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by Berta Sichel
Curator of Film, Video and Media Arts
Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofia, Madrid
It may seem an uncanny coincidence that Elahe Massumi's installation Obliteration (1994) and her latest work, The Hijras made public for the first time in the exhibition Ekbatana last summer at the Nikolaj center for contemporary arts in Denmark, examine rituals and rites of passages that are inconceivable and archaic in the contemporary world. Yet, it is not a mere eventuality, although seven years have passed between them.
The tales of emasculated men and their acquiring divine status is encountered throughout both fiction and non-fiction literature and it fills our imagination. Here, however, the choice of the Hijras as the subject matter for this work goes beyond simple curiosity. As Massumi says, with " the Hijras I wanted to complete Obliteration"- Her understanding of " to complete" encompasses the desire to make links among seemingly different themes.
An internationally acclaimed work, Obliteration breaks the silent conspiracy of Sunna, the Arabic word for "tradition." Still practiced in many Moslem countries, Sunna refers to the ancient practice of female genital mutilation (FGM), a procedure of removing of the tip of the clitoris. Both traditional rituals, they are also a merciless form of control and cruelty. In tandem, their content is just one more example of the ways in which groups (and especially subcultures and ethnic groups) define and articulate their identity against the external pressures of a world in a constant process of change. Massumi's themes revel in her interests. For her, under the umbrella of "human behavior" there is a multitude of issues: cruelty, control, rituals, myths and religion. This is an uncommon perspective for artists of her age since she is not allured by the idea of spectacle and is not utilizing all the seductive charms that the moving image can supply.
There is a basic cultural difference between the ritual of obliteration in Ethiopia and other Moslem countries and the castration ceremonies in India. The first has a religious connotation, closer to the idea of purification. The second, is a tradition whose origins go back to palaces and harems in the Ottoman, Persian and Chinese empires. Their century long community has been kept alive through the ages due to the unpunished practice of kidnapping young boys, most from poor neighborhoods. They are castrated at a young age during a ritualistic ceremony, beautifully staged in Massumi´s video, where older Hijras bless the child and paint his head with red pigments symbolizing his marriage with the community. When they grow up and develop feminine features, they become dancers or prostitutes. Many Indian men still believe that sex with Hijra is the best sex in the world and they are willing to pay a high price for it. To breakout of this cycle most of the Hijras are born Hindu and die Moslem; they convert to Islam so they will be able to be buried and escape rebirth.
When borrowed from cultural anthropology "rites of passage" refer to those public ceremonies or rituals that mark the transition from one stage of life to another. Both in Obliteration as well as in The Hijras, Massumi implicates herself as a witness to these ceremonies where children are at center of the stage; their bodies and their lives will never be the same. Their bodies become a site for inscription; a site of representation and control - ideas that are also central to many early analysts of post-colonial experience such as Frantz Fanon. Yet, Massumi does not make a straightforward appropriation of these concepts. Those early concerns with the body as a site of representation were related to ideas of color and race emphasizing the visibility of signs of difference manifested in the skin color, hair type or facial features. Not interested in the outer signs, in this sense, she enlarges the possibilities of how you see the "colonized body." Ignoring the external features, she explores the spaces of the "unrepresentable" body, the hidden parts that are the center of life.
Massumi's post-realist images, always intensified by music (here composed by the Iranian musician Sussan Deyhim) generate ambivalence; a complex mix of attraction and repulsion in the same way the writer Homi Bhabha has described the relationship between the colonizer and the colonized. Although veiled by a sharp-witted editing, these powerful scenes fill the viewer with hatred and a physical sensation of an audible pain. More than offering commiseration, Massumi opens to her public the possibility of going beyond the purely tangible and visual. Her work invites the viewer to enter into a more extreme space, an off-planet location in contemporary art, from where no one leaves undisturbed.
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