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Innocent Eyes!: Ekphrasis and the Defiant Multiplicity of the Female Gaze

1 November 2017

Saaro Umar’s ‘ode;     to blue’ is synesthesia on the screen. She writes that the senses ‘crave melody.’ Sound and music abound here. Indeed, ‘all [the narrator] thinks about is Beyoncé.’ Beyoncé, whose regal bearing, compelling songs and dance moves, and ability to inspire people the world over, are goddess-like – and she is also a woman of colour. Throughout there is fluid movement from tactile feeling to sight to hearing to gesture to enquiring thoughts. The poem is sinewy on the page – arguably following the shape of a curvy woman’s body, or a river in motion, or smoke being taken for a ride by the breeze. Or the onward push of the desire to be, to love and to create, that compels us into unexpected shapes in unpredictable places. In Umar’s poem, the woman is a performer a few years shy of her fifteen minutes of fame, but always alert for the opportunity that will change everything. Despite the gloom of the initial two photographs, Umar’s poem portrays the woman as always mentally inhabiting the space where her body is nude and free beneath the stars, her future as a goddess an inevitability.

Ellen van Neerven’s poem is titled ‘workshop’. The first line ‘we left crumbs on Country’ is an emphatic reminder of where this collaboration takes place: on stolen land, on Country that is home to stories and poetry that have travelled throughout generations and around, that leave traces everywhere that we only miss because we don’t know where or how to look. The poem speaks of work – the work it takes to unlearn the inability to see differently. But it is also a poem about strangeness, or queerness if you will. The idea that a woman could want to work, and would choose work, over or in addition to other pursuits (namely, offering herself as a prop for colonial and patriarchal satisfaction) is still odd today. The idea that a woman would want to work on art – especially art that isn’t intended to satisfy a racist and / or heterosexual male gaze – is even odder. The quiet, straightforward confidence in these verses shows how a muted approach to the world, like the desaturated look of the photographs, is no less strong, defiant or powerful. A subtle tilt of the head, a nuanced gesture, can in some situations be more weighty than a loud and bright expulsion of energy in a time when it almost feels like all sentences end in exclamation points.

Looking at all these linked works of visual and verbal art, it is obvious that the female gaze is a misnomer. Just like there is no one way to be female – and especially just as the signifier ‘female’ isn’t a stand-in for a signified white cisgender heterosexual able-bodied woman – there is no single totalising female gaze. The gaze can land on a female form and birth a multiplicity of moods, characters, life stories, relationships. The female form beneath the multiple female gaze is always more than merely a still and seductive thing. The ekphrastic poetry here is always more than merely serenade. If the male gaze is an effort to possess something exotic and ornamental, the poetry here is a way of being-with the subject, being-there in the space in which the subject dwells.





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