Cocoa & Dirt
I’m back at my desk
January was spent going over the notes for perfumes I made in 2022. The favourites among my work are the more quirkier ones — Dark Chocolate, Banana-Miso-Agarwood and Sandalwood & Heliotrope. All three scents make me hungry for CAKE!
Every winter, when my parents visit from Nigeria, they get to pick a perfume for themselves and these are the ones they enjoyed the most. I went back to my notebook to realise that the “Dirt” accord has gone into all of them, so I dug up my older notebook to remind myself of its contents.
I usually formulate perfume without fussing over each composition too much. While my decisions and methods are logical, I am not too precious about this process as I learned early on that if there are just a few good materials on hand, one can make infinite combinations with inevitably wonderful results! But even as I enjoy the process of trial and (rarely) error, I had been wondering if I had some intrinsic inability to be detailed and fastidious about certain aspects around my life and work. So, a few months back, only at the behest of my friend, a trained psychologist and brilliant fermentation expert, who kept pointing out that I don’t appear to be neuro-typical, did I explore the ADHD spectrum with some seriousness and accept that I fall somewhere on this range.
My lifelong learning difficulties and issues with reading, languages, calculating figures and following instructions while having sensitivities to sound, touch, and visual stimuli, now made sense. What this means in terms of perfumery is the realisation that I will never care to scale up to build a conventional business model or learn chemistry. But I have also taken a relaxed attitude since a master perfumer revealed that even as trained chemists working within fragrance conglomerates, they took their formulations to the in-house technical expert to resolve!
What this means for me as an artist is freedom and autonomy. The aroma of my failed attempt to bake a banana-miso cake — because I just could not follow precise instruction — inspires an extraordinary perfume full of ripe, sweet-salty, smokey notes. It means that when I accidentally smell frankincense while preparing coffee, that sparks two new fragrances — Frankincense & Coffee and Dark Chocolate. In the curatorial space, this condition of synesthesia results in making tangible the experience of inhaling 17th century Urdu poetry and eating historic gardens.
So, what went into “Dirt”? A majority of natural materials and a few choice aroma chemicals: Himalayan Carrot seed + spikenard + calamus extracts, vetiver + coffee CO2, cocoa + tobacco absolute, oakmoss, patchouli, nagarmotha/ cyperus, buddhawood, agarwood, and ambroxan, synthetic civet, smoke + tar fleuressence. The ratios keep shifting but it is a terrible-terrific smelling accord not for the faint hearted. Even at 80% dilution, a drop goes far in any formulation.
Since I do not have the temperament for making detailed plans for life and art, I am really happy with the way things are. I stopped procrastinating and painted my house “Jaipur pink” as I said I would, my “perfect for naps” 1960s sofa arrived from Bombay thanks to my friend and architect, Sidharth Gokhale, and all that remains is the printing and framing of paintings from my virtual exhibition Bagh-e Hind, so I can enjoy them.
As a literal thinker, I also write simple descriptions of perfumes, making transparent my notes and raw materials. In a world where hyper-styled visuals compete for your one second attention-span, I have come to rely on text to communicate smell in the most uncomplicated manner. There is no marketing jargon here, no abstract lyrical copy, no visual trickery. Instead, I have for your pleasure, plain transparency and photos shot without an iPhone.
Early in my research, I learned to disregard market trends and insiders who warned me that the external packaging mattered more; that “gourmand” perfumes do not sell; to make candles, not incense. However, a valuable learning came from the fact that my earnings of the past year were generated outside the influence-sphere of social media. It was liberating to know that I could thrive without being constrained by three main channels monopolised by a single corporation. By exiting the algorithm, I have charted an unusual path, sometimes easy, oftentimes challenging, but as an art critic, I always begin with the assumption that my audience can sniff out disingenuousness. Knowing that people can freely opt out, I am so pleased that so many continue to stay with me in this exploration of art and synesthesia even as I have no map for where it might lead.
The intentions I have going forward are to engage with projects for private clients and avoid collaborations. Collaborative work can be rewarding if there is equal distribution of labour and reward, but I have found myself mainly carrying the intellectual and emotional weight of such projects, while being saddled with all the disadvantages. Race, class, gender and privilege unavoidably play their role here. Tangentially, I conceptualised, developed and laboured over the Stepwell Soap for a design company between 2019-2021 that never saw the light of day until I decided to share it on my Journal in Jan 2023. Ultimately, my parents and friends enjoyed the soaps.
In January, I composed an unusual perfume titled “Imported Cherries” that explores the concept of luxury communism. I am also looking forward to building the Catalogue and Nap Time sections of Bagh-e Hind so please check in for new updates.
Lilies to Tarantulas
Soap as a medium has been a lifeline for my artistic expression. All my tangled knotted feelings have taken shape in luxuriously scented forms.
Here’s the recent gothic-beauty — instead of throwing away lilies that had dried up, I sprayed them with fennel and cardamom extract, then drowned them in transparent soap scented with synthetic lotus. They turned out so scary-stunning they reminded me of the large sculptures of spiders made by American French artist Louise Bourgeois that are awesome to behold. (You can buy them.)
Your Tokens Can Eat Dirt
Continuing on from my previous newsletter “Flowers and Spies”, Euramerican institutions are bringing out Shirin Neshat’s orientalist art in full force and all the criticism coming from Iranian voices are continuing to fall on deaf ears. I will not share the image of her work here (featuring a helpless brown nude woman) that one American gallery insensitively published on their social media to announce her latest exhibition. The art world is here to cannibalise, consume and capitalise on the bodies of women and make voyeurs out of us in the process, but it does not end there.
