“ਫੁੱਲ (Phul): The Bloom of the Diasporic Indian Woman” Essay and Visual Art by Simranpreet Anand

My work engages with the topics of psychology, feminism, and culture and how they interrelate and collide with one another in modern society. These fields have all played an integral role in my personal life and have significantly impacted my research. I am currently majoring in both Psychology and in Visual Arts at the University of British Columbia. Many of my works draw from psychological principles and attempt to create links to both feminism and my cultural heritage. I have lived in Surrey BC all my life and have been surrounded by the large Southeast Asian population. Both of my parents immigrated to Canada and I was fortunate to have been raised with both Indian and Canadian cultural roots. My cultural background provides me with a unique perspective and diverse experiences of culture and identity. It has allowed me to explore alternative narratives and challenge established structures of the art world in order to find where the diasporic artist fits into it. This has had an inevitable impact on how my work has developed as an artist.

In my piece “ ਫੁੱਲ (phul)” I have incorporated psychoanalytic, cultural and feminist theory. The exploration of patriarchy and transformation in both Western and Eastern cultures is illustrated in the method I use to create my work. It draws research from each of the disciplines I am interested in, and finds how they are interrelated. Psychology continues to be an active strain in my practice. Throughout my artistic practice I am using principles of psychoanalysis and how they interact with female sexuality. My works attempt to redefine how psychoanalysis has been used to provide narrow definitions of female sexuality through a feminist reinterpretation of visual symbols.

Image by Simranpreet Anand

ਫੁੱਲ (phul) is a work in progress and is demonstrative of continual exploration of these themes, and in particular how they interact with Indian culture. This work is a public engagement piece where I talked to various women from the community, asked what they thought of female sexuality, and asked them to draw what they believe female genitalia looks like. I have abstracted the drawings of each individual and provided a mandala-like aesthetic in order to explore the intricacies and complexities associated with female sexuality. This piece comments on the taboos and sexist theories surrounding female sexuality in both Western psychoanalysis and traditional Indian culture.

Psychoanalytic theory has exerted a fascination over women and their bodies since its inception. Sigmund Freud and Jacques Lacan’s discussions relating to women and their bodies are notoriously problematic (Grosz, 2002). The relationship between psychoanalysis and women is laden with difficulty, and is constantly fluctuating. Freud developed the theories and techniques of psychoanalysis and centred them around his female clients. The combination of Freud’s desire to listen and his loquacious patients’ desire to talk contributed to psychoanalytic theories and insights, which heavily contributed to the labelling of women as hysterics. Similarly, Lacan’s early theories regarding psychoanalysis were built upon the  discourse of  “‘madwomen’–psychotics, paranoiacs, hysterics, mystics. The whole cast of characters in his early work consists of women . . . Not a single man is present. [He was a] man who never stopped talking about women” (Clément, 1983). Both Freud and Lacan attribute female dysfunction as a characteristic of lack or sexual unfulfillment.  

In early psychoanalytic theory, the “phallus functions to enable the penis to define all (socially recognized) forms of human sexuality. The differences between genitals becomes expressed in terms of the presence or absence of a single (male) term” (Grosz, 2002). In a contemporary understanding of female sexuality, the vagina, clitoris, or vulva have the same phenomenological utility as the penis and testicles. In order to understand women’s sexuality as incomplete or characterized by a lack, as Freudian and Lacanian theory do, the phallus must be removed or displaced. The assumption that the penis is the only signifier of the phallus incorrectly affirms female sexuality as a castration or mutilation. This allows for the attribution of psychological maladjustment or dysfunction in women to a “lack” characterized by the absence of a phallus. According to Freud, this lack originates when a girl discovers that there are anatomic differences between the sexes. This lack develops feelings of deprivation and later during the oedipal phase it causes desire of fulfillment. This lack is marked by the desire to have a child or to acquire a penis in sexual intercourse (Freud, Strachey & Freud, 1957). In her book Gender Trouble (1990), Judith Butler explores the connection between the phallus and the penis, and explains that “the phallus, though clearly not identical to the penis, deploys the penis as its naturalized instrument and sign” (135). The form of the penis, and the action of penetration, signifies the phallus that will “fill” the lack. Notably, this is only possible when the phallus performs as the object of desire along with the manifestation of sexual difference.

