Classically educated in Italy, a doctor in Law and a docent for the Singapore Art Museum, Daniela Beltrani gained her Master of Arts in Contemporary Asian Art Histories in 2011 from LaSalle CIA, Singapore.
Since 2010 Daniela has curated several exhibitions and written for art publications and catalogues. In June 2011 she set up a performance art platform by the name of S.P.A.M.
Her interest in performance art both as spectator and performer allows her to explore the Self and its different levels of communication.
In September 2012, she was invited to be part of an all-women artists show titled The Gender Under Reflections in Yangon and RAP spoke to her about the works she presented and life choices she made recently to become an artist.
Question: You were invited to present in The Gender Under Reflections in Yangon, Myanmar in September 2012. Tell us more about the exhibition in general.
Daniela Beltrani (Daniela): The exchange programme by the name of The Gender Under Reflections was a multifaceted event organised by a Burmese artist, Nora, in Yangon, Myanmar, between 25 and 27 September 2012, with the financial support from Heinrich Boll Stiftung and backing from New Zero Art Space and involved 20 Southeast Asia based female artists (12 Burmese and 8 foreigners) .
It was articulated in a visual art exhibition at Lokanat Galleries, a symposium and a performance art event at New Zero Art Space.
Q: The work you presented was titled Shifting Angle which was from what I have learnt, quite a durational process of research and interviews were involved. What is the work about?
Daniela: More details are included in the catalogue. But two main considerations brought me to conceptualise Shifting Angle.
The first concerns myself alone. When I was first invited, I was overcome with a feeling of humbleness at being considered like any other female SEA artist and decided to bring more than myself to the arena. Appealing to that sense of sisterhood that surpasses national borders, I decided to present the experience of other female artists from Singapore, not just mine. With my practice at the moment I firmly believe that art should create connections and bring people together and it is not only about THE artist. The relational aesthetics of Bourriaud spring to mind! Anyway, I invited a selection of practising female artists based in Singapore to share with me their considerations and experience of how being a woman influences their art making, not only from the conceptual viewpoint but also from the practical one. This investigative stage of the project was an amazing experience of re/discovery of familiar/new grounds, which gave me precious insights in fellow artists’ practice.
The second was a consequence of the feeling of sisterhood I had experienced when interviewing all the artists. I wanted to literally cut a space in the gallery in Yangon and channel what we had all shared and I had brought to Myanmar by offering the local audience entering the space something contextual. One of the segments of the event was the symposium. All the participating artists took turn in sharing their practice and experience of being a female artist. Something that struck me was the condition of the woman in Yangon as shared by the Burmese artists: from issues of control and restriction masked as protection to wrong attitudes towards one’s body taught within family, school and society. The examples of daily abuse etc abounded but one in particular that shocked me was the behaviour of some men on buses towards their female fellow passengers: they touch and rub the erections on their bodies, knowing full well that the woman subject to this cannot move or do anything to protect herself. I was told that the problem escalated to such levels that the government set up female only buses for essential lines. This attitude, prima facie protecting the women, only contributes to prolong the lack of respect these men have and does not really solve the problem. The approach the women exposed to such abuse is so that the body is continuously seen as something to cover, something bad that can instigate men to such behaviours. I was subject to this too in my native Italy, Spain, France and Morocco. Furthermore, the recent events in India are another example of this attitude that is widespread and does not really know national borders.
And so, recounting centuries of female nudes in the visual arts, from the Renaissance onwards, created for the male audience, I decided that behind the screen, I would undress and show myself naked for the female audience only. The main purposes of this were to share my physicality with pride and to encourage the women to become masters of their body again and not be ashamed of them, because the sense of shame is only inculcated into us from a chauvinistic and patriarchal retrograde society which is so concerned with controlling women and limiting their potentials.
The reaction was overwhelming and, I think empowering. At the end of my performance, which was the last to conclude the entire event, all the women who had entered the Shifting Angle space, surrounded me and hugged me to show their understanding and solidarity in our individual daily fight against prejudice. Yet this project and the entire event was not about fighting at all, but rather offering an alternative in cutting a space where we women could become aware of our powers and limitations and thus grow further to unlock the potential that a small-minded society imposes on us from birth! Worth to note that only my mother was ecstatically happy at my birth, the rest of the family were waiting for the boy able to carry the family name.
Q: “The issue was not about feminism or fighting rather about awareness”, you stated this in our previous Facebook message exchanges and I find this very interesting as it breaks the initial perception that an all-women show is easily misconceived as a feminist show, which then suggests a certain degree of angst. Can you explain more about this, and also why you choose to differentiate yourself from feminism, both in the context of the exhibition and your work.
Daniela: Unfortunately when a woman claims a space for herself, depending on the context, she can often be labelled with degrading or limiting words: a woman of loose habits or an angry feminist. The truth is simply that because of the past, audiences are not “used” to propose other readings to an all female event and maybe organisers/artists too!
