic exploration and resolution will follow rather than shallow posturing on veil among predictable socio-political line.
In her paintings Eyes framed in black searches for the soul. Beyond veil, almost like a far-away mysterious place. Such mystery, almost cave-like is of spaces that are denied access and made exciting by their taboo; stoking imagination. Like a rain-drenched night or the forlorn wait of day-break just before subhey-sadik(early morning). Stares coming from an entirely different world, looking and if gaze meets a gaze there could be fruitful communication perhaps?

But such looking and locking of eyes are also full of suspicion and incomprehension. It brings in primal fear, doubts and worries. Fear of existence, doubts of love not being reciprocated and worries embedded in thinking of future. Eyes and stares contain in them the distilled essence of all the negativities of human existence. It is like a long black ocean that can never be crossed. A stare can instill such strong denial.

But beyond denial, is there an invitation also. Is it reflecting the duality of the mind where even in a victory, there remain doubts? "Joi korey tobu voi keno tor jaina" as the poet says. Or does it promise something behind the eyes; a world of pure bliss and salvation. Does it offer a coming night of pleasure?

An opolok Nari, she is questions, denial and finally promises. In this triangular offering, mystery inevitably follows. I want to hang on to this mystery more than anything else. Something deep inside senses and responds to this mystery. And believes that at the end of the road of this blackened mystery there are orange glows and salvation, and unlimited pleasure.
Prima Donna

Giorgio Guglielmino
Art Critic

Prima donna is an Italian word which literally means 'first lady' and was originally used to identify the main female character in an opera play. It's use as a title for an exhibition, therefore, is an immediate reference to theatre, the stage and the set.The connection is strikingly evident looking at the paintings displayed at the Bengal Art Lounge - there is a small army of female characters staring out from the paintings at the 'viewers'. The overall setting clearly has a theatrical effect. In this mute play, which is staged in the gallery, there is a sort of conflict or, or almost a confusion of roles. Which side represents the audience and which one the actors, in this play?

I like to think that there is a complete reversal of roles in this exhibition and that the figures in the paintings are the audience and the viewers are the exhibited works. What will the comments be from the characters in the paintings after the gallery closes at night?

- Oh, did you see that pretentious art critic? - The one with the horrible tie? -Yes,thatone. Hereallylookedlikeafooltryingtoexplainmeto the lady he wanted to impress! - Yes, pathetic! But did you see the young student couple? They were so cute! - Yes, so nice! He looked for every occasion to touch her hand. - And the high society lady? The one who thinks she is royalty?

Let's try to see the exhibition with this spirit, as if we are the watchedones. Asiftherelationbetweenviewerandworksis different. What do we look like when we look at art?

Remaining in the field of theatre, Peter Handke's piece titled Offending the Public came to my mind, because of the twist in who's who and how character roles are defined. The characters in Preema Nazia Andaleeb's paintings are not offensive, they are inquisitive and most of all they are more than just characters -they are immanent women. Dressed in black in some of the paintings or barely dressed in the delicate drawings, they are first of all women. Women that are most of all identified with their eyes. They are eyes that watch closely and that do not lower their gaze. And this is not a small detail.
Katerina Don
Curator
Bengal Art Lounge

Daring, bold, charismatic, confident, enigmatic and 'heeled'; all these words can be used to describe a prima donna, and consequently Nazia Andaleb Preema. As the face of Brand Forum Bangladesh, Preema is known as a force to be reckoned with. As an artist, in the last few years Preema has been making video works, which probe at social notions of the feminine, such as domesticity, fertility, and sensuality. But in this exhibition, we see a less tailored, less polished side of Preema. One which is scared, fragile and vulnerable, and yet courageous enough to put herself on display.

But let us return to the heeled aspect of a prima donna. The heeled shoe is perhaps the most symbolic item of the female wardrobe; it is laden with historical and social references. The heeled shoe stands for sensuality, captivity, status, and liberation. It is a pairing of opposites – at once a sign of progress and a symbol of subjugation.

A woman in heels is an illusion – she appears to be half walking and suggesting the promise of imminent fall. For decades, the heeled shoe was thrown out of the closet for being an attribute of female subjugation and back in as an accessory to liberation and empowerment. Today, for the most part, it has been demystified and returned to the shelf as an item of style, no longer a weapon in the feminist struggle.

But gender wars aside, the high heel sinks deep into history. In Ancient Egypt, heels were functional – butchers to move around the slaughterhouse used them. In 18th century France, it was men who donned what was known as the Louis heels to physically establish their higher social rank. So it should come as no surprise that Napoleon, in his attempt to level the social classes, not only severed heads but also banned heels. Marie Antoinette in her last act of defiance stepped up to the guillotine in two inch heels. Napoleon was not the first or last to take such a severe stance on elevated footwear – the Puritans banned heels for being the footwear of witches.

And still today, the click of a heel is enchanting! Silence, ladies and gentleman, here comes the Prima Donna! She is in motion, steady, and yet there is a sense that she is barely balancing. Perhaps that is the charm of a woman - the fine and enigmatic balance. She can wade through blood, fire, broken roads, with ease and grace and still appear fragile.
   
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