by Oyin Akande
Tate Britain hosted its final Late of the year 2016 on Friday with an evening at Millbank aimed at exploring family and belonging through an evening of art, music, and conversation.
The evening brought a peculiar object of the past into discussion with more contemporary issues and culture. Inspired by themes of family and identity in the infamous 17th-century painting, ‘The Cholmondeley Ladies’– a popular favourite at the Tate Britain- the night was aimed at creating a conversation around contemporary communities, family, and heritage. The translatability of the image is remarkable. This type of portraiture was very popular in the Elizabethan and early Stuart periods but the linearity and the non-naturalism of the image are very familiar tropes to the contemporary eye.
The painting of the Cholmondeley Ladies is shrouded in an attractive mystery. The artist is unknown and, indeed, the identities of the figures are ambiguous. The image is of ‘Two Ladies of the Cholmondeley Family, Who were born the same day, Married the same day, And brought to Bed [gave birth] the same day’, as the inscription states, yet there is nothing in the genealogical tables either to support or refute the assumption that the subjects were twins or even sisters, which is the general assumption. They might only have married into the Cholmondeley family and the fact that they shared the same birthday could be explained as pure coincidence. Nevertheless, they share a strong resemblance.
A superficial glance will inform you that the figures are identical but the painting plays games and you are continuously finding idiosyncrasies with increased familiarity with the work.
Nadine Ijewere’s work offers such an interesting dialogue with the 17th-century oil painting. The Jamaican-Nigerian photographer struggled with her own mixed identity and the disconnection she felt from her heritage growing up in London. She developed an interest in people and culture and used her photographs to explore it. “I’m interested in how other people identify and celebrate who they are and where they’re from,” she explains.
Ijewere started Same//Difference, a personal project, to explore family and heritage through physical traits of siblings. Her project mainly documents non-Caucasian women as she hopes to give a platform to under-represented ethnicities and identities. She is interested in sisters stating that ‘being a sister and having sisters is special. Sisters share strong bonds. And that bond stretches further too, between women, uniting them and helping them recognize the beauty within one another’, in an interview with i-D magazine earlier this year.
I am a particular fan of the way she uses closeness and intimacy in the photographs. Her subjects are in contact with each other in away, perhaps only siblings can be. Faces are typically touching, sisters are in a comfortable embrace- one sibling might subtly mirror the other . The obvious resemblances of the siblings are only highlighted by the beauty of their differences. Next to on another, these sisters exhibit and celebrate their collective heritage. But as the eye moves across the image, almost disconcertedly, you discover their individualisms. And it is mystifying.
Elements of the Same//Difference project has also recently been used in the Gap #doyou Fall 2016 campaign.
Late at the Tate:Generation also featured a photography exhibition documenting black diasporic communities in London in the 60s and 70s, ‘Stan Firm Inna Inglan: Black Diaspora in London, 1960-1970’, featured eight photographers: Raphael Albert, Bandele ’Tex’ Ajetunmobi, James Barnor, Colin Jones, Neil Kenlock, Dennis Morris, Syd Shelton and Al Vandenberg, whose photographs were as varied as their backgrounds and experiences of London. Many were vibrant, such as the nightlife culture and the interracial couples that fascinated Ajetunmobi after he stowed away to London from Nigeria, and the large community living in an Islington council housing project that features in former dancer of the English Royal Ballet Colin Jones’ The Black House 1973-76. But they could also be dark, such as the work of Dennis Morris- the photographer famous for his images of Bob Marley– whose London certainly appears more bleak and dangerous. The exhibition is a documentation of community through the literal lens of people within these communities. It is interesting to think how these fit next to the prevailing narratives that have been handed down to us about black communities of this time. The exhibition marks a moment where control over our representation was returned to the black man (literally ‘men’, would have been great to have some female names).
by Tahmina Begum
The young, bright and awesome talent Tahmina Begum talks to us about cultural duality and being caught between preconceived identities. Tahmina is a writer and the CEO and Editor-in-Chief of XXY Magazine, an agender culture, fashion and art magazine and social platform for young emerging creatives, focused on innovation and collaboration.
The other day, I was sat down for “the chat”. Not the sex chat, as I’m hoping by the simple notion of being twenty-one, that my mother and I do not need to relive the conversation that never happened, but the one where I was reminded of where I was “from”.
Luckily, as I am literate in Bengali, can nail at least one dish (prawn and spinach curry, adore wearing Sari’s simply due to my queen like being and because my skin is brown, it’s rather hard to forget my parents immigrated to the UK in the 70s, as many others did, “to make your life better”. Hence thinking I was confident in knowing about the little country next to India.