The exchange programme title was very clear: The Gender Under Reflection. The reflection is an act towards oneself, it is about looking inward. It is not concerned with the “other” but with oneself and the awareness that such reflection can bring. None of the women i met showed any signs of angst, besides it would have been such a waste of energy. We celebrated art and ourselves.
The “turn” my performances have recently taken points to a general appeal to humanity in all its mesmerising variety and beyond the restricting parameters a particular society wants to labels all of us with. In my daily life, a passport will not tell me how to behave and react to others. I am a woman and i belong to the human race. Humanity is what connects us all and what I want to claim as my artistic concern. Paradoxically, it is a point of departure and a destination too.
In an additional performance (Myanmar women no borders) I created for the opening of the visual art exhibition segment, with the help of a local artist, Thadar Nyo, I dressed in a Burmese traditional outfit complete with scented flowers and thanaka cream and I graciously pulled the pink threads from a map of Burma I had previously sewn, to tell the women living in Burma that their pain is my pain, their abuse is my abuse and how can I sleep at night knowing a sister is being touched on the bus or raped or given less choices because of being born a woman in a culture of shame or guilt?
Q: Coming back to your work, you mentioned that you created a performance only to women. Again, I find this very intriguing as gender-specific rule for audiences are rare in performance works, even in theatre or alternative performing arts, but they are very strong. Why is this the reason for your works? And was the exhibition curated by a man?
Daniela: The entire event was curated and organised by a woman, Nora.
By the way, I have no qualms in having made the choice of rejecting the male audience a priori. It served beautifully the purpose of my performance and in a sense they witnessed the performance too, only from a different perspective, for example from the reaction of the women exiting the space. This surely would have been an interesting aspect. I merely offered two different viewpoints according to the gender.
Perhaps I already answered this question above, but let me add that the men in the audience did not appear critical of the announcement I made prior to the performance and stayed for its entire duration. This was a very respectful and encouraging attitude. Hopefully they took something back with them through the “exclusion” and turned it into a positive experience.
Q: You have also created performance works which are heavily influenced from the idea of gender and womanhood, also video performances responding to such issues. Interestingly, they are far from sexual. I want to know what are your views about women issues, both in sexual and non sexual manners of exploration? Are there any different in importance?
Daniela: Women issues…. mmmm, that is a lot to ponder over, but I guess we can start with the “body,” before we enter the realm of the expected female roles in society.
Let me start by saying that the body of a woman can be a very powerful tool: mankind history across many cultures offers a plethora of examples where women used it as currency, in exchange for things, tangible and intangible.
At my expense and in my naivety I learnt how its power cannot be underestimated or ignored during a performance. After all the body is the primary (not only) tool of a performance artist. A woman simply MUST be/come aware of her body and how she can use it to achieve her purpose. Hiding it is also a strategy. Nudity is just one way of using the body and certainly does not cover its range of possibilities and neither is its apex. I often find nudity (like violence and extreme actions) a cheap thrill or a shortcut to obtain a reaction from the audience, which inevitably it does because of our widespread culture of shame/guilt since we were kicked out of the garden of Eden…it is simply guaranteed to work, just like sex sells: songs, videos, magazines, movies, advertisements, politics, personal affairs, …
In one performance, entitled “Failures” and dedicated to my mother, I willingly gave up one of my heavy silk Hollywood style dresses and high heels of my previous life, whilst preparing Italian noodles live. The brusk movements and heavy work this entailed highlighted dynamically, and apparently provocatively, the shape of my body, particularly the breasts, and some of the feedback I received was not at all what I expected but revolved around the “distraction” my body caused. The failed role of wife/housewife I was trying to portray became completely lost in the way my body was presented and moved. It certainly was a double failure for me.
And so, whilst being comfortable, I try to dress anonymously (typically a long black skirt I bought from Kensington market, London, in 1994 and a black vest or t-shirt depending on how hot it is) so as not to distract my audience: I am a performance artist, not a prostitute or glamour girl seeking sexual attention.
Generally speaking and so far in my performances, I want the audience to see ME, as a whole, as a human being, acknowledging my sex only as a mere description detail, like the colour of my skin or hair or eyes: they are noted but transcended.
As for what concerns women roles in society, through the interviews I conducted, I realised that across different cultures some expectations tend to be the same and have to do with the inner quality of what a woman is and how she is physically “built:” typically a woman is meant to bring life, is soft and wet, is gentle and nurturing, is made to fulfill her duty, that to become a mother and she is reminded of this every month. I am not talking about choices or lack of here, but the nature following its intended path (procreation of the species, in the human and animal world): the physicality of the woman in a sense predetermines her future. This nature has inherent the roles of wife and mother and all the plethora of expectations that go with them. Women are typically not hunters, they are gatherers and settlers.
