Refrain / Reframe: I Learned I Had A Body by Vivek Shraya

By Maeve Hanna

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Vivek Shraya, I Learned I had a Body, 2018. Installation photo by Jaime Vedres Photography courtesy of the Southern Alberta Art Gallery.

Trigger Warning: This text reviews work by the artist, writer and musician Vivek Shraya which deals with suicidal ideation. 

Please god, don’t let me wake up.

A repeated refrain, spoken over and over, awakening in the viewer anew the realization of what it feels like to have no hope.

Can the desire to die be inherited?

One among many, or few, seldom questioned, tumbling out of mouths, written, spoken, voiced. A different kind of intergenerational trauma.

It’s just a number / it’s just a body / it’s just a life.

Is life only relatable to a number, as if it is a giant paint by number, one colour per year, fading away from one hue to the next?

These are some of the refrains that echo through Vivek Shraya’s hauntingly powerful video work I Want to Kill Myself. No shying away from the topic at hand —suicide: no shame; no hiding. Shraya unabashedly opens herself wide like an oyster pried free of its shell and allows us to sit with her and her emotions. It might be uncomfortable. We may squirm and wriggle. We may want to escape but her arresting voice, her gaze, holds us steady. The red lines of her tattoos draw circles around us, keeping us still in our place.

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Vivek Shraya, I Want to Kill Myself, 2018. Installation photo by Jaime Vedres Photography courtesy of the Southern Alberta Art Gallery.

Her words slice through the air with a force that is both brutal and tender in its tenor. The ferociousness of her words reaches the depth of our spirits as we sit humble and vulnerable with her, listening to the darkness she has faced—although a delicateness is evoked. Swimming through the imagery and verse, tying the two together as the text and images converse and the viewer passively eavesdrops on this conversation, the viewer becomes an intimately connected third member.

I Learned I had a Body is the body, but more than the body, it is the alienation from one’s body in a society regimented by heteronormative and patriarchal systems. Shraya, being a trans woman, has learned, as one of the lines from I Want to Kill Myself, suggests “… I had a body through your condemnation of my body,” understanding the body and, in particular, her body through various relational means.

Referencing a relationship to the sacred, the familial, and other relationships that emerge in life, Shraya battled with her own acceptance of her identity and body as well as how others saw her, looked at her, gazed upon her. With the video/photo essay  I Want to Kill Myself, The viewer is placed in a realm of watching, gazing passively and absorbing her visage and the armature of her being while simultaneously hearing the haunting experience of suicidal ideation and deep depression. More people than one might realize relate to this work. However, Shraya revealed in an interview how touched viewers have been by it, “The work was launched on my birthday last year by CBC Arts and it had a tremendous response from the public. It was really powerful for me. What was surprising though were the comments from people I knew. It was a strong reminder to be conscious that what we see is not always the truth and that these are important conversations to have.”

Recitation like resuscitation from walking into the lake, the great lakes, (maybe it could be): Walking into water, like the great great lakes, a recitation similar to the resuscitation of the authorly tradition, as Shraya suggests recalling Virginia Woolf’s last moment on this earthly plane. But at the age of thirty-five, her resolve seems to change, her vision shifts. The red lines loosen their grip, the letters she writes, those lines of words drawn out in tendrils unwind themselves and drop off the page as if they never existed. The story ends at the age of thirty-five. But not with the taking of a life —but the resolve to live a life.

I wanted to kill myself at thirty-five.

            Shraya says again, but this is the last. In the finitude of this remaining stanza, the writer names how she came to this finishing moment. Like Virginia, but not. She names out loud, speaks the words clearly, vocalizing it to those who love her the most, allowing her to get the level of care she so desperately needed. I Want to Kill Myself names her pain. In so doing, Shraya releases some of the hold and power her pain held over her. Equally, in so doing as she states, kept her alive. In saying she no longer wanted to be here, naming this deep, guttural form of pain, Shraya aided herself in living, remaining, finding love and hope where there had been none.

