• Subhasree Biswas

Viva Donna Viva!

Updated: Apr 9, 2019

'She' is the healer, the shaman, the great protector of the whole Universe.

My inquiries in this article are moving around silence and voice.I dig a little more into the systemic marginalisation of women and silencing her through patriarchal hegemony. I am inquiring the power 'She' possess to change the existing paradigm, in which the value of humanism is in great danger and the possibility of new humanism should be taken seriously.

Other than reading and reflecting, my inquiries got further base on visiting Venice Biennale 2017. Which re-affirmed my faith on matriarchy, and 'Art' as an effective tool for social change.

I believe, 'She' is the healer, the shaman, the great protector of the whole Universe.

Silence and Voice

”The voice of them is long being numbed”(Patchwork, B.Subhasree 2017) about the marginal women.

“Our is a broken voice” and “language is also a place of struggle.”Bell Hooks conversation with Eddie George (Hooks, B. Pg.146)

Where coming into the voice from silence evokes pain and the brokenness contains unbearble suffering!

In her seminal work “can the subaltern speak? ”Gayatri Spivak defines the subaltern as the person "removed from all lines of social mobility." (Gayatri Spivak Pg.60) That is, the subaltern is barred from access to all public resources that would allow for upward movement, out of dire poverty and into political invisibility.

I believe, every voice matters whether it is silent or audible. Question is can subaltern be heard?

Are we ready to hear the authentic voice of subaltern without moulding it? What kind of stories we like to hear and from whom?

In my opinion, it is possible if we consider the other ways of expression. As an Artist/designer I often witnessed through my work, it is often easier for the subaltern to express them better through art, craft, music, dance, storytelling /myths and theatre than language.

For me also it is also easier to express through other means than by writing whether my marginality is in question or not.

I worked with a lot of woman below poverty line. I noticed, often their voice is moulded and edited in a different socio political economical context, in a way it is no longer recognised as the voice of a subaltern. My work is to bring out the voice of the marginal through other ways of expression, through the indigenous art and craft.

A lot of time the privileged have tendencies to put their voice into the subalterns, instead of bring out their authentic voice. It is a kind of power play due to difference in power structure. May be my postcolonial mind is sometimes cynical, and suspicious of neo-colonism.

According to Gayatri Spivak, you can't simply lend a voice to the subaltern.

In different situation I have noticed that the voice of the subaltern often get lost in translation.

As her language is also a point of struggle, her language is not institutionally validate language.

When I say marginalised here, it's more in a broader category. Later I discuss more in the context of woman and marginalisation.

Marginalisation happens for different reason, race, gender, mental or physical disability, inmates in jail. Their voices hardly reaches the mainstream, often Art is a great tool to brings out the voice of the marginal.

Our Story

My husband is an Artist, now works in a mental hospital as an Art therapist. He previously worked with refugees, blind, teenagers with ADHD, autism, etc. His artistic practice is focused on bringing out the voices from the margin to the main stream (outsider art/Art Brut)

In one occasion I assisted him for a project on soft sculpture at a mental hospital in Kolkata. The patients were given a brief that they should make something they like or dislike. We gave them some tools and tried not to control them as to bring out the authentic expression from them.

We wanted the “Art Brut” to happen naturally.

The coordinator of NGO, we were working with was not satisfied with the outcome as it was not something pretty and symmetric. She was trying to impose her thoughts on the patients.

The patient of course only knows to obey whatever is told to them. They lost their voice, been marginalised or even silenced with medicine or other means.

The project was not progressing the way Peter (my husband) expected. There was also language barrier, so I had to intervene and have to persuade the NGO coordinator not to influence the patient as we want the authentic expression of the patients. It was not an easy job as we were outsider and they are so used to tell them what to do and not to.

Though finally we managed to make it the way Peter conceived the project.

There are stories which was kept silent, made a way in the world. We arranged an exhibition named“ I” Witness with them in Kolkata and later in fine arts department in Visva Bharati University.

I guess, when there is unequal power structure it is very difficult for people to stay neutral, and listen to the voice of the marginal. For me, the unequal power structure is always a matter of unease. My reactions were rather spontaneous, but after the workshop I reflect deeper on such inequalities and take conscious action.

Stories from Venice Biennale 2017

This was my fourth Venice Biennale 1 I was questioning myself whether this is an elitist practise?

Specially when one can witness, an obvious inequalities outside that elitist bubble.

I question again, does art really matters or the artist?

I shall discuss some visual stories from this years Venice Biennale with which my own inquiries resonates, namely the voice from the marginal. The role of art to heal us as individual and community.

Why am I re-telling the stories? First of all, all great stories are meant to be circulated, to move us, inspire us, eventually change us. The stories circulate from me to you, from you to us. The effects of storytelling can not be measured in quantitative manner but should be considered qualitative. The effect of it is visionary rather than logical (Gearty, M.2008)

When we read/listen or watch stories (video, cinema, documentary) we relate to it, we learn from it, it becomes part of us.

This year the theme of Venice Biennale was “Viva Arte Viva” curated by Christina Macel.