But in my personal path, I ended up becoming suffocated by these roles and felt that I had become almost anonymous and lost myself and my own identity. I did not know who I was anymore. Perhaps for most women, this is ok: they are satisfied at raising children and serving their husband, but somehow I felt it did not satisfy that tiny light that was still shining feebly somewhere inside me and wanted to be found and made brighter. And so I followed it and by Jove, did I not pay the price for my choice and still do.
A divorce still carries stigma in some sections of society…
Q: Having a background of living in the west and born in Italy, what do you feel, growing up with classic historical master paintings which were done by men but portraying women, many times naked?
Daniela: Ah interestingly you brought this up too. As I mentioned above, the Western art since the Renaissance was created to celebrate mankind, no longer God as the Middles Ages had done. This arrogance served different purposes, mostly celebratory, but sometimes titillating. And so Western art is full of naked goddesses or heroines or even, daringly, Bible characters who are portrayed undoubtedly for a male audience. That is also why I kept my nakedness to a female audience, because I did not wish to titillate and encourage misunderstanding in the reading of my performance. Furthermore, it was a one-to-one encounter, not a choral one and therefore even more intimate…
Q: Being a Caucasian in South East Asia and being a middle class white woman in a developing part of the world, how do you observe the art scene in Singapore, and maybe in Yangon, as a response from your participation in The Gender Under Reflections?
Daniela: I say just this: a lot of it has to do with keeping appearances and saving face, I think the word I am looking for is kiasu. But I am proud to say that my mother tried to raise me as she was, a woman of substance, where the Prada or Gucci bags she likes may come with an honest and genuine appreciation of beauty and skill, rather than an intention of showing off. The contents can never be sacrificed for the sake of the form. That is why perhaps I am not so popular…
In Yangon there was none of that, pardon my vulgar colloquialism, crap. With one or two exceptions perhaps, there was no kiasu attitude, rather the opposite, it was about solidarity, sisterhood, understanding, mutual and genuine assistance for no glory but the pleasure of a smile.
On the other hand, too much humility can be fatal and one has to be weary of the surroundings whilst keeping their integrity.
I have answered this question without referencing the “Caucasian middles class woman living in SEA.” I leave that for next question.
Q: In Singapore, there are many expatriates female artists who are also housewives. This of course, creates layers of social and economical differences, and maybe as one of them, do you feel discriminated, or treated differently for the better from the local art scene?
Daniela: I had experienced discrimination before, in the UK, in many occasions. So this was not new to me. But I guess I accepted it as I do now, as the price to pay for the benefit of experiencing this marvellous and mesmerising world. Plus anyway, for all those who discriminated me I had 10 times more people who accepted me and welcomed me. So it is not all bad!
My upbringing in Rome in the 70s, 80s and part of the 90s meant I was surrounded by predominantly white people, Catholic, Italian. But I was always drawn to the “other”: having a mother coming from another country made me feel special and different and I enjoyed this status and wanted more of that. Why did I need to stay in a place which was so familiar? I never liked following the crowd. My favourite Alexandrine poet Callimachus wrote a beautiful verse: oud’apo krenes pino, loosely translated “I do not drink at the fountain where everybody else drinks from.” It is not about snobbery for me, but rather exploration. I think my classical education, which taught me to question everything, had something to do with it.
Returning to the discrimination issue in Singapore, also in relation to the class position, insofar as most Caucasian women who come to Singapore accompany their husband and therefore come here with plenty of money and opportunities to have a certain lifestyle, I am proving to be a different case because of certain choices I made. Choices define us: I left my husband, I chose to live alone for a year and half, I moved to a flat in Little India (not a condo), I respect my helper and appreciate all she does for me, most of my friends are naturally Singaporean from all ethnic backgrounds, my partner is of Chinese descent…I do not like to judge by parameters others decide: my life is a case by case situation, maybe that is why it may not make so much sense to others, because it is a life lived at the margins, at the borders where there are more possibilities.
Anyway, people who don’t know me at all, only see the outside of me and naturally recour to their indirect knowledge or previous shallow encounters with people like me who fall into the “Caucasian-middle-class-woman-in-Singapore” section of humanity and their categorising mind has to find a place where to put me and so l end up in that group. It is only through encounter followed by the phase of getting to know one another that their prejudiced and impersonal idea of me may change. So in a sense, i am not even annoyed at this discriminating attitude they have, because in most cases it is due to mere ignorance. If anything, I am sorry for them and their limiting vision of the world and I must do anything in my power to show them that there are alternatives.
Q. What are your current research and any upcoming projects?
Daniela: Upcoming projects, but still in early stages, are curating two exhibitions and a performance art event in Singapore, one mural event in Nepal and writing more about art.
Also, I would like to pick up S.P.A.M. where it was left off after this long break of three months.
Furthermore, my permanent research is focused on performance art studies and so I continue reading texts, attending/organising events and writing about it.
Q: Any words for artists who work similarly as you?
Daniela: Explore. Be honest. Never give up.
Check out more of Daniela’s works in her online poftfolio here.