One of the most significant Indian artists of her generation, Tejal Shah (b. 1979) works in video, photography, and performance. For her first U.S. solo exhibition, she presents a new video installation in which the pliable language of gender is explored in a physical, concrete manner not only by her chosen subjects but also through the medium itself. Moving casually between staged performances, documentary, music video and appropriation, Shah’s “What are You?” creates a direct relationship to her subjects’ manipulations of their own gender.
Rapidly paced shots of beach breakers and close ups of skin establish the space of the video-film both geographically – Bombay, and conceptually – the body. Next, our subjects appear: full length figures against a black void of non-association. These portraits, removed from any context, direct our attention to the physicality of several members of the hijra (transgender) community. There is something unsettling in this direct confrontation. The women, who are staring at us, begin a recitation of their constitutionally guaranteed rights. Their self-conscious performativity falls with a burst of laughter irritating our reading of their relationship to the recited text.
Interspersed with ‘70s, governmentally produced, medical clips and industrial footage about ‘man and his complicated machines’, the film moves into the documentation of one individual’s experience of the gender reassignment process. The split screen presents to us simultaneously the content and beautiful result contrasted with the doctor’s uneasy, clinical account of the transformation. The film concludes with slow dancing bodies moving with colorful, neo-op, go-go patterns inviting us to the life embracing vitality of this community.
As a result of her ongoing involvement, Shah, for this project, spent time with Hijra sex-workers in the red-light district of Bombay. The installation includes four beds, which are based on those found in local brothels. Arranged barrack style and painted in a distressed mauve finish she creates an environment, which fictionalizes a reality in stark contrast to the realized fiction of the film. Ultimately, gender, reality and fiction remain slippery concepts which, due to their interdependence, refuse to function traditionally in the encapsulating visual and theoretical space the artist has created.