Category Archives: women

Shoot the Women First

“Shoot the women first!”, a German official is reported to have advised in the 1980s when members of GSG-9, Germany’s elite anti-terror squad found themselves in front of a large group of people suspected of being terrorists. Eileen MacDonald used the order as the title of the study of female terrorists she wrote in 1991. Navine G. Khan-Dossos, in turn, borrows it for an exhibition that looks at the theme of female targets.

Navine G. Khan-Dossos at Z33 House for Contemporary Art. Photo: Kristof Vrancken Photography and Research

Navine G. Khan-Dossos painted in pink one of the walls at the entrance of Z33 House for Contemporary Art. Photo:

For Shoot the Women First, her solo exhibition at Z33 in Hasselt, the artist recreated a shooting range. Paintings in soft colours are hanging on the wall and from the ceiling. The first ones you encounter carry symbols similar to the type of targets used in Discretionary Command training. During those police and military trainings, shooters receive a chain of commands which require them to shoot at triangles, circles and squares of various colours in a certain order.

As you walk through the exhibition space, the reference to a body become less abstract and you soon recognize human shapes on the paintings. The exhibition is choreographed so that your body comes in close proximity of the targets, making the experience feel somewhat ominous and almost visceral.

Navine G. Khan-Dossos, Pink Discretionary Command, 2018 at Z33 House for Contemporary Art. Photo: Kristof Vrancken Photography and Research

Navine G. Khan-Dossos, Pink Discretionary Command, 2018 at Z33 House for Contemporary Art. Photo: Kristof Vrancken Photography and Research

Navine G. Khan-Dossos, Pink Discretionary Command, 2018 at Z33 House for Contemporary Art. Photo: Kristof Vrancken Photography and Research

All the works in the series feature the colour pink. Not any type of pink but the particular shade of pink used to paint the doorways of brothels in the Metaxourgeio neighbourhood of Athens.

The area was the theater of police brutality against women in 2012 when a group of drug-users were arrested and forced to undergo HIV tests. It was assumed that the women were prostitutes. They were imprisoned on charges of grievous bodily harm for transmitting the virus through sex work. Most of these women had never worked as prostitutes and were not even aware they were HIV-positive. The violence towards them didn’t end there. The police published their mug-shots and personal data on their website and the images spread from there to major TV channels and other media. Eventually the charges were dropped, but some of these women struggled to recover from this experience of incarceration and public shaming.

Navine G. Khan-Dossos, Grey Discretionary Command, 2018 at Z33 House for Contemporary Art. Photo: Kristof Vrancken Photography and Research

Navine G. Khan-Dossos, Grey Discretionary Command, 2018 at Z33 House for Contemporary Art. Photo: Kristof Vrancken Photography and Research

Being diagnosed with HIV meant that, for the authorities, the body of these women epitomized deviance and bio-terrorism. They were both a danger and a target, both victims of society and perpetrators of sexual disorder. The colour pink in the paintings is thus not one that evokes innocence and romanticism but violence, violation of privacy and HIV criminalization.

Khan-Dossos managed to give a presence to these women without ever using the humiliating mugshots that had been shared online and in the Greek mainstream media.

Shoot the Women First demonstrates that it is possible to use abstract forms to convey a poignant narrative, to talk about violence without using explicit images. Perhaps, that’s the smartest way to do it now that images of violence are so commonplace online that we barely register them.

The work doesn’t address only the fate of these women but also the one of other marginalized bodies. The pink triangles in some paintings allude to the rise of AIDS activism, and in particular ACT UP’s SILENCE = DEATH posters. The work also refers to the militarization of the US police and their use of lethal weapons against civilians. And in general, the harassment of women worldwide which, as recent stories like the Ligue du LOL in France and the Spanish far-right parties pushing back against gender equality indicate, shows no sign of abating. Not even in 21st Century EU.

While writing this review, i also couldn’t stop thinking about 19 year old Shamima Begum. In 2015, she was an English schoolgirl who left her family to join the so-called Islamic State. We don’t know whether she committed crimes while in Syria. The United Kingdom has nevertheless decided to revoke her citizenship and the young woman now sits in a Syrian refugee camp with her newborn son. A few days ago, a shooting range in north-west England has made headlines for using a photo of her face as a target, following “a large number of requests from customers.”

