How Can Sensibilities Change After Metoo?

Roxy Farhat’s exhibition at Index in Stockholm shows how feminist reason can emerge in the face of patriarchy.

Roxy Farhat, How Was Your Morning? (still), 2018.

According to the press release for Roxy Farhat’s (b. 1984) first solo presentation, at Index in Stockholm, she “brings a fierce feminist stance to each of her pieces.” I wonder what it means, in a world of institutionalised misogyny, and, more particularly, in an art world dominated by male sensibilities, to bring a feminist stance to your work? Specifically, what does it mean to work with a feminist expression, as stated in the Swedish version of the same press release, rather than a message? Given that an expression, in a much more crucial way than a message, demands reception.

Farhat, born in Tehran, but educated in Stockholm and Los Angeles, often works together with musicians such as Gnučči, Zhala, and The Knife, acting as a “refracting and reflecting force between performance, film and music-video.” In one of her early films, Sisterhood (2009), a group of women discuss what it meant to become a feminist: on the one hand, their sensibilities changed unimaginably, and the connections between men and injustice became even more apparent; on the other hand, feminism suddenly provided an inter-subjectivity in which experiences of sexism became possible to articulate because there was someone who could understand.

For my part, my sensibility changed with #metoo, and the realisation that social life is something entirely different for men and women. Suddenly, Rebecca Solnit’s phrase hit me with all its violent substance: for a woman, having an opinion is like wearing a short skirt, it invites abuse. Up until then, it had been a striking analogy to me, but it became an apt identification, a moment of realisation akin to that of the women in Farhat’s film. But how to work with a feminist sensibility?

Roxy Farhat, Acting Woman (still), 2017.

Satire is one way to change ingrained connections between thinking and sensation, and in this exhibition I’m struck by how many times I experience completely new qualities in images that come across as stereotypical. Like Farhat’s video Minimal Kompetens (Minimal Competence, 2014), a commercial for a consultancy firm that offers a twelve step programme for men who want a way out of their addiction to patriarchal privilege. In the video, female voices narrate scenes of domestic environments. The basic rule is that each woman’s voice corresponds to an image from what looks like her home. But about halfway through, the image starts to change before the voice, and at one point three images are visible at the same time. This leads to a jumbling of the voices, all of which are quite similar in terms of age, dialect, and sociolect. Finally, it becomes anonymising. The voices become parts of the same murmur, sharing the same experience with the same hope. A transition from sisters to sisterhood.

By comparison, the group of women standing in a line braiding each other’s hair in Farhat’s music video for Zhala’s I’m In Love (2014) seems very different. The women are also a bit unusual in this context, neither young nor strikingly old: just women, braiding hair. Oddly enough, this feels both ancient and secretive.

Roxy Farhat, Housekeeping (still, 2009.

The most powerful and surprising transformation, however, happens in How Was Your Morning? (2018). This is another example of Farhat’s use of pastiche; the video looks like a corporate commercial, but from the start the audio sounds atypical. After minutes of cheap animation and an array of effects from obsolete editing software, a woman in business attire and high heels suddenly appears, lifting her leg high into the air, like a dancer or gymnast. It is a cliché in itself, but in this amalgamation of visual fakery, that performance – with slightly trembling legs – is the only thing that is real. It all lasts for about a second, then a special effect emerges from the background to distract us. But that second is affecting, it gets to me. I have a hard time articulating what was felt in that instance of reality. Sorrow, maybe. Tenderness? But it continues to fill me with admiration and surprise.

In Acting Woman (2017), Farhat joins Zhala. Both are dressed for the stage, and turn to face the camera. They look into it, smiling. For five minutes or so. In silence. The only thing happening is their eyes blink now and then. And you can tell that the camera has zoomed in very slowly. Yet, one remains transfixed because the unruly facial expressions are both more entertaining and sincere than the rest of the film. Right before the end, a glistening strand of saliva runs down Farhat’s chin, clinging to it. After minutes of silence and inertia, this is like an earthquake. Farhat smiles throughout, unfazed by the dribble. It’s both heroic, funny, and, oddly enough, everyday.

What is evident in Farhat’s works at Index is a tremendously strange way, both bungling and skilful, hypersensitive and blunt, of treating the sensory qualities. A way that first plays along, but then moves against. Perhaps this is what a feminist expression means: it neither educates nor gives us new forms of control, but changes perception. Which is probably what must be done for a true emergence of feminist reason in the face of patriarchy.

Installation view from Roxy Farhat’s exhibition at Index in Stockholm.