Whose icon? Whose resistance?
“A pair of fierce, golden allegorical female figures will loom over the park’s lawn and from the rooftop of the adjacent Courthouse of the Appellate Division, First Department of the Supreme Court of the State of New York…” — ‘It was screaming for a female’, [says Shahzia Sikander], The Art Newspaper, 13th January 2023
In January, two sculptures by American artist Shahzia Sikander went up in New York city. One, atop the Manhattan courthouse, and one in Madison Square park. Having followed the Lahore born artist’s trajectory since 2009, I was most enthusiastic to see Sikander have her moment. [It is also important to note that both “fierce” sculptures bear the likeness of the artist’s facial features.]
Funded by public money, this was an opportunity for Sikander to communicate something of weight especially since the justice system fails working class Americans in favour of corporations. Instead we have a golden statue emerging from a lotus flower intended by the artist as an “icon of resistance” for folk who come to the courthouse seeking justice. In the artist’s own words on her social media, this moment was specifically about installing the first female sculpture, the first female sculpture made by a living-woman-artist of colour, the first female sculpture made by a woman of colour who is Muslim, the first female sculpture made by a woman of colour who is Muslim and Pakistani-American. The second sculpture, installed simultaneously in the park, is designed with a collar referencing the late Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg.
Describing the lotus one-dimensionally as a “symbol of wisdom” in the article cited above, Sikander has not excavated the disturbing connotations of the flower in the subcontinent’s Islamophobic politics since the late 1980s. So, I have to wonder who is the intended audience of these public artworks titled “Havah…to breathe, air, life”?
In a country where black people are being choked, tased, gunned to death with impunity by agents of the State, whom does havah/ air reassure? Where women safely accessing health care is deemed unlawful by the Supreme Court, whose anxieties does this passive female statue, glittering atop the courthouse, soothe? And what of American Muslims, Americans of Arab and South Asian descent who continue to be victimised, baited and incarcerated by the State in the wake of 9/11? I have not even begun to touch upon the global wrecking ball that is the American Empire that has “lawfully” terrorised Muslim societies and stripped the ecologies of Iraq and Afghanistan among so many other nations. As I write this, I am thinking of a more potent public monument of a “Shoe” installed in Tikrit to honour the Iraqi journalist Muntazer al-Zaidi, who righteously hurled his pair at President Bush. Where is the anger and assertion in this art that should align with the powerless and marginalised who look upon this kitsch as they enter the courthouse? Indeed, a confrontational “shoe” is what the morally bankrupt leaders of this failed country deserve.
Few hashtags employed by the artist: #Firstwoman #Girlpower #womenempowerment #Futureisfemale
Brooke Kamin Rapaport, the Deputy Director and Martin Friedman Chief Curator of Madison Square Park Conservancy, describes this initiative as “a transformative project”. Very well. Let’s take that at face value and ask: transformative how and for whom — the artist herself, the State and its judicial system, or the public?
First and foremost, such unchallenging and politically safe art serves comfort to the State-authority itself. Second, its pseudo-radical “goddess” aesthetic is for the niche Karens who showed up in pussy hats in the aftermath of the 2016 American presidential election. Third, Sikander’s public sculptures bring solace to the hashtag resistance neo-liberal men and women who did nothing more than put their faith in the literal life-breath of the aged and frail Justice Ginsberg who jeopardised Roe v Wade by refusing to retire and be replaced during the Obama era. She is no hero. However, the performative ally who shows up with nice words online but never puts their body at risk in real life, can come to the park to amuse themselves through the virtual reality augments around the sculpture via an app on their phone.
As the White Supremacist State-authority puts up a spectacle of
co-opting subverting appropriating absorbing art made by a living-Muslim-Pakistani-woman as one of its own, equal among stone sculptures of male philosophers lining the rooftop, it absolves itself of its violent past, present and future. Celebrating this moment of apparent inclusion and representation are the many affluent South Asians of the professional managerial class, which includes virtue-hoarding credentialed scholars and curators who maintain their apolitical, one way engagement with the history and material culture of the subcontinent while hawking their cosmopolitan values.
Here, the opportunism of bourgeois feminism and identity protocols takes precedence over working class solidarity in the same way that Indians at home and in the diaspora take pride in the former #firstfemale CEO of PepsiCo (linked to child labour) or the current CEO of Google (accused of caste discrimination). These static artworks of “Havah…to breathe, air, life”? neither interrogate the concept of justice nor critique the State and its active role in the evisceration of fundamental human rights, let alone the rights of women. Sikander, who began her artistic journey by utilising her insider/outsider status to unsettle the cultural politics of the subcontinent and the American military industrial complex in the same breath, has transformed and immortalised herself as a gold-tinted model minority included in the pantheon of the American Dream.
Since the inauguration, Havah quite predictably plays right into the culture wars stoked by the Republicans and Democrats. The artist and the artwork now find themselves exploited by both sides who signal outrage or solidarity across main stream media. Meanwhile the status quo remains unchanged. So, here is what we are left with — far from great art that holds its ground firmly and unambiguously in opposition to structurally racist institutions of power, we are dealt these spiritually impoverished tokens instead.
My female self is screaming.