It’s a thing to capture people’s interests while stimulating their senses through art. But it’s a whole new thing (not to mention, much nobler) to let people experience art while exposing them to political and social issues.
Known to many Filipinos, the largest painting in the country with a size of 4.22 meters x 7.675 meters, the Spoliarium by Juan Luna, a Filipino master painter, served to evoke and reflect the conditions of the Philippines under the Spanish rule (National Museum of the Philippines, 2014). By depicting the scene in the basement of the Roman Colosseum where the fallen and dying gladiators were dumped and stripped of their possessions, Luna excellently showed the significance of the political, moral, and social lives of the Filipinos in that era. This painting won the first gold medal in the Madrid Art Exposition in 1884—breaking the barriers as an indio who was awarded in a prestigious international contest.
Juan Luna is an excellent example of an artist who purposely battles against oppressive ideologies and figures while showcasing his talent and expressing his passion. Likewise, there is an interesting Palestinian artist who also combats and undermines cultural, political, gender, and religious constructions in her own unique way. She bridges the field of sensation and perception to her art. She is Anisa Ashkar, a 38 year-old Palestinian artist living in Barbur, Israel. She expresses her “multiple and shifting identities through the use of the ‘minor senses’ such as smell and touch to symbolize her minority status as a Palestinian living and working in Israel, a Muslim living in a Jewish place, and a woman in a patriarchal culture” (Dekel, 2015). During her performances, Ashkar rubs the materials to her skin, feeling them on her body and makes it a point to let her audience play a part by letting them smell the aroma of her materials. Few of the materials she utilizes for her performances were margarine, flour, sugar, milk, and black coffee—things associated with being “feminine and domestic”. Ashkar highlights the olfactory and tactile qualities of these materials. After rubbing and feeling the materials, Ashkar’s reflexive process of the piece begins, where the political, ethnic, religious, and gendered meanings were created. She has been consciously aware of the issues surfacing in her surroundings, as she said (Dekel, 2015, p. 305):
“Those who choose to rely solely on sight and the rational, which is the masculine way, are very different from those who work with all the senses, especially touch and smell, which are considered to be feminine and inferior. I propose an ‘alternative’ way, since as a woman and a Palestinian. I am compelled to act in the Jewish, man’s world. But I will not restrict myself to relying on sight as the central tool for creating and producing art!”
In recent years, the significance of the sensory modalities is not viewed in hierarchy, because they are all equally important and they are not necessarily functioning single-handedly, as exhibited by multimodal perceptions. However, Anisa Ashkar has provided an alternative way of looking at the senses and perception. Just like how people construed it before, the five senses were said to be in hierarchical order based on their significance: vision is first, followed by hearing, and the latter senses were taste, smell, and touch. In the time of the Enlightenment, seeing was equated to knowing, which implies that the vision is the key to objectively know things. Another thing that supports this objectivity of vision is the evidence that sight can operate at a greater distance compared to the other senses. Thereby, sight has been associated with the mind, reason, logic, superiority, patriarchy, colonialism, of the West, white, and masculinity. In contrast, touch, smell, and taste are associated with unreason, emotions, irrationality, primitiveness, devaluation, of the Orient, and femininity (Dekel, 2015; Duncum, 2012).
For these reasons, Ashkar has been using these associations in her performances to undermine certain categorizations and constructions while incorporating the considered “lesser senses of smell and touch”. In her 2004 performance Barbur 24000, she read the written stages of purification according to Islamic Law while bathing her face in milk using forceful movements. In this performance, she aimed to integrate the binary of masculinity and femininity through showing the symbolisms of body and milk as feminine and the language used and forceful actions as masculine. The movements also symbolize the physical, emotional, and economic violence that the Palestinian women endure within and beyond their community (Dekel, 2015).
In her 2010 performance E-Alina, she undermined the racist stereotype of the Orient as being feminine and the binary systems such as feminine-masculine, white Jewish-dark Muslim, and affluent-impoverished. By brewing black coffee so that the audience can already smell the aroma even before reaching the performance hall, splashing the coffee on the walls, and making it drip on the floor, Ashkar’s performance featured a talking white Jewish man being interrupted, forced to drink the black coffee, and drowned on it (Dekel, 2015).
In her 2003 performance Finlat Beit Jalla, she aimed to understand and see the world through the lenses (quite literally, by the glasses of her male professors) of men, Jews, and authority figures while covering the gallery walls with margarine, an Israeli staple (considered to be feminine because it is used for cooking, a domestic chore). Just like how a masculine lens would perform a feminine task, she portrayed her hybrid self in this performance—a Palestinian living and working in Israel, a Muslim living in a Jewish place, and a woman in a patriarchal culture (Dekel, 2015).
Anisa Ashkar’s art has provided a perspective that perception can be viewed as a non-neutral biomechanical issue. This shows how perception can be gendered and oppressive in some cultures.
Truly, we live in a gendered world. Ever since an infant is born, certain constructions and stereotypes are already surfacing and it is just a matter of time for these things to be attached to him/her. However, these categorizations can be broken down. It’s a thing to break barriers, but it is entirely a different thing to make people see, smell, and feel the breaking of these oppressive barriers.
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Dekel, T. (2015). Subversive uses of perception: The case of Palestinian artist Anisa Ashkar. Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society, 40(2), 300-308.
Duncum, P. (2012). An eye does not make an I: Expanding the sensorium. Studies in Art Education, 53(3), 182-193.
National Museum of the Philippines. (2014, February 10). Spoliarium. Retrieved from http://www.nationalmuseum.gov.ph/nationalmuseumbeta/Collections/Spoliarium.html