The conversations that occur on the journey
By Nelly Tan
It will be disingenuous to say that this show has been a year in the making. This show is filled with years of conversations between the women we are surrounded by and us. Our encounters with every other women guides and gives us the words we need to make our voices heard. This show is not an answer that we have to the questions that have emerged. It is only a marker on this continuous journey of interacting with other women. We are often told that we can find empowerment in the collective, but my search for both empowerment and collectivity is one that has been intimidating and difficult. The structures of patriarchy have made my initial sojourn into womanhood toxic. Being a woman meant being forced into competition with other women. I remember countless incidents where girls bring each other down in order to look good. This has been ingrained in me: there are many spaces for men at the top, but only one for women. To reach that glorified top, I would have to conform and contort into an idealised vision of what it meant to be a female, a woman.
I do not recall the exact moment I realised that I needed to undo this, that I can undo this. Perhaps it was when I was working with a group of women in another commercial art space, where we held conversations of how useless men are when they complained about how heavy our materials were, after having moved these materials on our own daily. Their amusement while advising me to “test drive the machine first before you decide to marry him”.
It was funny then, when I met Dipali and her pleasure-seeking ways. “Marriage,” she warned me once, “does not solve anything. You sometimes end up fighting against yourself more.” She has travelled a long way – leaving behind a successful career in the world’s biggest advertising firms for her daughter’s sake, following her husband through Africa, Singapore, and Malaysia, to undertaking another Bachelor’s (where our paths intersected). I see her past journey as one that could have been mine. I see the possibilities of her future, as much as it is uncertain, opening up possibilities for her daughter and the daughters who will come after. I see my own possibilities. “She will make her own fate,” Dipali said, when she told us of her daughter’s birth and how a male fortune-teller tried to hold it off because “it would be good if your daughter was born on the same day as the Lord Krishna”.
However, fate-making can be quiet. It need not be made through explosive advancements. Surrounded by instructional voices and noises, Fazleen stands still. “First it was a wedding, now they ask me about kids,” she laughed wryly, “But I’ve only just started!” Like water held in a kendi, her stillness allows dust to settle, crystallising a quiet confidence in herself and her path. Still, she greets the wisdom and experiences of those who came before her with open arms. Unearthing forgotten and erased histories, she sheds new light on age-old practices, and brings them forward. She roots herself in her heritage. Gracefully, she navigates dissenting voices of the community, through the community, and embraces their practices. Our histories enrich us; they ground and give us guidance when the chaos of the world tries to shake us off the roads we have chosen for ourselves.
There are moments where these histories become a baggage to bear instead. When our understanding of our heritage is superficial at best, our demand and insistence to take pride in that heritage risks detracting us from the possibility of a fulfilling process. Yet, to undo the conditionings that we have internalised may take far too much time, when the world continues to spin madly on.
“Where is home, Nells?” Anna always laughs at me, for no one knows with a sharper clarity than she does of rootlessness. Home for her family has never been Singapore, where she was born and raised. Home has always been a small village back in China. Weighed by practices brought from her parents’ village, the confusion and loss of not belonging occurs when these practices juts out sharply in a Singapore that is fast-paced. Yet Anna, so unshakable, confronts this mad expectation of compartmentalising herself by ripping up the very same expectations and norms. She re-arranges them as she pleases, acting with a cold rationality that only she knows. It is a subversive move: using the very same structures imposed on her against themselves, in a logic that only makes sense to us. New roads open, beyond what is known, and we need only to answer to ourselves – who we would like to be and where we want to belong.
In the navigation of unchartered waters, we have no wisdom of the past to guide us. I have Maisarah’s words echoing in my head: “It is bad enough that I am female, but I am also Malay Muslim. I keep fighting against these structures, when will it be enough?” These doubts and insecurities are all too familiar to me, having undergone many moments of such uncertainty. Still, we both try. Through the attempts to breaking out of systems, she dismantles what is feminine and masculine. Maisarah reaches for more than the world for herself; at the time of this writing, she has dropped off her artworks with me, graduated from university, and got married in a span of two days, kept up with both her teaching job and her fashion line, Ozel. I desperately want to tell her that it is more than enough, but I know that our journey still has a long way to go. Perhaps, someday, we can be more certain of our own value independent of what others determine it to be. Surely, then, we will stop drowning out our own voices.
As I said, this is not a conclusion of a journey, neither is it an arrival to a definite answer. This is a marker for all of us in the show, to celebrate our achievements on the journey we have taken, and to rest before continuing. We fight battles on multiple fronts – against the structures we have been placed into, undoing and healing from the traumas we have received, re-learning and re-orientating ourselves for the journey forward. There is empowerment in the collective; as we chart the roads opened up by the women that have come before us, may we also illuminate the possibilities for those who will come after us.