Thursday, September 5, 2013

An audience with Queen For A Night? No, thanks!

Sep 05, 2013

There comes a time in the life of every feminist critic and writer when, according to the law of sod, she happens across a press release bearing the immortal first line: ‘Vincent Broustet invites us into the passionate world of young Khmer women.’ To review or not to review, she wonders. Don’t be ridiculous. Martha, fetch me my gun.

My pen! I mean my pen! How Freudian, please excuse. Anyway, how kind of Monsieur Broustet to invite us to his exhibition, let us proceed post haste to see what we can see. The passionate world of young Khmer women, otherwise known as Broustet’s solo show Queen For A Night, is only on view in Siem Reap until October 31; what if you want to see it twice?? We should hurry.

Queen For A Night focuses on Khmer women’s “transformation from everyday selves into unabashed beauties for Cambodian weddings and other significant occasions”. Unabashed! Saucy minxes that they are. That may sound like an excuse for us all to ogle women in various stages of undress and picturesque disarray, hair all of a tumble, ballgown slipping cheekily off one ‘unabashed’ shoulder, but undoubtedly the exhibition’s iconographic subtext contains some contrapuntal critique.

Assiduously, your feminist reviewer scans the aforementioned press release for thoughtful comment on the egregious sins of the male gaze, or a meaty gobbet of French philosophy at the very least. “The ritual of preparing for special events takes hours of enthusiastic groundwork, usually beginning with a visit to a favourite hair salon to have tresses elaborately styled and curled.” Tonsorially accurate, no doubt, no doubt, but few of us go to exhibitions to think about curling tongs, it must be said.

Ever investigative, your roving reporter buttonholed Robina Hanley, manager of McDermott Gallery in Siem Reap, to explain further. “You are unable to tell the difference in the girl who works in a factory from the girl who comes straight from the countryside. Neither girl is chic in her everyday life, but when she has a chance to dress for a ceremony or party, she is usually unrecognisable, sometimes full of confidence, sometimes a little embarrassed. Vincent sees this every day in Cambodia and when you examine his paintings you can see tenderness and respect in every brushstroke.”

That brings us to the paintings themselves. Influenced by “Rembrandt, Hugo Pratt and all the great artists in between,” Broustet positions his work firmly in the Impressionist tradition, his paintings redolent of Degas showing fleeting, flirting, fin de siecle ballet dancers. Except with much manlier shoulders, it must be said. Suffused with slabs of toothache-inducing satin, oddly proportioned women hover in a perspectiveless world, largely bereft of distinctive facial features or expression, but probably wishing they were somewhere else. So might you be, dear viewer; so might you be.

In a week when Miley Ray Cyrus has been much on everyone’s minds and even more in our Facebook feeds, whether we like it or not, it’s perspicacious to ask whether the kerfuffle over cultural appropriation and neo-orientalism that resulted from Mi-Cy’s twerkathon has a wider relevance. Broustet, who has lived and worked outside of his native France for much of his life, says that his “sketches and paintings do not engage in exoticism, but instead are transcriptions of moods and atmospheres, the pursuit of what is and remains common to every human, every landscape, every shadow”.

That Broustet voluntarily exonerates himself from the charge of exoticism before anyone has the chance to lay it at his door is interesting. You might even say telling; I would not say that, of course, but you might. Whether Broustet’s paintings themselves present a postcolonial perspective of ‘the East’ – an East of sensuality, latent sexuality and quantifiable stasis – is moot. As Broustet says, he “doesn’t believe in exoticism; what is normal to one person can seem exotic to another. Just because you haven’t experienced something doesn’t make it exotic.”

However, his works inarguably follow in the aesthetic tradition of painters who essentialised non-Western places and people in this tidy way. If you were one of the bajillion VMA viewers who was mild to moderately offended by Miley Ray Cyrus smacking a lady-bear’s ‘juicy butt’ before the 9pm watershed and making Willow Smith cry, you may also be offended by other postcolonial, patriarchal narratives. So, you know, buyer beware.

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