Goan Afrah Shafiq’s interactive works triggers a trip down women’s history
>>Goa-based Afrah Shafiq’s works draws the viewers into the minds of women in a unique way
Goa-based Afrah Shafiq’s works draws the viewers into the minds of women in a unique way. For, the multimedia artist probes what archives and printed matter can reveal about the inner lives of those who originally made them.
At the Kochi-Muziris Biennale, the 29-year-old artist also goes through the psyche of contemporary audience. Her two works — ‘st.itch’ and ‘Sultana’s Reality’ — are on display at Kashi Town House venue.
As for ‘st.itch’, it emerges from Afrah’s research of archival images of women in Victorian England sewing, and the products of this labour. “This work is specifically created for the biennale commissioned by the NNS with archives in the North of England,” she says.
It’s a multimedia patchwork that uses video, QR codes, archival images and mechanised states of being, besides embroidery to look at the transgressive nature of women’s work within the home such as cooking, cleaning, planning and, especially, sewing. “These are long considered an acceptable activity for women to keep them busy from within the home,” Afrah notes. “My work explores the transgressive potential of sewing, and envisions the action as an agent of freedom that allows women to creatively imagine.”
‘Sultana’s Reality’ is an interactive multimedia web-story about the relationship between women and books in India. Afrah documents Indian women who have challenged societal conventions and is an immersive game-like space navigated using the mouse. “It invites the viewer to explore the relationship between women and books in a five-chapter multimedia story,” says the Bangalore-born artist, who uses tropes of gaming such as hidden notes, jokes, GIFs and animation in the work.
The installation is inspired by Bengali feminist thinker Begum Rokeya Sakhawat Hossain’s 1905 short story Sultana’s Dream that narrates how a young girl falls asleep to re-imagine a world where the roles between men and women are reversed. “Now I don’t mean to propagate that men should be locked in homes while women roam free, but I was interested in the reality, or what the life of someone who wrote this story was like,” explains the artist. “For instance, Rokeya herself was never sent to school unlike her brothers. She secretly studied in a candlelight at night from her brother’s textbooks.”
‘Sultana’s Reality’ won the artist an award: ‘Art in Mobile Applications’ at the Computer Space festival, Bulgaria. She spent about two years working on this project. “There was no clear separation between the research phase and the scripting, animating, designing, etc. They all happened in parallel. I built the story as I was researching.”
‘Sultana’s Reality’ is an interactive multimedia storybook that explores the lives of women in Indian History through their own stories and writings, be them published fiction or personal writings. The work is playful, exploratory, almost game like states Afrah, who won the South Asian Laadli Media Award for Gender Sensitivity in the Best web series/Special edition category. “All the visual material in the story is archival and comes from matchbox labels, early photographs, oil paintings, folk art forms, lithographs and other popular visual forms of the same period,” she says.
Afrah’s collaging of the texts and miniature paintings with fantastical animations testifies to the power of art and literature to validate and expand our inner desires and dreams. “Our history is full of absolutely amazing, sometimes inspiring, sometimes confusing stories that really help us better understand how we got where we are today. I think it is valuable for us to be able to spend time with this history — not in a boring dry-facts kind of way, but in a way that is fun, that is engaging and that is easy to navigate,” she shares.
“I had initially intended for this to be an animated film. But as I began my research I started feeling really amazed by multiple stories and anecdotes,” the artist says. “There were stories of women who were stoned in the streets for wearing shoes and carrying umbrellas, who read forbidden texts and were called Saraswati, but then went on to convert to Christianity.”
Afrah has also been awarded the Archival and Museum fellowship by the India Foundation for the Arts and has been a curatorial fellow with the Katha Centre for Film Studies. As for the relationship between both the works at the biennale, she says, “Both ‘Sultana’s Reality’ and ‘st.tich’ try to encourage audiences to engage with history in a playful manner, experientially drawing them into the inner minds and lives of women without being estranging.”