But ‘the chat’ wasn’t about Bangladesh’s Liberation War against West Pakistan or local gossip about who should not be marrying who. The entire conversation was sparked by her having heard about my being ‘seen’ falling out of a nightclub, in the arms of men.
Let’s put aside the fact that this was a great exaggeration and I was actually escorting an emotional female friend to her boyfriend’s car to see her get home safely. What did my mother mean when she remarked: “But, we, as Bengali women, do not behave like this”?
So Bengali women do not party? Bengali women do not have friends with penises? Not according to our weddings or the Bollywood films some of us grew up on. Did she mean that there are different limits on the freedom and identity of different women? And one culture could prescribe virginal sobriety, the other the perception of impropriety and promiscuity? And this was my mother who had been raised mostly in Britain, adores John Lewis and who herself comes from an ethnically diverse family.
Or was it a mother and daughter realisation of how different their needle faces when pinning down the extent of freedom they think a Bengali woman of English nationality should have.
Her statement also revealed her identification of me as Bangladeshi. You may think these are freely interchangeable but the ‘second generation’ identity is marked by a constant questioning of where your origins ‘truly’ are. My mother made it clear that she believed I had over-stepped the mark- one she had constructed- of how British I was allowed to be.
Though it would be wrong to state the Western world has solved all the problems concerning feminism and equality for everyone, for many, there is this notion that my ideals concerning progression are from living in the UK , and that valuing old and supposedly basic traditions such as God and one’s family originates from a third world country. This odd disparity works fine with one-half of the developing world- until you tip the scales and become “too Western”- or in more basic terms, being surrounded by more testicles than your Mother’s liking. I was not balancing the two with the desired culturally satisfactory proficiency.
But this was not just a result of the“Original Brown Sugar’s” (as I like to call my mother sometimes) discomfort. I’m sure many second generation British Southern Asian’s ears would ring when hearing “but what will people say?” Usually followed by a reminder to not “lose” your culture.
But losing your culture isn’t like forgetting your P.E kit on sports day or misplacing your keys at the bottom of your bag. It doesn’t mean you have to understand the germination of curry seeds or be able to speak fluently about the branches of your motherland. Culture is constantly changing, increasingly elusive and many are scared we will misplace it.
Was this the right way to balance cultural diversity? To superficially engage with Britain but assuredly ‘return to my own people’? And why do we push this dichotomy so much more on women than we do on men? They are not warned in the same way to “keep hold of your roots”. Being understood as batons of culture, they do not receive the same pressures on who to marry. Telling a young woman who has been the lovechild of different lifestyles, that despite who she believes she is, the true strength of her identity will lie in her choice of partner is the most deconstructive and corrosive lesson to pass on.
As if you have to stick to one path when there are so many opportunities. As if you can qualify your heritage when you live in such fluidity. As if you have to dumb yourself down so you easier for others to swallow.
It is the idea that you must simplify yourself enough to be a box on a form to tick; that I have to justify being female, being Muslim, being feminist; the fact that when I’m in the UK, I’m Asian but in Bangladesh, I’m British.
The struggle is felt by all fluid people who have to contend with formularised identity. We expect people of multiple heritage or complex identities of any kind to fulfil arbitrary ideas of makes humans “whole”.
I happen to love eating spice, have a maximalist attitude to gold jewellery and enjoy telling people that I’m originally a Bengal tiger. But I am also offended when someone calls me “exotic” or thinks it’s a compliment to tell me “I don’t seem Muslim“. No one to date has managed to successfully characterise 1.65 million people and you will not be the first. No one should ever be made to feel they should adhere to preconceived ideas of identity. We need to learn to stop judging people against rigid presumptions- we live in the most globalised society to date.
If I walk down the street and I appear “more Bengali” sometimes or if I talk in an accent which does not “give me away”, I am simply being all the amalgamations of who I am. Just do you, boo.
The featured image is courtesy of Maria Qamar.
When we first started ThandieKay, we were very aware of using the concept of beauty to explore a far wider canvas than our faces. That is why one of our very first posts on this platform was on Pakistani filmmaker, activist, and double Oscar-winner Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy. Amidst our front page with lovely interviews and ‘tips on beauty’, was a post on Sharmeen’s powerful documentary ‘Saving Face’ which focused on the horrendous acid attacks on women in Pakistan for which Sharmeen earned her first Academy Award. It spoke to many themes that we are passionate about; education for women, a supportive community free of ‘shame’, aid for the marginalised voices and the acknowledgment of the damage that toxic masculinity can manifest. A severely scarred face wrecks a woman’s identity in more ways than one: by seeking to ‘destroy’ a young woman’s beauty, you seek to destroy her very soul while either killing her in the process, or rendering her obsolete while still alive. And for what?
