The Meeting Point of Identities
Drama, theater and any other type of performance give man a chance to live in “another” form: face masks are worn, dresses are put on the bodies, and makeups are worn to display actors as young or old, wicked and virtuous. The meeting point is where dresses are put off and makeups are washed away. This fluidity of identity is in many cases associated with gender identity in dramatic arts representing itself in wearing dresses and playing the role of the opposite sex. The tradition has always been in practice in traditional Japanese plays (Kabuki). In early years after the appearance of this genre, women used to play for both men and women. The role-playing was vested on the young boys later and then since 1629 men appear in male and female roles. Also in ancient Greece, men used to play the roles of women. Even in some dramas and operas at the age of Renaissance, playing opposite sex’s role was something ordinary.
In her recent series, Shirin Fathi has alluded to various historical and geographical periods to record her dramatic performance as different personalities: from Onnagata – male actors who impersonate women in Japanese kabuki theatre – to the Qajar princes’ painting personalities and the contemporary European works of art. The artists in this collection highlight some historical periods of art in which gender identity – in view of dressing and makeup – have appeared as phenomena not that much assigned. For instance, the portrait paintings belonging to the Qajar period are good examples of vanishing boundaries between male and female gender identities. The faces are extremely similar in the majority of the works: the traditional model of “Maahroo” or round face with continuous and dark eyebrows and red lips like rosebuds. Only the beard and men wearing boots make the distinction between male and female, otherwise the dresses are long with sumptuous adornment. The famous portrait of Fat’halishah by Mehr Ali the painter is a good example.
Talking about these works and to understand them better, it is necessary to point to one of the most important contemporary theories on gender identity. It is for over two decades that Gender Queer Theory – a meeting point between gender studies and post-structuralism – has turned into the dominant theory in gender studies. No distinction between gender identity, i.e. features, manifestations and behaviors we attribute to male and female sexes and their social construction were concepts paid attention in the second wave of feminism. However, in Gender Queer Theory this concept has been expanded to finally a broad meaning that Judith Butler, one of the most influential theoreticians of Gender Queer Theory refers to as “performative nature of gender identity” in her book “The Gender Trouble”. According to her “There is no gender identity behind the expressions of gender. Identity is performatively constituted by the very expressions that are said to be its results.” Butler in her famous sentence refers to a sort of identity that is not expression or manifestation of an innate quality, but it is itself the whole story. Therefore, gender identity is not something fixed or assigned, nor a source of act to lead to various behaviors and activities. It is the sort of identity that is made infirmly in the course of time. It is “the repeated stylization of the body, a set of repeated acts within a highly rigid regulatory frame that congeal over time to produce the appearance of substance, of a natural sort of being.” In this sense, body gestures, movements, dresses and various styles create a sort of hallucinatory identity, while there is no pre-destined identity and whatever exists in terms of identity is the actions, behaviors, and appearances. For butler, gender identity is like a dress we select and put on from among various other dresses available at the cupboard. This means, gender identity is something “optional” and transient, just like a dress. This is the same concept employed a few decades ago in the works of such artists as Cindy Sherman through undertaking various roles, or in the works of Yasumasa Morimura, the Japanese appropriation artist, who represented female role-playing in the history of art very well: man as a creature whose right to have a stable position is nothing but a myth. The pluralistic social roles and their cross-meeting with gender, racial, tribal, etc. identities do not happen at a fixed point named “self”, rather it turns into other “self” each time according to the properties of these points. The body has never been the aboding place of something assigned, rather it is a place for the coming and going of these identities. This is something Butler refers to as transient subject. Lack of this fixed and strong position is realizable in the works of art, specially through the medium of photography. Photography is a time-bound medium that provides the chance for recording pluralistic and possible types in a short time, the “self” that is constantly changing into “other” in a bid to symbolically reconstruct and record various available aspects and potentials in “self”, as a multi-layered being. Our contemporary art, though, is still at the beginning of the path to create a complicated world of the same level with this theme, the sort of the world that needs something beyond the represented subject to be visually able to create diversified and intertwined layers.