What you looking at? Princess Pea speaks for gender equality at Mind the Gap festival
The name Princess Pea might ring a bell among enthusiasts of contemporary art. Nobody knows her real name, but the anonymous Gurgaon-based performance artist, who’s always seen donning an oversized cartoonish mask, is extremely popular for her work, especially among audiences at the India Art Fair (IAF) in New Delhi, where she first emerged with a bang, back in 2009.
At IAF 2018, earlier this year, the artist presented the work, Proxies, with a monotonous and supremely sticky message playing in the background as an audio recording on loop: “What about ME if I only think about you?” The work continues her interest in challenging conventional notions of beauty and body stereotypes, while raising questions over aspects of “insecurities, uncertainty, intimacy, self-doubt, and anticipation” in everyday life. Princess Pea and the droning question, “What about ME...?” appeared again on the ramp at the Lakmé Fashion Week Summer/Resort 2018 showcase in February, in a conceptual presentation along with the design label, Lovebirds.
This weekend, at the festival, Mind the Gap, which will be held in Mumbai, Princess Pea will join a host of other artists and personalities from various fields of arts and culture, to present her continuing initiative of addressing gender stereotypes. The festival’s stated aim is “to explore the physical, intellectual and digital manifestations of gender dynamics within professions and workplaces, and to spread awareness about one of the most compelling issues of our generation”.
An invisible dimension “As we become more aware, we get more responsible handling this complex verb and its understanding,” offered Princess Pea in an interaction, leading up to the festival. “The core concerns have been pretty explicit in my earlier works, while the ideas and notion of self-worth hold a strong value, which ties in well with Mind the Gap, and the conversations on wage gaps and gender disparity that form the core of this forum.”
At Mind The Gap, a number of speakers are expected to talk about stereotypes, trends and norms in the workspace, focusing on personal anecdotes and narratives. The matter of gender politics is critical for everyday people to take notice of, urges Princess Pea, where much of these concerns generally tend to get swept under the carpet and left undiscussed — often times, due to societal fears and insecurities. “It begins with our homes — our ways of seeing and understanding is deep-rooted,” explains the artist. “The issues are not targeting one aspect, but addressing our position in this social system. Its complexities, religion, caste, labour, family, work, success — all (of these factors) are linked to to self-worth and social injustice. I strongly feel that domestic work is inevitable and invisible — a social dimension that must be recognised.”
To help open up discussions, in her new project, Princess Pea has begun to share her trademark oversized mask, minus the colourful markings — to bestow her alter-ego to everyday people. “As I became more aware, I realised that we all love speaking our heart out, but no one ever asked — what do the women have to say? Our struggle starts in the morning and ends in the night. It doesn’t matter which class we come from, how educated we are, it comes across as a struggle in different degrees of humiliation — sometimes subtle or given, and sometimes obvious and on the face.” This complex relationship between our beliefs and routine paralyses the self-worth, points out the artist. “Our anxious self is mostly blinded by daily errands, and catches up over to the next,” she adds as a note.
The project “Proxies” started with a basic idea — of passing on her character and living different lives, to understand the complexities that different people live in, explains the artist. “The most interesting part of this process is the ‘exchange’ of emotions, knowledge, and life lessons — and to take notice of the lives of different people,” she says. For the project, Princess Pea interviewed women in their houses, and at work — in spaces they made, built and invested themselves in. “They then made a photograph wearing the head for a day, looking at the other world they’ve always ignored — the mind that desires, and aspires,” she explains. “The project brings together conversations, recollections and ruminations from the relationship of these two worlds, as told by the women.”
Soul to soul
The concept to get a hold of thereafter is of a “Paracosm”, a term used to describe a fantasy world, and also the phenomenon of imaginary friends in one’s childhood. In her project, this becomes “A collection of lived lives and shared histories, based on collaborations, conversations and contributions of the multiple lives that women live in a single lifetime — in public, private, secret and the fantastical,” she explains. The project thus brings together thousands of Princess Peas performing in their own big and small worlds, narrating their closeted aspirations, their concealed frustrations, and the guarded kingdoms of their heart — a space often left for contemplation in the twilight.
The thought of a fantasy existence is all-important here. “The project brings these women to perform their daily lives in a public space, marked by their most intimate ephemera and soul stories in an act of negotiating and claiming the public sphere in an alternate dimension, a universe where they take the otherwise road to living the other life they could have lived — an ‘option B‘, a ‘what if’, an ‘I wish’,” she reasons.The artist’s mask also finds a variation in her new work, where we find a giant, bolster-like head resting between two women, seemingly in conversation. “The headgear acts as an apparatus between the world outside and the self,” says Princess Pea. “The combined head was made for conversations with two people — it’s intimidating to have someone at this close proximity, to know and share, while knowing that no one else can hear. The process was an illustration of talking to someone you just met, and the work was titled, “Soul Sisters”. The work is a telling culmination of the artist’s concerns over the years, which she voiced in works such as “Pecked, Jostled and Teased” and “Everywoman”, allowing her motivations about gender roles to become more and more pronounced.
