An anonymous artist is calling out regressive practices within marriage
Smish Designs won’t use her real name, but she doesn’t hold back. The 33-year-old Mumbai artist, graphic designer and illustrator caused ripples in the art world with her first solo exhibition, Pati, Patni Aur Woke, which ran at the city’s Method art gallery in March. In it, and on Instagram (@smishdesigns), she delves into marriage as an Indian institution and emerges with digital art that feature bindis replaced by bloodied cuts in a comment on domestic violence and wedding pictures with a price tag attached to the groom, in a statement on dowry.
The artist has been posting her exhibited work and new pieces on Instagram, where she has attracted nearly 60,000 followers and quite a few trolls. The trolling just makes her more determined, she says. Excerpts from an interview:
Tell us about the Pati, Patni Aur Woke collection.
The exhibition delved into the many layers of marriage as an institution and how women are disadvantaged within it. I try and capture the many disbenefits that women are subjected to within wedlock, while also covering the subtleties of this patriarchal norm that suffocates women.
One installation was two bowls on a table. In one is everything a woman has to wear after marriage. In the other are the married man’s accessories. The woman’s bowl contains a ring, sindoor, bichhia (toe ring), mangalsutra, bangles, bindis. The man’s bowl has just a ring.
I thought of creating the collection because I grew up seeing excessively bad marriages around me in which women were expected to compromise and be “flexible”, no matter how bad the conditions. This exhibition, in a way, is an attack on the much-abused term “sanctity of marriage,” a term often used by the judiciary to silence married women and their struggles.
The institution of marriage inherently favours men over women; so do the laws. In India, there is still no concept of sexual consent in marriage. Talking about the disadvantages of being an Indian married woman should be normalised. It’s a lived experience for a good fraction of the population.
What are the challenges you face as an artist? Why do you choose to remain anonymous?
There’s a lot of trolling on social media spaces if you are consciously creating anti-establishment work. As a woman, every time I post on women’s empowerment and feminist themes, I get trolled. It’s a hard space to exist in, both as a resistance artist and as a woman. But I would like to add that the support and encouragement are way more than the trolling, so I’m very grateful for that. It is what keeps me going. Being anonymous gives me a sense of freedom to create whatever I like without the weight of my identity coming in the way of my art.
What can you tell us about your own life and how your opinions and experiences of feminism and patriarchy have shaped it?
I feel like feminism has saved me many times from complying with the orthodox setup that I grew up in. I am still learning how best to practise it and apply it in my life. It has given me a sense of freedom and liberty that I feel I was denied, growing up in a patriarchal family. With me, my family has evolved too, and are now more accepting of my stance as a woman and an artist.