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Fairer treatment for the fairer sex
WOMEN are set to take centre stage at the M1 Singapore Fringe Festival which runs from Jan 17 to 28.
The festival takes its inspiration from a landmark 1999 performance by artist Amanda Heng titled Let's Walk. She was responding to a sexist phenomenon of the 1997 Asian Financial Crisis during which female employees were far more likely to be retrenched than male employees.
Consequently the beauty and cosmetics industry experienced a boom as women sought solutions to enhance their appearance to avoid getting sacked. The beauty industry was one of very few industries that thrived during the crisis.
To highlight the irony, Heng invited the public to join her in a walk where the participants each bit a high-heeled shoe in the mouth, held a small mirror, and walked backwards using the mirror for guidance. Both the shoe and the mirror are symbols of vanity and appearance, while the backward journey implies a regression of women's status and rights.
Sean Tobin, director of the festival, said: "I feel that women artists are generally overlooked and unacknowledged in the history of art.
"When you talk about Singapore's contemporary visual arts scene, for instance, Tang Da Wu, Lee Wen and other veteran male artists are often cited as icons, while the women artists' contributions are neglected. The festival attempts to redress that by focusing on women in this edition."
Heng will reprise her walking performance during the festival. Meanwhile, 15 other works from seven countries will each tackle various aspects of femininity, from the pressure to be attractive to the domestic ideals housewives are expected to live up to.
One hotly anticipated work is The Immortal Sole by Edith Podesta. Earlier this year, Podesta swept the M1-The Straits Times Life! Theatre Awards with a work written, directed and performed by her, titled B*tch: Origin Of The Species, which premiered at last year's M1 Singapore Fringe Festival.
Podesta's new work The Immortal Sole reinterprets Hans Christian Andersen's fairytale The Little Mermaid as a dance theatre performed by four women. Podesta said: "Viewing the 180-year-old fairytale through a contemporary lens automatically illuminates which stereotypes of women have been overthrown and which endure, how far we have come and if we've come far enough.
"We can see that the little mermaid has confidence and a sense of adventure and curiosity about the world. But what does she have to trade to get what she wants? Her family, her voice, her body? Do women today still have to do the same?"
Inspired by Heng's Let's Walk, Podesta also scrutinises the high-heel shoe. "Heels are transformative in many ways - they alter your attitude, posture, confidence and femininity. But on the flip side, they can also damage your feet and spine, as well as infantilise and curtail the freedom of movement. The body continues to be a battleground for women."
Another highly anticipated work similarly explores the politics of the female body. Pink Gajah Theatre's Hayat, which means "life" in Arabic, centres on mature performer Ajuntha Anwari and what it means to be an ageing woman in the 21st century.
Sharda Harrison, who is her daughter and the artistic director of Pink Gajah, said: "There is a certain stereotype that defines a woman by her outer appearance and her place in the workforce. Does a woman have to remain beautiful to have a sense of place in society? Can an older woman affirm her sensuality, sexuality and femininity?"
Beyond these questions, Hayat also explores mortality or, as Harrison described it, "the next walk, the next journey beyond all these political and gender inequities, the walk to become closer to God".
Hayat is set to be a stripped-down experience that blurs the boundaries between performer and audience as the latter becomes immersed in Anwari's ritualistic journey of embracing her past, present and future walk with God into the next life.
Among the international titles, The Business Times recommends these: Ground Clover Theatre's compelling drama Displaced which examines the history of migration and strife through the stories of three women fleeing their countries for Canada, Emanuella Amichai's The Neighbor's Grief Is Greener which is a slick and sassy theatrical piece that looks at the role of the suburban housewife in 1950s America, and Madeleine George's The Most Massive Woman Wins which is a funny play about four successful women waiting to undergo liposuction surgery.
- For a list of all the shows, go to www.singaporefringe.com. Tickets at S$27 on sale now at Sistic. M1 customers receive a 20 per cent discount.