Anonymous artist denounces regressive marriage practices

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Smish Designs won’t use her real name, but she isn’t holding back. The 33-year-old Mumbai artist, graphic designer and illustrator made waves in the art world with her first solo exhibition, Pati, Patni Aur Woke, which took place at the Method Art Gallery in the city in March. In it and on Instagram (@smishdesigns), she takes a look at marriage as an Indian institution and emerges with digital art that features bindis replaced with bloody cuts in a commentary on domestic violence and wedding photos with a price tag attached to the groom, in a dowry statement.

The artist posted her exhibited work and new pieces on Instagram, where she attracted nearly 60,000 followers and quite a few trolls. Trolling just makes her more determined, she says. Excerpts from an interview:

Tell us about the Pati collection, Patni Aur Woke.

The exhibit explored the many layers of marriage as an institution and how women are disadvantaged therein. I try to capture the many disadvantages that women face in marriage, while also covering the intricacies of this patriarchal norm that suffocates women.

One installation consisted of two bowls on a table. In one is everything a woman needs to wear after marriage. In the other, the accessories of the married man. The woman’s bowl contains a ring, sindoor, bichhia (toe ring), mangalsutra, bracelets, bindis. The man’s bowl has only one ring.

I thought about creating the collection because I grew up seeing exceedingly bad marriages around me in which women were expected to compromise and be “flexible” no matter the conditions. This exhibit, in a way, is an attack on the much abused term “sanctity of marriage,” a term often used by justice to silence married women and their struggles.

A digital artwork from Smish Designs acts as a commentary on how motherhood is commodified.

The institution of marriage inherently favors men over women; the laws too. In India, there is still no concept of sexual consent in marriage. Talking about the disadvantages of being a married Indian woman should be normalized. It is 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 is a lot of trolling on social media spaces if you consciously create anti-establishment work. As a woman, every time I post on women’s empowerment and feminist themes, I get trolled. It is a difficult space in which to exist, both as an artist of resistance and as a woman. But I would like to add that the support and encouragement is much more than trolling, so I am very grateful for that. This is what keeps me going. Being anonymous gives me a feeling of freedom to create what I love without the weight of my identity hampering my art.

What can you tell us about your own life and how your views and experiences of feminism and patriarchy have shaped it?

I have the impression that feminism has saved me several times from conforming to the orthodox configuration in which I grew up. I am always learning to practice it the best and apply it in my life. It gave me a feeling of freedom and freedom that I feel like I was denied, growing up in a patriarchal family. With me, my family has also evolved and now accepts my position as a woman and an artist better.

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