Sadly, grotesque acts of violence against women, for simply asserting themselves, are a very real, ever-present threat in many parts of the world.
A few years on Sharmeen has added another Academy award for her documentary ‘A Girl in the River: The Price of Forgiveness‘ to her already long list of accolades and recognitions- which now include six Emmy wins, two Academy awards, a SAARC film award and a Hilal-e-Imtiaz, Pakistan’s second highest civil honour. A Girl in the River follows the story of Saba Qaiser, a young Pakistani woman, who survived after being attacked, shot in the head and left in a river to die by her father and uncle- an ‘act of honour killing’. Public pressure eventually persuaded Saba to forgive her attackers, allowing them, by law, to escape prosecution for the attack. The film’s Oscar nomination brought public attention to the human rights issue of honour killings in Pakistan and the injustice of the ‘forgiveness’ law. Honour killings are a fearful tradition and the laws like this that permit it remove the sense of its criminality and actually embolden the perpetrators within their communities. Saba’s story is unique- the victims do not usually survive- we do not usually get to hear their story. Even in the documentary, Saba’s father believes that his actions will serve as a warning to his other daughters. With the film, Sharmeen asserts that ‘it has nothing to do with honour; it’s premeditated, cold-blooded murder’, as she told The Guardian in February this year.
While filming in the mountains of Pakistan, Sharmeen was so gracious as to take the time to answer Thandie’s questions on the film, its role in bringing about social reform and the future of women’s rights in Pakistan:
Women in Pakistan have a new perspective on their rights thanks to the media and the penetration of the cell phone across the country. Yet, these women are faced with a number of existential threats, and violence against them is continuing to rise. Perhaps one of the reasons behind this is that more and more women are speaking out and asking for their rights.
Pakistan has countless laws that protect the rights of women, and as a step towards further educating and protecting them, I am currently working on a series of short informative videos. This series will give Pakistani women knowledge of their rights accorded to them by the current constitution – whether it has to do with rape, sexual harassment, divorce, inheritance, etc. I hope that, through these videos, women are able to acquire accurate information and clarity about the law – and what options they have should they find themselves in a vulnerable or compromising situation.
Equipping a woman with even the most basic of education, in even the most rural of locations, can change her life. Education can empower women to become self-entrepreneurs, and with the advent of Facebook and social media, women are now able to start their own businesses and sell their products online both nationally and internationally. With such start-ups, women are now bringing in more and more income into the household, making them not only financially independent but also important contributors within their family. By becoming earning members, women are given a stronger voice in the household.
Education is key to ensuring that women have the resources and access to be their own role models and their own support systems. They say that when you educate a girl, you educate the whole family – nothing is truer than this.
There have been advocates who have been working on the issue of honour killing in Pakistan for years, and I feel the film has helped bring new attention to the issue. Last year, Senator Sughra Imam introduced the Anti-Honor Killings Laws (Criminal Laws Amendment) Bill 2014, which aims to make the crime non-compoundable so that a convicted person cannot escape culpability by being ‘forgiven’ by the victim. The bill passed through Senate in March 2015 but lapsed in Parliament later that year.
The issue of honor killings was again brought to the forefront after ‘A Girl in the River: The Price of Forgiveness’ was nominated for an Academy Award. Now, with the world watching, the film elevated the issue of honor killings to the national sphere. I was then invited by the Pakistani Prime Minister to screen the film at the PM House, where he pledged to end this heinous crime. The Anti-Honor Killing Bill was passed in Parliament in October this year.
I believe the legislation to ensure the protection of women does exist in Pakistan, but our problem is with implementation. I think there has been an awakening in the justice system as well as the public with regards to women’s rights. The legal
developments are a positive sign and the legislation to ensure the protection of women does exist in Pakistan. Our problem is with implementation. The prevalence of such attacks stems partly from structural inequalities that make it difficult for women to access the judicial system. Furthermore, our police force is not fully equipped or trained to deal with issues such as honor killings – and there is a mindset that still believes such issues are ‘family matters’.
I fear that a healthy and necessary conversation about gender will get swallowed by what is often posed as ‘more important and more pressing’ matters. Conversations in most countries, whether they are occurring in the drawing room or in the parliament,
are almost exclusively about the political turmoil in the country. We are a generation that is currently witnessing a number of civil insurgencies, in addition to dealing with rising levels of bigotry and intolerance. The very fact that women are currently unable to make their own policy decisions in many countries is an alarming reality and pushes us further away from being the owners of our own stories and fighters for our own rights.
