One Brick at a Time: Alka Dass

Just as Dhlomo-Mautloa had to overcome hurdles at home and at the workplace in order to pursue her passion in the arts, Alka Dass, this year’s Female Youth Residency Award recipient has faced similar challenges.

The daughter of a woman who has never seen art as a profession until Dass’s acknowledgement, Dass comes from a deeply conservative background. Her grandmother feels that her granddaughter mustn’t “talk about lady things” and also doesn’t see art as a profession. Using tampons as part of her medium, indeed, Dass unapologetically confronts these issues head on.

Dass describes her work as “taking the female form and leaving the eroticism out”. Her aim is to present the female body in its natural form and one not tainted by the opinions of a male-centred society. She confesses that it is a difficult task since she’s working with nudes. She wants to present the female form in all its glory, so you see the nudity, the skin, but it being stripped of sexual connotations.

Neatly stacked – in what appears to be oval shapes with abstractly painted diagrams and lace – are embroidery hoops. “It was popular, back in the day, for housewives to do cross stitching”, says Dass, explaining that the cross-stitch pattern used a type of gauze material with blocks in it, and that it came with a pattern sheet, “They would stitch patterns from each block until an image pops up.”

It’s like pixelated images on a digital screen. These brown and soft pink hoops each tell a story. Hung in sequence against the wall behind which she sits, these cross-stitch hoops could be viewed from a few paces away. Close up, they were just squares. From far, you could see the full body of a woman.

Kagiso Patrick Mautloa describes her work as a performance piece which forces the audience to perform as they engage it.

Today, in one of her new works, Dass plays with the idea of fruit being a sexual symbol for women’s genitalia. Dass cynically jokes about the responses she gets when onlookers (mostly male) remark about their discomfort when she represents a vagina in her artwork. She reverts to the works of American 1950s feminist artist, Judy Chicago: for a woman to openly her own content is extremely dangerous and too risky.

She uses her own body in her work because “it’s way more important when it comes from within me”, she says. She stresses the importance of seeing herself in her work. “In this day and age, a woman can paint something without being judged and just being allowed to make it, [that] is the best part about it” she says. That’s powerful.

Indeed, in Dhlomo-Mautloa’s words, “today’s generation has little excuse”. The delusion of separation in race, gender, culture, nationality or religion is negligent. Her bold outlook towards current affairs that women in art have to embrace stems from her own experience as one of many female artists who’s had to endure obstacles in many forms of oppression.

The Bag Factory is home for artists from different backgrounds, redefining who they are whilst coming together to exchange ideas and realign that we are all in this together. Miatta Kawinzi, Bronwyn Katz and Alka Dass are part of this new generation who, without making any excuses, are here to leave their mark in the artworld.

One brick at a time.

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