“There is just so much hurt, disappointment and oppression one can take. The bubble of life grows larger. The line between reason and madness grows thinner.” (Rosa Parks Papers: Writings, Notes and Statements, 1956-1958).
Taking direct inspiration from the above Rosa Parks quote, “The Paglees: Between Reason and Madness” is a stunning debut exhibition at the South Asia Institute from The Paglees, a feminist collective of artists of South Asian origin from around the United States. The exhibition includes works across a vast multitude of mediums by artists Fawzia Khan, Indrani Nayar-Gall, Monica Jahan Bose, Nirmal Raja, Pallavi Sharma, Renluka Maharaj and Shelly Bahl.
“Paglee” is the feminine form of the word meaning crazy person in several South Asian languages, and the exhibition investigates and reframes this labeling of nonconformist women who step outside imposed gender roles, as well as the marginalization that immigrant women of color experience at the hands of patriarchy, religion, capitalism, climate change and white supremacy (including the dangerous silencing of the voices of women of color with white feminism).
Often when viewing a group exhibition, I find myself gravitating toward a few standout works, as is the natural tendency of a viewer with subjective tastes and biases. With “The Paglees: Between Reason and Madness” I found myself doing the opposite—I became fully engrossed with every work I viewed. It was impossible to favor only a few as each one played an equally important role in creating a vastly powerful and important narrative.
Situated directly to the left of the entrance, Fawzia Khan’s “Becoming Visible” immediately sets a compelling and contemplative tone. Several highly detailed embroideries of women’s eyes on dish towels, a reference to traditional gender roles, hang eye-level in a row. Accompanying the embroideries is a video featuring excerpts from interviews the artist conducted with twelve Minnesotan women of diverse backgrounds about their lives, highlighting the different ways in which women’s work often goes uncompensated and unacknowledged in families and society at large. While the work features voices from women of different backgrounds, the centering of South Asian women’s voices is not lost within the larger context of the exhibition. Directly next to the work hangs Monica Jahan Bose’s installation “Rising,” featuring large brightly colored handwoven-cotton saris. Jahan Bose, a Bangladeshi-American artist, uses the sari as a vehicle for storytelling and representing women’s bodies and lives while highlighting sustainability. “Rising,” a reference to rising sea levels, brings to the forefront a conversation about climate change and the disproportionate impact it has on women, including food insecurity that Bangladeshi women experience as a result of climate change’s impact on Bangladesh’s agriculture.
Nirmal Raja’s striking sculptural work “Entangled” speaks to the intricacy and vibrancy of immigrant narratives, particularly those of immigrant women, and the ways in which various cultural roles get changed, edited or abandoned. The work is made from collected silk saris from Indian-American women and is accompanied by audio from a conversation between these women. Hanging directly behind the sculpture are several large archival photographs of Raja’s performance “The Weight of Our Past.” Furthering “Entangled”’s narrative, the photographs, which show Raja struggling to carry and pull the heavy work across different natural landscapes, represent the complex and “tangled” burden of cultural responsibility immigrants face as they pass on memories and heritage of a place that was left behind.
It is easy to get swept away by how visually compelling and beautiful the show is. Bright colors and numerous contrasting textures brilliantly fill the large open space, but the visuals take the second stage to the significant meanings behind the works. It was almost an impossible task to summarize such an impactful exhibition within the fairly limited scope of a review, but I can confidently say that “The Paglees: Between Reason and Madness” is a necessary viewing.
“The Paglees: Between Reason and Madness” at South Asia Institute, 1925 South Michigan, through April 27.