How anonymous, Gurgaon-based artist Princess Pea emerged as a symbol of the everywoman. And why she’s pro-burkha
“Hello, this is Princess Pea.”
“Hello, err…, Princess.”
The best place to meet an artist is the gallery. Preferably the day they’re setting up. They tend to be relaxed, alone, considering their work from a viewer’s perspective. With some luck, you might catch the most esoteric ones at their chattiest.
Of course, that possibility doesn’t exist when your artist is a plastic-head-wearing 35-year-old only known by her assumed identity: Princess Pea. In my flesh-and-skull head, I imagine it’s a bit like speaking to Banksy. Minus the anarchism.
Anonymity isn’t novel to contemporary art. With street artists, it’s necessitated by the anti-establishment messages, and the disruptive choice of canvas: public walls.
But Pea is more Daft Punk than Banksy. She’s a performer, whose photographic works feature her in regular settings — a living room, a wooden-toys factory, the beach. The effect is comic, but also superhero-ish in its ability to look extraordinary in a mundane frame.
“I do feel like a superhero,” says Pea, over the phone, a week ahead of her debut Mumbai show, Sunrise Ceremonies.
Masks evoke curiosity. And her choice is as clever as it is deviant. Fresh out of Delhi College of Art, she tried things as her real self “for three-four years”. But it was her first solo show as Pea — Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious (a song from Mary Poppins, 1964) — at the Delhi Art Fair (2009) that got her noticed. The art world is notorious for judging artists by their age and experience. But Pea was ageless, faceless.
“I wanted something that’d go beyond discrimination of gender, age, being gay [sexual orientation]…” The character, Pea — as she’s often reiterated — draws from two people: her, and her sister. “She was heavy; I was lean.” It was often pointed out to them while growing up.
“The enlarged head is like a deformity, an imperfection.” A statement on the perceived physical imperfections women are made aware of. In being from Gurgaon — “the city scares me. I don’t go out after dark” — it also reverses the diktat on how women should dress. Instead of hiding her body, she hides her identity.
Her most powerful work so far is a series called Vague. She poses on mock covers of the fashion magazine, with cover lines used to hilarious effect. “What fashion makes you aspire for is often not real,” she says.
But just when you think you have her figured out, Pea springs a surprise. As the conversation veers from anonymity to the much-debated burkha, Pea says, “They look fab.” She elaborates: “I love the burkha. Men will stop looking if you wear one… If I have a daughter, I won’t allow her to wear something short, because I know the rickshawalla will be looking at her.” As an afterthought, she adds, “You think girls can do whatever they want. But the reality is that they can’t.”
I get the cynicism. She has that in common with most anonymous artists. But by now, the person on the other end of the line seems more real, with human judgment and frailty, than a masked champion. The duality is hard to resolve. Perhaps she has that in common with most superheroes.
The writer tweets as @saritray2001