Navine G. Khan-Dossos, Bulk Targets 1-100, 2018. Opening at Z33 House for Contemporary Art. Photo: Kristof Vrancken Photography and Research

Navine G. Khan-Dossos, Bulk Targets 1-100, 2018. At Z33 House for Contemporary Art. Photo: Kristof Vrancken Photography and Research

One room features heaps of gouaches on cardboard, ‘Bulk Targets 1-100’. The shape and number also refer to the target models for training. The vast number of these works on a humble material suggests their throw-away use, the sheer banality of violence. On the other hand, they also hint at the possibility that we can make them ours and train as an army that would fight against the demonization of vulnerable people.

The exhibition also features one of Khan-Dossos’ motifs: a standard forensic ruler that runs the walls of the exhibition rooms and transforms the gallery into a crime scene. Crime investigators use forensic rulers to facilitate photographic documentation of evidence at crime scenes. Its title, Below the Belt, evokes not only the unfair and slightly cowardly practices that often accompanies gender politics but also the physical and metaphorical site of domestic violence and control.

Navine G. Khan-Dossos, Silent Latitude (detail) and Below the Belt (detail), 2018 at Z33 House for Contemporary Art. Photo: Kristof Vrancken Photography and Research

Navine G. Khan-Dossos, Silent Latitude, 2018 at Z33 House for Contemporary Art. Photo: Kristof Vrancken Photography and Research

Navine G. Khan-Dossos, Silent Latitude, 2018. Opening at Z33 House for Contemporary Art. Photo: Kristof Vrancken Photography and Research

Navine G. Khan-Dossos, Silent Latitude (detail), 2018 at Z33 House for Contemporary Art. Photo: Kristof Vrancken Photography and Research

The last work Khan-Dossos is showing in Hasselt is Silent Latitude. This new commission is part of the other exhibition you can visit now at Z33: Dissidence – Quilting Against. Silent Latitude is a quilt designed together with the members of the Greek Trans Support Association in Athens and embroidered with the help of MIA-H Fashion Incubator for Accessories in Hasselt. This “community-made textile” evokes the value of collective labour as a healing and bonding activity, referring to the Beguines, laywomen from the urban middle class who lived together in domestic spaces (such as the ones that house Z33 exhibition spaces), supporting themselves with their labor, outside of male control and without submitting to monastic rule.

Ending the show with the quilt lifts up the spirits. The work points to a more hopeful humanity, one that relies on solidarity to create, defy and resist.

Navine G. Khan-Dossos – Shoot the Women First was curated by Silvia Franceschini. Dissidence – Quilting Against was curated by Ronald Clays. Both exhibitions remain open until 26 May at Z33 – House for contemporary art in Hasselt, Belgium.

Photos of the opening ‘Shoot the Women First’ & ‘Dissidence’.
India Doyle did a fascinating interview with Navine G. Khan-Dossos for Twin back when the artist was showing the first iteration of Shoot the Women first at The Breeder gallery in Athens. Also worth your time: Ruins – Chronicle of an HIV witch-hunt, a documentary directed by Zoe Mavroudi about the women victims of HIV criminalization in Athens.

Previously: Painting on and painting off ISIS propaganda.

Khandayati. Turning objects of oppression into spinning weapons

Maya Jay Varadaraj, Station 1 + Station 2 + Station 3. Photo credit: Jonathan Allen

Maya Jay Varadaraj, Large Chakras. Photo Credit: Jonathan Allen

Patriarchal mindsets, abuses and discrimination make India a dangerous country to be a woman. The violence against women can take many forms. Some are blatant such as female foeticide, rape and dowry. Others are more subtle and embedded into mainstream culture.

Take glass bangles for example. The colourful pieces of jewellery are worn by married women all over India. The meaning and rituals associated with bangles may differ from state to state but the essence remains the same: women should never remove nor break them as it would be bad omen for the husband. The bangles are thus handled with great care, making them more precious than the women who wear them. When the husband dies, the glass bangles are smashed from the widow‘s arms.

Photo: Fashion lady

Maya Jay Varadaraj sees the glass bangles as gestures and objects that condone the oppression of women and normalize violence towards them. While studying at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago under the guidance of Ilona Gaynor, the young designer developed a project that uses ordinary household objects to reduce these bangles to dust and then transform them into chakras. A chakra (or chakram) has the same circular shape as the bangle but in the right hands, such as the ones of the female goddess Durga, it becomes a throwing weapon, a symbol of female power and energy.

