Priya steps to the stage, pink sari wrapped around their waist and tossed over their shoulder. They dance fluidly to the background music while the photographer’s camera flashes just out of frame of this low-quality video. Priya’s dance follows the unspoken order of seduction: turn, toss, wiggle. Flip, gaze, be coy. Be confident. Be fragile. Priya exudes a grace and elegance in their movements that isn’t expressed in the photographs of the hijras on the wall of Playing Gender, Asma Kazmi’s show in the front room of Plug Projects (until February 27th.) Kazmi spent time with three hijras in New Delhi “learning the conventions of gender parody,” (problematic statements such as this pepper the artist’s description and had me cringing more than once,) in order to interact with hijra culture. Hijras are not simply performers, but part of what is commonly known as the Third Gender in India. Like other cultures, individuals with non-binary identities in India are often part of the fringes of society—relegated to dangerous or unsustainable work.
Of the four individuals in the show’s film, Asma’s performance is the least sophisticated. She smiles the entire time and looks unsure about what to do with her hands. Her hips barely move, leaving her vulnerable to direction and critique from the other hijras. There is a touching moment in the film when Asma’s shoot is interrupted by Radha, who fusses over Asma’s gown and posture like a correcting mother. Radha sashays out of frame, revealing Asma’s new pose that is certainly more genteel than it previously was. We are reminded of the gap between her and the hijras, and, with this reminder, begin to question how much Playing Gender falls into the spectrum of appropriation. Questions add up when you realize the video is the only place to find the names of the hijras in the entire show.
Kazmi chose this direction to embody “the artifice of the hijras,” but our perception of what is artificial differs from hers. In the photos, the hijras are shopped against a white backdrop instead of the red curtain they dance against in the film. I understand the urge to cut out backdrops to emphasize the subject, but the stark white behind the dancers under-values the anthropological aspects of the project. The photos on the wall were not carved by the agency of the hijras, leading me to wonder how influential their roles were in the art and to what extent they were being asked to conform to the vision Kazmi had for the project. The video feels weighted with a history the photographs try to erase. Kazmi has eliminated their background.
One can forgive PC slip-ups in the show’s text because this video touches a place in us where words would probably fail. Kazmi is on the right track with her references to Judith Butler, one of the leaders in gender and sexuality discussions, but deeper reading of Butler’s text is missing from Playing Gender. Butler says gender is not something we are born with, but something we perform daily because society becomes confused when the pieces below our waist don’t connect with the rest of us. It’s a relevant statement, but Kazmi latched onto the performing aspects of the hijras without deepening our understanding of their realities through the power of art. It seems Kazmi is having a difficult time merging her role as an artist with her experiences in the hijra community, but who’s to blame her? Her Playing Gender video encapsulates a small group of people who are as real as it gets.
Playing Gender Asma Kazmi
1613 Genessee Street, KCMO 64102
Watch part of the video: http://asmakazmi.com/artwork/1011740-Playing-Gender.html