“A state of self-treat”
Looking back at the origins of her artistic practice, the artist recounts starting her masked project on Facebook, back in 2008, describing her mask as “a symbol of the weight of conforming to society’s standards of beauty”. At the time, the social media platform was buzzing with new accounts, and online social existence became a part of one’s daily rituals, recalls the artist. “I was always sceptical and rather dubious about the whole idea of presence, and the public projection. To me, anonymity is a luxury, a state of self-treat.”
Even today, she’s often inclined to wonder when people will look back to this time with embarrassment, says the artist. “This moment, where our daily rituals are fueled by likes, with our personal spaces being watched and monitored, leaves us in the constant state of uncertainty and dubiousness about our own existence.”
She elaborates, “The ease with technology also harms our growth and personal ability to access the self, to build concentration and attentiveness. The entire idea of ‘let a machine do it’ makes us weak and incapacitated. The homogeneous feed on social media paralyses uniqueness, makes one exhausted, and could leave you in a total state of despair.”
It’s the astutely observant and self-critical side to Princess Pea’s ideas that ultimately leaves viewers compelled to follow her, and subscribe to her views. Concerns over aspects of identity, self-preservation, self-esteem and forced ideas about societal roles can be difficult to get one’s head around, however, non-conformist one might be, she admits.
“These are complex terms, and can’t be addressed in black and white,” says Princess Pea. “We do have inhibitions, and we certainly contradict ourselves in given situations. Being aware is one step, but most of us hesitate to share and raise our voices — we don’t want to confront things, and to feel that unknowingly we have fueled this behaviour towards ourselves and each other.”
She hits a raw nerve with a seeming personal submission: “We never spoke a thing when we got harassed for the first time. We were numb. We probably still don’t know how to react. We continue to live in a precarious society.” Speaking about her own childhood, the artist says, “I grew up in a very free and open environment, and my father served in the Indian Army all his life. There were some basic etiquettes to treat women, which I admired and thought this is how the world is. As I faced the real world, I started noticing even older men staring at me during my bus journey to art college and it made me uncomfortable and self-conscious.” That left her questioning the “male gaze”, and then she figured, perhaps the gaze was created for asking questions about society.
The side of my face...
“One work that comes straight to my mind is by Barbara Kruger: “Your gaze hits the side of my face”. In fact, it should be, “Your intolerable gaze paralyses my body”, she adds, explaining her idea of “the stone-faced body”. She also mentions the works of Serbian performance artist Marina Abramovic among her inspirations. “The process of making art is meditative, and not limited to one particular set of society,” she offers. “The making of work is not to commercialise the ideas, but to raise questions, interrogate, investigate, draw parallels, and to be more aware.”
In her classic head, thus, that idea of the gaze was created for asking questions, about the social reasons for women being objectified. The basis is commonplace: “Growing up in a society where women are eye candy for the male audience, and women primarily play aesthetic roles or objects, as forced by a patriarchal society.”
In reality today, gender equality is still a distant concept, especially given the overly sexualised form of the woman in the media, she adds as a remark. While the matter of unyielding and deeply rooted mindsets evidently affects her a great deal, Princess Pea is also aware of how infuriating it is to realise that most people are likely to be disinterested in serious, meaningful discussion — and would instead, prefer some form of ready entertainment. “The term ‘choice’ between education and entertainment is one’s prerogative,” she opines. “But the basic approach to be human and treat other people with respect comes from early teachings and family. As a thought experiment, we never had classes in schools about how to cook, how to smell, how to respect, how to eat, how to sit, how to see, how to speak in a particular place... To think of it, the girls were always more sensitive to these basics, and were prepared into a complete set of the customary code of polite behaviour in society, as they would have to pass the test of a suitable candidate for marriage one day. On the contrary, nothing of the sort is applied to boys. In fact, in a patriarchal society, the idea of domestication is a synonym for ‘women’.”
It will take more than a few wise heads to don Princess Pea’s mask to effect some manner of change in such perceptions and societal outlooks. Until then, we’re all united in looking up to her for meaningful direction.
Mind The Gap # GenderAndTheJob is being hosted by Dysco and MIXX in Mumbai on June 3. Key speakers include athlete Ayesha Billimoria; social entrepreneur Revathi Roy; ad guru KV Sridhar ‘Pops’; filmmaker Reema Sengupta; comedian Rytasha Rathore; filmmaker Shreya Dev Dube; musician Komorebi; and founder of Offset Live, Nush Lewis. There will also be a screening of ‘Boys of Safdarjung’ by Nikhil D and Tsundue Phunkhang, and music by Ankur Tewari. Also look out for the photography installations: ‘Body Positivity & Challenging Gender Norms’ by Roshini Kúmar; ‘Ice Hockey in the Himalayas for Vice India’ by Indrajeet Rajkhowa; and ‘Women Metro Drivers’ by Riddhi Parekh, as well as ‘Gender Neutral Clothing on the Body Form’ by Purushu Arie.