Saturday, December 22, 2018

Dealing With Your Taboos

Luxembourg artist Sophie Medawar’s installation, ‘The Confessional’, a collateral of the Kochi Muziris Biennale, helps people to share their innermost secrets

Photos: Sophie Medawar; 'The Confessional' Installation. Pics by Albin Mathew

By Shevlin Sebastian

When artist Sophie Medawar opened her eyes on a November morning in 2013, at the Grand Duchess Charlotte Maternity Hospital, at Luxembourg, she felt empty. Where for a few weeks she would feel the kick of her baby, now there was nothing. The night before, doctors did an operation to remove the foetus because the four-month-old baby’s heart had stopped beating. Sophie looked out of the window. The weather matched her mood: it was cloudy and cold.

On the next bed, a woman had just given birth. “All her relatives and friends were coming to congratulate her,” says Sophie. “Lying next to her, I felt so low and depressed.”  

One of the nurses came in and said, abruptly, “You know, I am against abortions.”

Sophie thought, ‘Can you just read my medical file and you will know it was not an abortion, but a miscarriage’.

At a restaurant at Fort Kochi on a sunny afternoon, recently, Sophie says, “You cannot condemn somebody even if they have an abortion because you don’t know what is going on in their life? Sometimes, you are forced to do one.”

When Sophie recovered, she wanted to talk about what she went through. “But whenever I raised the subject, I noticed that people felt very uncomfortable,” she says. “A few women told me that it was not something I was supposed to talk about in public. I felt sad. Even my mother was unwilling to discuss it. So, I started thinking about all the things you have to keep inside you because of the pressures from your family, religion and society. Our social mores impose this silence. That’s how the idea of taboos came up.”

And so Sophie decided to make an installation, like a Christian confessional. “While the original confessional is in a square shape, I have made mine in a triangle, to highlight the concept of the Trinity” she says. “Like a person can be a woman, wife and mother at the same time. Or in Christianity, the concept of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.”

The installation, at a height of 7.5 feet, at one side, has been made by her carpenter collaborator TG Antony, of Kumblangi, based on drawings given by Sophie. He has made something that looks like the Zari windows you have in Fort Kochi and the Moucharabieh that you see in the Middle East. (The moucharabieh is a natural ventilation device, a sort of trellis, that is used in Arab countries).

When guests come, the women can look at the visitors through the moucharabieh, but the guest may not be able to see them). “This is the same with taboos,” says Sophie. “You never know who is hiding a secret -- the one behind the trellis or the visitor.”

Because of intricate designs on one side, it was not an easy installation to make. “It took a whole year,” says Sophie. “The wood had to be dried, so they used a special oven. The craftsmen took five months to hand-carve all the panels. I was flying back and forth from Luxembourg to oversee the work.”

Now, this is what a visitor has to do. You have to step into the cubicle. There are strips of paper with an image of a mouth. You write the taboo, fold the paper, and slide it through a slit, which is also made in the form of a mouth, into a bin.

At the end of three months, Sophie will collect all the papers and working with embroidery craftsmen will get it transferred onto a giant open saree that will represent all the taboos.

Sophie had done a similar exhibition in Europe. So when asked about the taboos that people jotted down, she says, “There was plenty about miscarriages. One person wrote that he was in love with his brother’s wife. A woman wrote that she did not love her husband. Somebody wrote the dreaded word: ‘Incest’. But thankfully, there was nothing about wanting to kill somebody or commit suicide.”    

As for whether there is a possibility that healing might take place while doing this, Sophie says, “I am not sure about that. But what will happen is that you will feel a little less alone. And when these are put on a saree and somebody reads it, it might help that person when he or she reads it.”

Sophie wants to take this idea to different parts of the world. “I want to work with different craftsmen and different materials,” she says.

Sophie, who is originally from Lebanon, first came to Kerala, with her family, in August, 2016, and fell in love with the place. “Like Lebanon, which I visit several times a year, Kerala is a place where there are strong family bonds and people of different religions live peacefully together,” she says. “So I will carry on coming to Kerala.”

A group show

Sophie Medawar’s installation is part of a group show, titled ‘Of Memories And Might’, curated by Tanya Abraham. Five other artists are participating: Catherine Stoll-Simon, Indu Antony, Parvathi Nayar, Lakshmi Madhavan and Shubha Taparia. This is a collateral of the Kochi Muziris Biennale and the works, at the Kashi Art Gallery, on Napier Street, will be on display till March 29. 

(The New Indian Express, Kochi, Thiruvananthapuram and Kozhikode)

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