Ms. Macel says-

”Art is a place in which utopian models can be developed without efficiency oriented thinking”.

The current state of the world is shaken by terrorism, economic crisis, rise of right wing populism, the theme express a lot of hope. One can surely be intrigued by the positivity of the theme.

“Art bears witness to the most precious part of what makes us human. In the world full of conflict and shocks art's place at the top of the hierarchy, because it is ultimate space for reflection, individual expression, dreams and utopia, a catalyst for human connection that roots us both with nature and cosmos. It confirms the necessity and value of humanism.” (Macel,C 2017)

She further emphasises the role, the voice and the responsibility of the artist are more crucial than ever. Marcel Duchamp coined the term “Shaman artist” and Joseph Beuys then appropriated the figure. Today we are witnessing a new spiritual turn, a global interest in mindfulness, meditation, philosophical interest in Buddhism or indigenous practices.

Ms. Macel of course got her fair share of critic as why she is not confronting the problems directly but taking an utopian stance. I guess, as a women she probably believes in a overall holistic healing than direct confrontation. She goes back to find artists like the fabulous Anna Halprin and her Planetary Dance or David Medalla and his A Stitch in Time—artists and work that tries to heal and create communality. In the pavillion of Shamans the work of Arnesto Neto brings the shamanic wisdom. Two works in Venice Biennale resonates with my own inquiries both based on marginalized/subaltern people.

Republic of South Africa- Candice Breitz & Mohau Modisakeng explores the disruptive power of storytelling in relation to historical and contemporary waves of forced migration. Love story (2016) interrogates the conditions under which empathy is produced.

What is to be visible in everyday life , yet invisible at the level of cultural, political or

economic representation? 6 videos of refugees was recorded, they tell their stories about leaving their country and seeking asylum in other countries.

The same is then retold by Julienne Moore and Alec Baldwin. The videos revolve around what kind of stories are we willing to hear? What kind of stories moves us?

United State of America-Tomorrow is another day by Mark Bradford reveals how individual stories make history. It is also shaped by his concern for marginalized people. It is an account of Art's capacity to champion urgent and profound conversation and even action. In two different setting the first with the foster youth of California and the second with inmates of the jail in Venice.

In the first art piece, I remember, I shifted from the first room very fast , where the Hollywood actors were retelling the story. The artist wanted to show how often we are attracted to celebrities stories and not the real ones. As my concern is always on the real voice from the margin, my shift from one room to the other was rather spontaneous.

The works prove the Art's capacity to communicate with the marginal in a more effective way to bring out the silent stories from the margin without moulding it. These stories move us and make us reflective even holds the possibility for us to take action.

I was reflecting on my own silence, and silence of woman in general. When I stay silent, when I get into voice and how. As silence came periodically. As a child I was very shy, I transform into a talkative, opinionated one growing up in the nature in my boarding school in Santiniketan.

I became silent again after coming to Copenhagen. So much so that some days I don't have any conversation with an adult! May be I feel marginal here.

Silence, Voice, and Women

We all have some stories inside us which is best kept silent. Stories which is dark, bears unpleasant memories, stories we don't want others to listen.

But silence is not necessarily always dark or powerless.

So, what is silence? Silence, by analogy is complete absence of audible sound., the word silence can also refer to any absence of communication or hearing.

Silence can be positive or negative. Silence can be powerful or it conveys powerlessness.

Much of our communication focuses on verbal communication. However, “silence” also plays an important role. Silence has a certain energy to it like no other energy source. The state of silence is a way of reaching another part of our mind, it has the power to make us more reflective. In most of the religion, there are examples of people practising silence for transformative spiritual growth. Observance of silence is also a discipline, which increases self-control and willpower often practised in yoga, meditation, mindfulness, qi-gong etc.

However, there are major and significant differences in the meanings of the words silence, silenc(es), and silencing.

Silence concerns non-linear brain processes;

Silences concern sequential linguistics and interactions;

Silencing concerns restricting the speech and expressions of our selves and/or others. (Bruneau,T 2009)

In what context one is silenced or silencing other?

Muted group theory is all about silencing, about how certain groups, especially women and minorities, are politically and repressively kept out of public view by restricting their voices or participation. It has important implications in the study of fair access to public media. There are groups that are shunned for one reason or another—gender, inequality, poverty, racism, ethnicity—by other groups everywhere in the world.(Bruneau,T 2009)

In Gayatri Spivak's work, very often the subaltern is, gendered female because in her opinion women the world over are still structurally subordinated to men.

We often forget to question the existing norms, silently accept the patriarchal hegemony.

I am born and brought up in a country where being born as a women is already a sin. Numerous girl child are being killed before seeing the daylight. Even if one's family embraces the girl child, one had to prepare self for a biased society that is itching to blame a woman for everything.

For a long time I told myself I am not a feminist but a humanist. I was definitely in a denial.

In a country where there is news of rape or abuse everyday, one can not stay silent, but raise voice.

