EAST LANSING, Mich. — It’s most intuitive to equate activism with a kind of direct action: collecting signatures, participating in a public protest, sending sharply worded letters, community organizing. The Artist as Activist: Tayeba Begum Lipi and Mahbubur Rahman, at the Eli and Edythe Broad Art Museum at Michigan State University, not only showcases the work of two extraordinary artists but also stretches the definition of activism in the context of an art practice.
Lipi and Rahman are husband and wife, and the exhibition features areas dedicated to their individual works as well as a section on their collaborative art-making. Lipi’s solo portion consists of a set of three chambers, each receding into a more closed-off and private sector of the Broad’s odd interior architecture. The antechamber features elements of a bedroom/bathroom environment, all painstakingly rendered in thousands of shiny chrome safety razor blades. The objects are unquestionably domestic: sewing machine, bathtub, dressing table, a pillow that shows the imprint where a head might lie. The fact that they’re wrought from a material that’s both common and physically harmful greatly complicates their semiotics — they are at once familiar, even alluring, yet dangerous.
In the second chamber are two video works, each of which examines a kind of schism in the consciousness of the artist. In “I Wed Myself” (2010), a two-channel video projects Lipi in the midst of preparations to be both the bride and the groom of a traditional Indian wedding. She met Rahman at university, and theirs was a love match, but the practice of arranged marriage is very much thriving in their homeland of Bangladesh. Lipi asserts that the only person she can truly rely upon is herself, and makes this commitment whole through the video. In the second piece, she sits across from herself at a table, reading a book of nursery rhymes on the left and the Quran on the right. Islam is the predominant religion in Bangladesh, and the fact that Lipi rejected the language training that would enable her to read the Quran in Arabic is a violation of one of its basic elements. The video’s soundtrack, audible through headphones, features overlapping tracks of children reading the nursery rhymes and the scriptures; the two merge to form a lilting rhythm. In the deepest chamber lies Lipi’s most intensely personal work, “My Daughter’s Cot” (2012), which shows a working crib made of her trademark razor blades. Lipi has no daughter to speak of, but lost a child to miscarriage, and the absence of a figure in this installation — especially sited, as it is, in a dark, womb-like space within the Broad — is particularly poignant.
“We all tend to have a very cliché notion of what activism might be, and for me, the title and theme did not emerge until I had really immersed myself in the work of the artists,” exhibition curator and Broad Deputy Director Caitlin Doherty told Hyperallergic. “For Lipi the activism [is] a challenge to herself — a personal activism, sometimes cathartic, something challenging, but always with the potential of something positive.”
It can be tricky to weigh the impact of someone else’s personal journey from a different cultural context; in the United States, arranged marriages are relatively rare, but in Bangladesh, they remain the dominant paradigm. In some sense, we pick up the fight that’s at our doorstep. I don’t debate with myself every morning whether it’s OK, as a woman, to wear pants — I put on my pants and go fight for equal wages. It’s somewhat dislocating to see something I take for granted in my own life — choosing who one marries — being framed as a radical action within someone else’s art.
If Lipi attempts to connect to a broader audience by way of the personal, Rahman could be said to do the opposite. Rahman deals first with social issues — catastrophes, changing borders, gender inequality — and only then finds an overlap with his personal perspective. “His art is so from the society that he’s part of, really encouraging a conversation and a questioning and an investigation,” said Doherty.
There is some aesthetic overlap between Rahman’s and Lipi’s individual bodies of work. He, too, uses elaborately wrought metal, though not as exclusively as her. One such piece is “Trasformation” (2015), a head-and-torso-obscuring bull costume for a human in stainless steel (the bull is one of his recurring motifs). In this installation, the sculpture hangs next to a series of still photographs capturing an ongoing performance also called Transformation (2004–ongoing), which features Rahman in a fiber-based iteration of the same bull suit. It references a parable about a sharecropper who takes up his plow in place of a bull and works himself to death — a cautionary tale against the instrumentalizing of the individual by the state. In “Portrait from the Market-1” (2015), a wall-hanging bull bust is cast in red fiberglass and adorned with gold and crystal jewelry — a visual parallel that compares the preparation of a bride for marriage to the leading of a bull to slaughter. Upon closer inspection, the intricate gold necklace is made of metal-cast cockroaches.
Rahman and Lipi revisit the theme of bride-as-sacrifice in a collaborative installation sited in the deepest section of his solo gallery; if the cradle room is Lipi’s inner sanctum, this is Rahman’s counterpoint. In the work, a congregation of mannequins clad in black dresses and hijabs is the audience for a marriage couple. The woman wears the traditional red and gold from “Portrait from the Market-1,” while the man is arrayed in feathered headdress that invokes the freedom of a bird, aka sovereignty within this union. On a screen behind them, a bull is slaughtered over and over in a looping two-second video clip. The accompanying noise makes a kind of droning dirge as the throat is opened again and again. It’s unclear whether this is the sound of the bull being slaughtered or a call to prayer.
Other works by Rahman, particularly large-scale charcoal and mixed-media drawings, deal with issues of citizenship and identity with respect to shifting boundaries and political powers. He was clearly deeply affected by the 2013 Rana Plaza collapse — the deadliest garment factory accident in history — wherein an eight-story commercial building collapsed and killed 2,500 people, many of them sweatshop laborers on the lowest floors (the office workers in the upper part of the factory had been informed of a structural issue and thus were not at work on the day of the collapse). Footage of the catastrophe is included in a large video projection by Rahman at the forefront of his space; news reports on it comprise the audio for a sculptural piece, wherein a motorized hacksaw attempts to play a violin.
In the vaulted, interstitial gallery between Lipi’s and Rahman’s individual shows, an installation showcases a series of their collaborative pieces. This body of work focuses on the transgender community in Bangladesh and thus creates an interesting middle ground between the rigidly defined gender roles played out in Lipi’s intimate, domestic explorations and Rahman’s aggressive sociopolitical statements. The subject of these works is a transgender woman named Anonnya, with whom Lipi develops a deep friendship; Anonnya helps her come to her first understanding of transgender identity. Rahman’s role in these works is video documentation, particularly of a commune-type living arrangement among a group of transgender women who perform publicly as dancers and support themselves privately as prostitutes. Lipi engages more directly, seemingly obsessed with a comparison between herself and Anonnya — one work juxtaposes photos from their childhoods, another presents fiberglass castings of their faces side by side, without the gender signifiers of hair or makeup. A two-channel video features Anonnya on one side, talking about her life and experiences as a transgender women, while on the other side, Lipi attempts to dig herself into what appears to be a grave.
From the context of Westernized society, some of these subjects or symbols might seem outré or outdated, but that only suggests the privilege we have (and think we have). Indeed, as we in America still struggle to maintain reproductive freedom for women, the right to go to the bathroom for trans people, and the ability to bring rapists to justice, one can’t help but wonder how far we have truly progressed beyond marital sacrifice and razor blade domesticity. Lipi and Rahman may not be activists in the traditional sense, but in dealing with the issues closest to them, they’ve produced bodies of work that remain accessible and tragically relevant, even outside of their original context. And it is perhaps Lipi’s work that speaks the most powerfully to the individual — the loss of a child can form a white-hot pain point, deeper and more intimate than the generalized or overwhelming anger of a factory collapse. For all of Rahman’s blustering bulls, it is Lipi’s razor blades that cut the deepest.
The Artist as Activist: Tayeba Begum Lipi and Mahbubur Rahman continues at the Eli and Edythe Broad Art Museum (Michigan State University, 547 East Circle Drive, East Lansing, Michigan) through August 7.