I didn’t think twice about qualifying myself as a Third World feminist when I was recently asked to describe my approach to an artwork being developed for an institution in South Tyrol. . I was enlisted to help curators write captions for some specific works of art at an upcoming exhibition that quite explicitly dealt with systemic racism, gay rights, gender violence, and xenophobia. In addition to giving context to each work, the curators were eager for me to include a perspective as well. I felt unsure about such an undertaking, as layering the perspective within the wall caption text could make it feel like an overly dense reading. I have a personal dislike for overly long wall captions in art shows. I want the lessons to be snappy and provide enough information to make the art accessible. I hate when a text tells me how to feel about a sculpture, painting, or installation. I proposed to record an audio guide which could be made available via QR code. Therefore, visitors can choose to listen to my impressions of the exhibition either in the gallery, or at home, or while driving… The QR code made it site-specific without binding to location.
Since I am thinking of art criticism as a result of the metabolism of art, thus prioritizing the emotional and physical registers of the body, it was important for me to be transparent about my position. In fact, I believe it should be standard practice for any type of authorship. I think it is an act of thought towards the reader or viewer allowing for transparency. I wanted to call upon the grayness of my body within the audience’s imagination and also suggest that I do not ‘belong’ to the context in which the work is being shown, but come from somewhere else, and therefore separate things. I see that way.
To characterize my feminism as third world was to say that it is the lens through which I engage with everyday politics. But the curators could not ‘find’ the various nuances hidden within the ‘Third World’ signpost. They were justifiably concerned about how it did not translate well into German or Italian, the primary language of the audience here. I was told that ‘third world’ is an old-fashioned descriptor. My partner agreed that the ‘first world’ was no longer polite to either refer to itself or be referred to as such. I could see how embarrassing it could be for someone to declare their privilege. But his restlessness seemed to me unable to accommodate his political will, depending on whether one’s identity was created by being either a colonist or a colonist. For a First World to accept that they remained a First World, it would mean that their wealth and status were the result of colonialism.
I’ve always kept ‘Third World’ as part of my biography because I’ve been invested in maintaining the legacy of feminists of color whose advocacy disrupted the whiteness of second wave feminism. To call ‘Third World feminism’ is to set political ideology beyond the Anglo-Saxon world and to recognize the immense contribution of feminists of color who come from previously colonized or colonized places or even the margins of political discourse. Huh. To me, the word has always felt not only valid but valid and visible. When I was faced with the curator’s reluctance, I suddenly began to doubt myself. I wondered if I had missed a memo about retiring period and momentarily forgot that they were acting like white feminists, oblivious to the wealth of feminist discourse across a spectrum of color and quirk. His intentions were by no means ambiguous. They were ignorant of the legacy that I am coding within my practice.
Still, I did a quick search online to check again if I needed to update my definition of the word. I found a synopsis of a paper by Ipshita Chanda, which echoed my intuition about the term: ‘Third World’ is defined in relation to colonialism and post-colonial world systems, which are characterized by the general prevalence of sexual exploitation and oppression. Keeping the bases in mind. as well as the peculiarities of diverse histories, pre-colonial structures and colonial policies.’ Another detail on the Amherst College website resonates with me: Third World feminism holds that women’s activism in the Third World does not stem from First World ideologies and is particularly relevant to those of the Third World in their local/national contexts and conflicts. Focuses on the fundamentalism of women.
At that point I was so absorbed between childcare, full-time work commitments, recovering from COVID and trying to be functional that I didn’t have the energy to challenge their reservation. I would have liked to refer to her in the historical anthology This Bridge Called My Back which celebrates this situation, and in particular Gloria Anzaldua’s Speaking in Tongues: A Letter to Three World Women Writers, which has of course been translated into many languages. would have gone. Instead, I tried to negotiate. I had previously proposed ‘Feminist of Colour’, but felt dissatisfied with the term because it did not adequately describe my recent immigrant status. I wanted it to know that I come from a different context. Finally, the curator proposed a ‘feminist from India’. I agreed to this deal, very weak-willed from COVID.
Since then, I’ve been thinking about what it means to offer a platform, but it’s still up to someone to determine the parameters of your identity. It is a form of controversial violence very familiar to third world feminists like me.
Deliberating on the life and times of Everywoman, Roslyn D’Mello is a distinguished art critic and author of A Handbook for My Lover. she tweets @RosaParx
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The views expressed in this column are those of the individual and do not represent the views of the paper.