She explained me why she believes that the tradition of wearing bangles so objectionable:

“These bangles transcend class. When I tell my family that I refuse to wear them during my wedding, they immediately react by telling me: ‘You are destroying your own culture.’ But why would I want to support misogynic aspects of a culture?

Nowadays, women and men are protesting the treatment of women in India but they don’t question the symbols of misogyny because they are attached to their cultural aspects and I find that very hypocritical. That’s also one of the reasons why I wanted the destruction process of the bangles to be transparent: it is an irreverent way to react to the symbol. It signifies that ‘culture’ doesn’t justify everything”

The process that transforms an object of oppression into a one that denotes strength is as follows…

Maya Jay Varadaraj, Station 1 + Station 2 detail. Photo credit: Jonathan Allen

First, the bangles are crushed inside a wet grinder (an appliance used often in Indian cuisine for grinding food grains to produce a paste or batter.) The grinder connects to a vacuum cleaner that sucks up all the shards and drops them into a mixing bowl.

Maya Jay Varadaraj, Station 1 detail. Photo credit: Jonathan Allen

Maya Jay Varadaraj, Station 1 detail with crushed glass. Photo credit: Jonathan Allen

In the final step in the transformation, the shards are spread in a circular motion and placed inside a microwavable kiln. After a few minutes, the shards have melted into chakras.

Maya Jay Varadaraj, Station 3 detail: kiln in the microwave. Photo Credit: Jonathan Allen

Maya Jay Varadaraj, Chakra made in a microwavable kiln

Maya Jay Varadaraj, Large Chakras. Photo Credit: Jonathan Allen

The project is called Khandayati, meaning “to break” in Sanskrit. “A lot of Indian epics and laws were first written in Sanskrit and then translated into all the other languages,” the designer explains. “It was important to me to use the same language while confronting these laws and traditions.”

The objects are displayed under acrylic vitrines as if they were anthropological artifacts documenting the protest of Indian women who had hacked pieces of household electronics in order to destroy and transform objects that forcefully defined them.

In addition to objects, garments, and traditions, the identity of women in India has also been prescribed by idealized imagery such as the ones printed on the calendars sold by the Empire Calendar Company. Varadaraj modified some of these images through digital collage in order to question and confuse traditional identities.

Maya Jay Varadaraj, W**** at T**. Photo Credit: Jonathan Allen

‘Khandayati’ exhibited at Design Show 2017, Block 37, Chicago, Illinois, May 2017. Photo Credit: Ambika Singh

Maya Jay Varadaraj working on the prototypes

Maya Jay Varadaraj, Station 3 detail. Photo credit: Jonathan Allen

For more details and background, check out the Graduate Student Lecture that Maya Jay Varadaraj gave at SAIC a few months ago.

Presumed Guilty: stereotypes of female criminals

Robert Capa, Just after the liberation of the town, a French woman who had a baby with a German soldier was punished by having her head shaved, Chartres, France, 18 August 1944

Carl Mydans, A tondue, 1944

I’ll never forget the stories my grandmother used to tell me about the ‘shaved women of the Libération. After the Second World War, women accused of having worked with the nazi invader, spied for them, denounced their neighbours, and participated to nazi operations were paraded in the street, insulted, spat on, beaten, etc. The apotheosis of this public humiliation was the moment when men (they were usually men) would shave the head of the women as a punishment for being a ‘traitress’. Roughly 20 000 women were shaved in France in 1944-1945.

However, the only crime committed by some of these women was horizontal collaboration. They had slept with a German out of love, conviction, necessity, under duress or simply because they were prostitutes. All of them lost their hair, symbol of seduction and perdition. Of course, men were punished for colluding with the German invader as well but only women were stigmatized and punished for ‘sleeping with the enemy’.

Album-souvenir d’Isabelle H. (Paris, trips in Normandy and on the French Riviera in the company of a German officer), 1944. Arch. nat. Z/6/1236

Album-souvenir d’Isabelle Hyer. Paris, trips in Normandy and on the French Riviera, 1944. (© Archives nationales)

Young woman and German soldier in Paris, investigation file of Marguerite P. Arch. nat., Z/6/123/1176

Women shaved and paraded on a truck in Cherbourg, 1945

Presumed Guilty, an exhibition at the Archives Nationales in Paris, explores how women have been judged according to different sets of values -and often with less impartiality- than men. From the XIVth Century to the end of the Second World War, French women were ‘presumed guilty’. They were judged for their crimes (or what was perceived as such) but also simply for being women. Something pertaining to their gender made them more likely to commit certain types of crimes. Until 1946, these women were interrogated by men, judged by men and condemned by them.