Shraya wrote her suicide notes in red, the colour that adorns her skin, the colour of our life force coursing through our bodies.

We wear our scars proudly.

We bear witness to her pain and triumph in being present with this piece.

This work takes a kind of courage not many individuals possess.

Red on red, words on words.

Red on red dress.

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Vivek Shraya, Trisha, 2018. Installation photo by Jaime Vedres Photography courtesy of the Southern Alberta Art Gallery.

Equally moving is Trisha the accompanying photo essay in I Learned I Had a Body. Here Shraya recreates photos of her mother by presenting herself as her mother. She speaks in her text to the overwhelming desire to escape her own body, that which literally resembles her father’s, and to make her mother, the matriarch of the family happy and proud. She suspects that her mother always wanted a girl but prayed for two boys to give them a better life, one without the suffering, ridicule, pain and disadvantages that come with being a woman. In Trisha the artist reveals another instance where the body comes into play – adorning herself playfully in all the accoutrements from the chosen photographs, Shraya masterfully mimics the original image, creating a mirroring effect both literally and metaphorically, revealing how she “…modelled [herself] – my gestures, my futures, how I love and rage – all after you,” her mother. She revels in the joy that her mother had felt as a woman prior to her immigration to Canada and becoming a mother and wife and muses about how she can live that out on her mother’s behalf now as a trans woman. Perhaps one of the most stunning images in the series is a photograph of Shraya and beside it, her mother, lying supine on a reclining chair mirrored within the image as if seen through a kaleidoscope. Repeated upon itself it’s a joyful revelation in celebrating womanhood. Dazzling in red, enjoying the sunshine, Shraya and her mother arrestingly hold the audience’s gaze.

Reading I’m Afraid of Men in tandem with this exhibition brings the theme of the body throughout Shraya’s work into clearer focus. Throughout her latest book, Shraya highlights the ways that her body validated and also betrayed her and her identity. In one instance Shraya observes how she studied men in order to portray herself as more masculine:

Consumption is a key to masculinity. … I lift weights, all the while reprimanding my body for not conforming, for never quite looking buff or white enough. What would my body look like if I didn’t want affection from gay men and protection from straight men? What would my body look and feel like if I didn’t have to mould it into both a shield and an ornament? How do I love a body that was never fully my own? (31).

 

While the book focuses on the fear of the male sex, this instance where the body emerges refocuses how internalized our vision understanding of our bodies can become. Shraya reveals in this excerpt how displeased she is with her body, how she feels about accepting it in all its realities. What becomes compelling is the observation of how Shraya comes to accept what she has seen as flaws within herself and finds courage therein. Writing this review as a queer white woman, I am at a disadvantage of deeply understanding the trauma this instance, among others she recounts, inflicted on Shraya. However, bearing witness to and acknowledging her story by being present and allowing this work to take the space it needs within me and the gallery space provides a platform for this necessary dialogue.

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Vivek Shraya, Trisha, 2018. Installation photo by Jaime Vedres Photography courtesy of the Southern Alberta Art Gallery.

The compelling presence of words in this exhibition is not to be overlooked. I admitted to Shraya that I knew her primarily as a writer, while she sees herself first and foremost as a musician. Language and narrative present themselves as the foremost forms of expression for her. This is not to say the work requires the accompanying narratives, but more so that the work is activated by it, that through language Shraya is able to build a visual and auditory experience for the viewer.

Shraya offers a forum and platform for having critical yet tender conversations, for providing a space to be vulnerable, to be uncomfortable, yet acknowledge it, to push ourselves a little, to attempt to understand the limits of hope and despair, love and unconditional kindness. It is an offering to those who have struggled, who have attempted or contemplated suicide, who have been down that dark road. It demonstrates that even in the darkness, there is a light. And as a friend has said to me, it is when you hit the ocean floor that you are able to push yourself back up to the surface. Shraya’s hand is there as an offering to help you step out of those icy waters.

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FEMME Art Review

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