Rebecca solnit mentioned- “If our voices are essential aspects of our humanity, to be rendered voiceless is to be dehumanised or excluded from one’s humanity. And the history of silence is central to women’s history. The history of women’s rights and lack of rights as a history of silence and breaking silence”.(Solnit, R. 2017)

In reality there is nothing called”voiceless” It is either selective hearing or forced silence.

I wonder in a land where mother goddess is worshipped by generation, why woman still face oppression, violence, rape? Where is this double standard coming from?

“Shakti” literally means power is always manifested through female goddess, be it Kali , Durga or other numerous goddess.

In a western culture though a powerful woman is usually referred as witch. In Europe there is a systematic elimination of knowledgeable women healer as witches.

A powerful work from the Ireland in Venice Biennale I want to mention here-

Ireland at Venice- Tremble tremble presented by Dublin based Jesse Jones. It is inspired by the 1970's Italian women movement, where they chanted

“Tremate, tremate le streghe sono tornate!(Tremble , tremble the witches have returned.)

The work emerges from a rising social movement in Ireland which calls for a transformation of the historic relationship between the church and the state. Jesse Jones returns to the witch as a feminist archetype and disrupter who has potential to transform reality, one in which the multitudes are brought together in a symbolic gigantic body, to proclaim a new law that of In Utera Gigantae.

Goddess, Witch or super women, whatever we may call the strong, wise women, holds a power often silently, that can change the existing paradigm. She is silent like the stillness before the Storm. The dormant volcano in her, once erupted wash away all the evil, more like the destruction of the divine mother Kali. In a westerner's eye 'Kali' appears as more of a devil than divine. In her black naked avatar, skulls dangling around, 'She' is the creator, protector and destroyer of the whole universe. Many western feminist scholars have adopted Kali as a mascot of female empowerment, or have politicised her as a symbol of the supposed former matriarchal golden age that came before our present state of patriarchal control and decline.

Bookchin reminds us “in a civilisation that devalues the nature , she is the image of nature...woman haunts this male ‘civilisation’ with a power that is more than archaic or atavistic... every male oriented society thus persistently exorcise her ancient nature” (Bookchin, 1991)

Feminist and women’s movements have for the most part opted for the strategy of non-violence, including methods such as consciousness-raising, protest marches, litigation, civil disobedience and the creation of activist media. However there are evidence of armed resistance as well.

Feminist writers argue that women in industrial societies carry the muted voice of participative consciousness within patriarchal culture and are aware of the violence done to human and planetary relationships by loss of participation, hierarchy, and alienation. (John Heron 1996 pg.15)

From the point of view of the Ecofeminist , the loss of women's wisdom, silencing them through marginalisation has a devastating social and ecological impact. Women's approach to making knowledge is committed to principal of participation, embodiment, connectedness and wholism.

Vandana Shiva’s vision for a combined movement to end oppression of both women and nature is part of the answer to how we can achieve sustainability on this planet and find our place as a species. We must acknowledge that we are part of the larger web of life that provides for our survival, and therefore it is imperative that we protect that fragile web of life, not as dominators—men over women and humans over nature—but as partners with every other life form on the planet.( Brinker, R. 2009)

Thesaurus: 1. The Venice Biennale is a bi annual event which host a no of exhbition by artist all over the world for 6 months all over Venice.


Brinker, R. (2009). Conference on earth democracy: Women, justice, and ecology Dr. Vandana Shiva and Feminist Theory.

Bruneau, T. (2009). Silence, silences, and silencing . In Stephen W. Littlejohn & Karen A. Fos (Ed.), Encyclopedia of communication theory (pp. 881-886) SAGE Publications, Inc.

Coleman, G. (2016). Paradigm, gender and sustainability

Contemporary environmental politics: From margins to mainstream(July 27, 2006). In Stephens P., Barry J. and Dobson A. (Eds.), (1 edition ed.) Routledge;.

Frenzel, S. (2017). Monopol special issue:Venice biennale interview with christina macel .(Monopol special issue)

Gearty, M. (2015). Beyond you and me: Stories for collective action and learning? perspectives from an action research project.

Heron, J. (1996). Co-operative inquiry: Research into the human condition SAGE Publications Ltd.

Hooks, B. (1991). Choosing the margin as a space of radical openness . In Yearning: Race, Gender, and Cultural Politics, , 145-153.

Macel, C. (2017). introduction to biennale arte 2017: Viva arte viva, short guide (venice, italy: Marsilio editori, ), 39. 2. macel, biennale arte 2017: Viva arte viva, 38. 3. ibid. (Viva Arte Viva, 38. 3. Ibid.)

Reason, P. Chapter two participation in the evolution of consciousness .www.peterreason.eu/Participationinhumaninquiry/CHAPTER2.htm

Solnit, R. (Wednesday 8 March 2017). Silence and powerlessness go hand in hand – women’s voices must be heard . The Guardian,

Spivak, G. (2005). Can the subaltern speak?,

Spivak,G Scattered Speculation on the Subaltern and the popular Postcolonial Studies: An Anthology, Edited by Pramod K. Nayar

Zerubavel, E. (2007). The elephant in the room: Silence and denial in everyday life Oxford University Press.

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