There is a steady rise in attack and killing women on the suspicion of indulging in witchcraft in Odisha. In 2019, at least four women were killed every month over suspicions of practising witchcraft, between January and August, according to official statistics. It was stories of such horrific violence that led to a churn within Pankaja Sethi. The Odisha-based textile designer and social anthropologist began exploring how she could project the vulnerability of women. Sethi decided to use her art to channelize her rage against injustice by raising awareness on the issue. So, when she was invited to reflect upon women’s rights, gender equity, fertility, contraception and violence against women through her work at the “Fabric of Being” textile exhibition, Sethi knew just what to create.
Sethi wanted her artwork to provoke conversations as to why women in India were oppressed and devalued in a society that worshiped goddesses as symbols of power and benefaction. She wanted to question why society religiously revered women as creators of life and power and yet had no qualms in snuffing out their lives. She wanted to raise consciousness about the fact that many women were killed not just on suspicions of being a witch but for numerous reasons. Millions of girls were killed in the womb because their families preferred a male child. Even if some girls were lucky to survive feticide, they were at a risk of experiencing emotional, mental and sexual violence, which is perpetrated to control them by a deeply-entrenched patriarchy.
Sethi, therefore, chose to depict the uterus and womb as sources of power, representing women negotiating for space against forces that wanted to curb their freedom and make them invisible and voiceless.
Exhibitions on gender, sexuality, and women’s rights expressed through the medium of textile art are creative and powerful ways to send social messages. Pieces of cloth or yarn hanging from the ceiling or draped in an aesthetic manner can have the impact that the spoken word may not have, especially on issues considered prickly or stigmatic.
Sethi’s work at the “Fabric of Being” exhibition certainly had the intended effect of drawing attention to the pressing need for sexual and reproductive health and rights for all.
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