Can art only be appreciated by those who understand it? How can art, and performance art break away from being elitist? Princess Pea talks to us about using art as a medium to convey non-conformist messages, to spread social awareness, to construct safe spaces for conversation and challenge hegemony in traditional communities. Pea crafted ‘Paracosm’, a performance to explore gender equality at work, for Mind The Gap. She explains the context of this piece, and its intended impact on diverse audiences including those unfamiliar about art and performance art.
A well-known (pea) face amongst art and design circles, Princess Pea performed at our event, Mind The Gap in June 2018. The aim of the event was to spread awareness about gender equality at work, particularly amongst those people who haven’t actively been participating or initiating this conversation. By bringing together influencers and leaders across diverse professions (art, music, comedy, fashion etc.) to share their work and stories, we believed we could pull in their fans and admirers to hear their experiences, and in turn educate them about the prevalence of gender inequality in other industries too. Our participants ranged from entrepreneurial and corporate to artistic and abstract. Our attendees included students, professionals, millennials, lawyers and journalists. It’s safe to say we didn’t really have a very specific type who turned up that Sunday.
Princess Pea is known to champion women’s rights, educating girls, feminism, body positivity and other issues in the same space. As a performance artist, her work often takes the form of a dialogue with the audience – who participate actively and even passively with her art. In her own words, “I am a visual artist working with women belonging to diverse class-economy-religion based social structures in India. My work documents, archives and creates spaces for sharing, recuperation, rehabilitation, and action, in a large and visibly male social/public space. I use storytelling in the light of desires and aspirations as therapy for compromised ambitions due to lack of education, marriage, motherhood, and jobs, all of which is a family-based symptom where the expectation of ‘sacrifice’ is placed onto women.”
Adding another layer is the fact that Pea is an anonymous artist, who manifests her creativity through different subjects, objects and mediums around her. She has performed at Lakme Fashion Week, Design Fabric Festival, and India Art Fair amongst other high profile events where she has been invited to blend her art with the space they create and set up. “I am best known for being unknown and am identified by a large sculptural head. Sometimes I am under the head and other times it’s the many brave women that have come to become a part of this project. We are also known for our performances that turn our stories into poetry or spaces of meeting or an exercise in writing or photography – above all a celebration of our lesser known lives.”
Sharing non-conformist or progressive opinions is challenging in traditional societies like ours. Pea admires Banksy and Guerilla Girls for their anonymous activism through art. When asked about why she chooses to be anonymous, Pea says that this is more than just about privacy.” Anonymity gives the power to send the message across, of equality in society,” she says. With her identity being carefully guarded, Pea has succeeded in being more relatable to a wider audience. She is no longer limited to what society deems appropriate for her, as her alter-ego Pea is able to break those barriers and engage more people. “Our crowning achievement is the visibility our stories have achieved through the safety of the sculptural had, where we are able to make known our sojourns with responsibility towards so many vulnerable women. The head in itself has become a safe space through which solidarities can be performed,” says Pea.
Pea’s performance at Mind The Gap was intended to bring up issues often blindsided by Indian society. She tells Indulge Express in an interview, “It begins with our homes — our ways of seeing and understanding is deep-rooted. 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 self-worth and social injustice. I strongly feel that domestic work is inevitable and invisible — a social dimension that must be recognised.”
“Start seeing instead of looking. We all have the same issues it’s just the way we look at them is different.”
What intrigued us, was how do you convey such a message in a matter of 20-30 minutes of performance? Moreover, will such a message get effectively communicated to an audience that might not know much at all about art, let alone performance art? Will Pea modify her methodology and mediums to cater to both an artistic and un-artistic audience? Would audiences be able to relate to a performer who they couldn’t identify beyond a stage name? And once the event was over, we wondered what did a bystander take away from the performance? Did the core message that we were too aware of, get translated accurately? Did it spark new ideas and concepts in their minds?
Pea’s opinion was clear, with absolutely no room for doubt, “When we make any form of art, be it painting, installation or performance, the audience remains the same, the act does not change, the message remains the same.” While she did design her piece specifically with #GenderAndTheJob in mind, her creative process remained intact – the same as she would have done for any other audience, art critics and aficionados included. Pea’s performance included 8 female volunteers, most of whom hadn’t heard about Pea before taking part, “we are a group of diverse known and unknown women, where I as the artist and initiator largely work as an archivist and a medium for these stories to be found, told and disseminated. With Proxies, I have managed to use the idea of the sculptural head to make women feel more comfortable and safe to narrate without fear, who they are and what they want/wish to be.”
‘Paracosm’ was the performance created for Mind The Gap, to explore the nuances of gender and the job. What is Paracosm? “A collection of lived lives and shared histories, based on collaborations, conversations and contributions of the multiple lives women live in a single lifetime – in public, private, secret and the fantastical. The project 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 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 live the other life they could have lived – an option B, a what if, an I wish,” describes Pea.
“This could be cathartic for those who feel stifled in their day-to-day lives”
Ashmita Kannan was one of Pea’s proxies for Paracosm. “I studied at the ‘Vedica Scholars Programme for Women’ which is an MBA course in Delhi set up primarily to bridge the gender gap in the workforce. For one and half years our small cohort studied the possible causes, effects, solutions to such a problem. I was curious to see how the outside world viewed this and how they planned on bridging this gap,” says Ashmita. This fits very neatly in what Pea believes in as well, as she tells us “collaborations only happen when there are common factors in the practice, also they develop organically and it only adds to the work. Working with new artists and performers opens up a lot of new possibilities and dimensions of the work.”
We expected the performance to be unique, we wanted people to think outside the box and step outside their comfort zone. Rather than walking away with concrete answers, we suspect many people left with even more questions – a tell-tale sign of boundaries being challenged. What was it like being a part of the performance? Ashmita says, “It was a different experience for me since I’ve never worked with artists before. I think the act was more for the people who were in it rather than the audience… this could be cathartic for those who feel stifled in their day-to-day lives. It was strange, I’ll admit that. I am more of a feed off of my audience kind of person and this was disconnected [from the audience].”
For both the audiences and her performers, Pea offered some guidance: “Start seeing instead of looking. We all have the same issues it’s just the way we look at them is different.” And that very much was the core ideology of Mind The Gap – people across all industries and professions are facing the same issues of gender inequality, just to different degrees and in unique experiences. Bringing them together is a way to help people ‘see’ through another’s lens. “[The act] reaffirmed a lot of things for me and made me introspect some more. It was quite interesting to meet new people and understand their way of viewing these issues and expressing their thoughts. I think conversation (with an open mind) always leads to good change. And change we need, whether we like to admit it or not,” says Ashmita.