It baffles me that we live in 2016 and women still don’t enjoy the same social, political and economic rights that men to around the world have. Whether is it in U.S. where women are battling to gain control over their own body through planned parenthood and abortions, or the Philippines where women don’t have the right to divorce, or Iraq and Syria where women are being kept as slaves in times of war. Whether it’s in the home or the court, a woman’s voice doesn’t seem to have the same strength and reach as a man’s voice.
I believe that Pakistan is moving towards a more progressive attitude about women’s rights. We are slowly coming together as a society to reject acts of inequality and gender-based violence. It was refreshing to observe that even though such a great tragedy had befallen women like Saba and Qandeel Baloch at the hands of the men in their communities, there were those who rallied to their side, including police officers, lawyers and in Qandeel’s case, her father.
Pakistan recently passed the Anti-Honor Killings Bill and the Women’s Protection Act. This is a monumental step in sending out a strong message that the Pakistani government will not stand for the mistreatment of its women – it is high time that women’s rights are prioritized and protected.
Follow Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy on Twitter
By Oyin Akande
We are celebrating and you should be too. On Friday 21st, celebrated Nigerian writer and feminist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie was announced as the commercial face of the new Boots No.7 campaign.
Chimamanda, who already has several critically acclaimed novels under her belt, TED talks viewed by millions and millions and a phenomenal cult following that includes Beyoncé, Zadie Smith, Dior and something like the entire population of Sweden, has just taken on the redefinition of the beauty industry.
What is really great is what this means for you. As the face of a huge beauty campaign, Chimamanda makes accessible the rosy and impossible fantasy of the beauty industry:
“I think much of beauty advertising relies on a false premise – that women need to be treated in an infantile way, given a ‘fantasy’ to aspire to… Real women are already inspired by other real women, so perhaps beauty advertising needs to get on board”, Chimamanda told Vogue in the November 2016 issue which is downloadable here. She challenges the ill-conceived unattainability of women represented in beauty campaigns, which leave the majority of women unrepresented and unable to relate. She has quite literally opened up the possibility that you- someone real- could be the next face of beauty.
What we really love though is that she has opened up a very public dialogue with feminism and make-up, two things long believed to be at odds. Where make-up has wrongly been understood to be a tool to hide yourself, Chimamanda is reclaiming it as a tool of precise autonomy over who you are and who you present to the world. Days before the campaign was announced, Chimamanda released an amazing feminist manifesto ‘Dear Ijeawele’, which you can view via her Facebook page. The campaign merges the voice of contemporary feminism with the face of a real woman and we love it.
Six years old, at my mother’s wonderfully cluttered dressing table in Nsukka, trying on her very sticky lip gloss.
I am in a good mood; I am fit and exercising regularly; I am wearing stable high heels; I have managed to do a flawless ‘cat-eye.’
She moisturized her entire body very diligently. Ashy skin was unacceptable. I remember watching her after her bath, how she would reach across her shoulder, hand coated in cream, to get as much of her back as she could. She liked perfumes. There were heady scents in her bedroom. I remember the green POISON, the fawn CHLOE. She wore perfume to sleep. There was nail polish, powder compacts, eye pencils. She always wore tasteful makeup. My mother is one of the most beautiful people I know, and I thought so even as a child.
It’s become an absolute delight. I was once interested only in the most minimal makeup – colorless mascara, that sort of thing – but became more interested in make-up when I started using it to try and look a little older. I was so tired of being told I looked like a child. Now, I like to try new things, and I like the temporary transformation that make-up can bring.
Yes. “Nekene nne unu,” he would say – “look at your mother!’ – when my mother was all dressed for church on Sunday mornings, sequinned george wrapper on her waist, a sparkly blouse, a beautifully-structured gele on her head. She knew he thought she was beautiful, you could tell.
I once decided I wanted a funky afro. So I colored my hair in my bathroom, with three different color kits because the first two didn’t quite show. The result was orange hair. But what brought despair was how dry and brittle my hair became.
A good facial moisturiser.
In a narrow train toilet, although that was less crazy and more uncomfortable.
A greater range of colors (and undertones) in foundations and tinted moisturisers. A greater awareness that dark-skinned women have enormous buying power and are as much interested in beauty as anyone else.
Some years ago in my hometown. It was very hot, I’d been outside for a while, and suddenly felt a gooey heaviness around my eyes.
Buy Boots’ No.7 products here.