The exhibition examines this position through five archetypes of female felons: the witch, the poisoner, the child-killer, the rebel arsonist, and the traitor.

Between the XVth and the XVIIIth Century, 110 000 trials for witchcraft were held throughout France. 80 % of the accused were women. Women were regarded as weaker than men and thus more susceptible to be seduced and perverted by the devil.

It was believed that the devil would touch the woman and leave a mark on her body when they made their pact. The mark was supposed to be insensitive to pain. The investigators would thus meticulously examine the naked body of the accused woman and then prick their body with a blade. If the woman did not flinch nor bleed, it was a proof that they were a witch. Women were also asked questions about their sexuality, in particular the details of their copulation with the devil.

Violette Nozière who poisoned her parents

Violette Nozière during her trial in Paris in 1934. Photo credit: Rene Dazy, Rue des Archives, Paris, France

In the modern era, the figure of the witch with her potions and knowledge of herbs was replaced by the one of the female poisoner. Poison was seen as the woman’s weapon of choice. “Brave” men kill with a knife. Cowardly women with drugs. Poisoning someone was adjudged to be more shocking than homicide: it suggested premeditation, ruse and hypocrisy and therefore merited greater punishment. Furthermore, the crime indicated a woman who had chosen to depart from her traditional role of a ‘nurturer’.

Berthe V., arrested for child killing. Archives départementales de Loire-Atlantique

Encore un carreau d’cassé (young pregnant maid and her boss), published in Le Rire, 12th year, 1905-1906. Arch. nat., AE/II/3734

A fourth figure of criminal is the child-killer. These were often girls who had only a vague understanding of what their body was going through and were afraid of losing their ‘reputation’ and thus any chance of ever finding a good husband. Some had been raped, victims of incest or just naive. During the trials, the judges often interrogated them about the seduction and intercourse that led to an undesired childbearing.

Justice was harsh to these women. At least until the XIXth century when society finally recognized that men had to bear some responsibility for the shame, misery and despair of these women.

The anarchist Germaine Berton, 1921

Then came the pétroleuses, the women accused to have used bottles full of petroleum or paraffin (similar to modern-day Molotov cocktails) to set on fire key buildings in Paris during the radical socialist and revolutionary government that briefly ruled the French capital in 1871. Many government buildings were indeed set afire by the soldiers of the Commune but it was only only the rumour that attributed the arson to women. Hundreds of pétroleuses (a word that has no equivalent for men) were brought before a court, none were recognized guilty of intentional firing. But the myth perdured and the term was applied to rebellious women who didn’t conform to the rules that govern their gender and whose beliefs and gestures couldn’t be controlled by men.

Germaine Berton, for example, was born long after the Commune but she was seen as a marginal, a kind of pétroleuse. Berton was a young anarchist activist who shot one of the leaders of the French Far Right organization known as Action française. She was arrested and claimed responsibility for the crime. Everything about her belied the ideal of a woman: she had political opinions, she acted alone, was single and wore short hair. On 24th December 1923, the tribunal found her not guilty of the crime. The judges didn’t want to turn her into a martyr so they claimed she couldn’t be held responsible for her act.

Unfortunately, Presumed Guilty closes today. It is a fascinating exhibition. 320 interrogation records and previously unseen documents give their voice back to these women.

The exhibition closes at the end of the Second World War but as we all know (glass ceiling and all that), the fight for equality, dignity and recognition is not over for many women across the world.

On a side note, i was very surprised to see how few men were visiting the exhibition on the day i was there. There were dozens of women of all ages but only one ‘husband’.

Workers monitored by a nun, drawing by Aristide Delannoy, L’Assiette au beurre, 1901. Arch. nat. AE/11/2940

Gustave Jamet, Women’s government, 1848. Arch. nat., AE/II/3513

Police report about Léonie Bathiat, better known as Arletty, Paris, 3 October 1945. Arch. nat., Z/6SN/105, dossier 40863

Letter of remission from 1457 for the execution in Marmande of several women accused of witchcraft. Arch. nat., JJ//187, fol. 22 v°

Presumed guilty 14th-20th century is at the Hôtel de Soubise, Archives Nationales in Paris unil 27 March 2017.

Image on the homepage found over here.