Dolls’ Eye View

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Twelve artists toy with gender constructs, social compliance, colonial history and the innocence of childhood in this show on dolls

In the deep, dark recesses of my mother’s cupboard lies Twinkle—a life-size toddler doll gifted to my elder sister when she was nine. Twinkle wears one of my baby dresses, has mangy dirty-yellow hair, faded blue eyes and a perfectly round pea-size hole in her forehead (the result of an unfortunate accident involving an evil cousin). Twinkle has spent the past 20 years in a twilight zone—between being discarded and being loved. We all cherish her for the many happy play hours and memories, for the warmth of nostalgia, yet she’s of no use to anyone anymore. You can bet your life, though, she’ll never be given away.

The lasting bonds that children, especially girls, form with dolls is just one of the aspects that Bangalore-based curator Marta Jakimowicz explores in the show Dolls at Gallery Sumukha. There is a whole gamut of other themes to wrestle with—the representation of women in the media (think hour-glass Barbie), gender constructs (women as mothers, wives, nurturers), or weighty questions of colonial history (White, blonde-and-blue-eyed toys sold in Indian markets). The show throws up an interesting plurality of perspectives through both traditional and mixed media, created by a dozen contemporary artists.

A good entry point is Surekha and Aisha Abraham’s photographs, which capture girls holding or cuddling their dolls. These seemingly innocent images are transformed on closer inspection into repositories of gender issues—a woman’s role as defined by society is reinforced with a touch of irony. Surekha’s video, I am a kid, thank you, sharply, playfully captures the process of this social moulding. It shows a middle-school fancy dress event where children present themselves on stage—boys are mainly dressed as superheroes while girls are angels, fairies, or ladies of high fashion. Abraham’s The Doll is a cropped, archival image that centres on an Indian girl in Western dress holding a White doll. The other figures remain marginalised, but enough is on display—her brother’s shorts, her mother’s sari and her father’s suit—to conjure powerful symbols of social structure, patriarchy and colonial history. The family portrait, though, graceful and poised, reeks of artificiality, further heightened by its unreal bluish-green and sepia tones.

The idea of falseness is pushed to the extreme in Pushpamala N’s The Qajar Women series of studio photographs. As is characteristic of her work, she presents herself ‘dolled’ up in several poses wearing a shimmering white headscarf and rich, floral-patterned outfit, which echoes the painted backdrop—an elaborate archway entwined with creepers and silk curtains. On a note more mocking than humorous is her video Indian Lady, which captures her in a traditional red silk sari, coyly flouncing around and dancing before a glaringly fake cityscape. The social mores she has to live by, the artist suggests, are as synthetic as the flowers in her hair.

Princess Pea, an artist from Punjab known for her tongue-in-cheek work protesting against commercialisation and commodification of the self, is even more scathing in her Subscription for a year: Vague series, which shows her posing for the cover of a magazine with her characteristic fantastically over-sized pea-shaped head. The tag lines around her are funny and despairing: ‘Has India lost her curves?’; ‘Happy Meals: Is the plastic toy more nutritious than the meal?’; ‘The Vague Wedding Guide.’ In her ongoing ‘Arranged Marriage’ project, Bangalore-based Archana Hande also explores how people’s choices—whether a husband/wife or a dress—are dictated by compliance with social conventions. Her room-size installation is set up as a shop, and lit appropriately in a dim red light. Here, viewers can browse the artist’s ‘arranged marriage’ website, which allows them to piece together (from bum size to skin tone) an ideal life partner.

Both Chintan Upadhyay and British artist Barbara Ash have portraiture and sculptural interests in common in this show. The former uses a kitschy style and borrows heavily from popular Indian culture, while Ash’s doll sculptures are inspired by Victorian portraiture, evident in their prim and proper poses, frilly girly dresses and painted wide-eyed faces. The piece that serves to work in contrast and disorient the viewer is All the Glitters III—a porcelain-white doll with an amply-defined chest and full pouty pink lips. It crosses the often-ambivalent line between maturity and girlishness, between desire and innocence, and disrupts the idea that dolls never age, forever occupying a state of purity.

Karmarkar’s stunning oil paintings explore this fragile, discomforting border. Boyfriends, for example, could easily be an image out of a gay lifestyle magazine—the Ken figures, painted torso up, display toned and muscular bare chests, slicked-back hair and striking square-jaw faces. It takes a moment for it to register that their skin shines with plasticky glossiness, or that there is a line on their necks for their heads to be swivelled.

The show, although sometimes overambitious and spreading itself too thin (as far as coverage of themes is concerned), still succeeds because it manages to retain a sense of playfulness. Amidst the deeper, darker, more poignant issues, what the audience can most easily identify with is the power of the imagination to infuse mere playthings with life.

Dolls is showing at Gallery Sumukha  in Bangalore till 9 April 2011