Pertinently, I have titled my work ਫੁੱਲ (phul). When transliterated into English it is pronounced ਫੁੱਲ (phul) or “full”. There is a deliberate play that occurs in the title with the theoretical background of psychoanalysis and theories of lack. Instead, the piece asserts itself as a fulfilled image of female sexuality, and confronts the psychoanalytic theories that proclaim that women are only able to achieve psychological fulfillment through attainment of a phallus. The female body has equal sexual functionality as the male body. Furthermore, within the past ten years, scientific breakthroughs have provided a depth of research on female sexuality, specifically centering around the clitoris. A major source of inspiration to my work has been contemporary artist Sophia Wallace and body of work, titled Cliteracy. Her work opposes historical scientific and theoretical knowledge that resisted the female body as independent and instead presented it as the inverse of the male body. Her work attempts to tell “The overdue, under-told story of the clitoris” (Huffington Post, 2015).

Wallace’s Cliteracy is a project that combines street art, textiles, and typography, and maintains the goal of educating a largely “ilcliterate” culture. The piece 100 Natural Laws, the first of the series, is a large text based work that includes many facts about female sexuality. The facts are written boldly across a space of 10 x 13 feet with a six foot neon sign stating, “CLITERACY” suspended from the ceiling (Wallace, 2015). In recent years it has been found that the clitoris is exceedingly complex, and larger than first understood. Theorist Dalla Torre (2014) examines the clitoris as a site of pleasure and power for women, therefore reappropriating it as a phallic instrument.

My series of artistic works are a visual interpretation of these theories related to the transformation of female sexuality in psychoanalytic theory.. The literal translation of ਫੁੱਲ (phul)the title of my worktranslates to swell, bloom, or flower in Punjabi. As a diasporic Punjabi woman, my connection to the language of my parents and ancestors is a seminal interest in my practice. The interplay between the understanding of both the transliteration and translation of the title denote a transformation, from dated psychoanalytic understandings of female sexuality, to an active and autonomous understanding of the female anatomy.

Psychoanalysis has contributed towards traditional understandings of  masculinity and femininity, which has made it privy to feminist critique. While there is a reliance in psychoanalysis on theories that interpret females as dependent to their male counterparts, psychoanalysis is amenable to a renewal of its theoretical framework. Examining central assumptions in its conception such as female “castration” and “lack” allows for a reconstruction of psychoanalytic understanding. Psychoanalysis asserts itself as a theory and practice that promises wholeness and an understanding of unconscious processes and knowledge. Contrary to the theories of Freud and Lacan, psychoanalyst Carl Jung asserted an understanding of the human personality that de-emphasized sexual development. Jungian psychology was primarily invested in the uncovering of the unconscious and attaining a collective unconscious. Amongst Jung’s beliefs was the idea that the artist is a master of symbolism and source of inspiration. His perspective inherited the symbolism of the mandala as a primary tool to unravel and comprehend the unconscious (Mulcahy, 2013). Jung’s work in analytic psychology interprets the phenomenon known in Sanskrit as the mandala. The circular and intricate form of the mandala operates as a device that uncovers and explores wholeness and self-awareness (López-Rodríguez, 2006).

Mandalas, although not uniformly named across cultures, have existed in a multitude of various contexts. Despite differences in origin, the circular attributes and complexities of designs found within mandalas express a sense of wholeness. Mandalas have been found in “Tibetan Buddhist ritual practices, Navajo and Pueblo Indian sand paintings and medicine wheel ceremonies, alchemy, the Kabbala, the Aztec sun calendar, Celtic knot designs, the Taoist yin yang symbol … quilt designs (Lopez – Rodriguez, 2006, p.130-131)”, and even in Sikhism, in its simplest circular form known as the kara (Singh, 1972). ਫੁੱਲ (phul) uses the aesthetic of the mandala in order to explore a collective unconscious. It centres around ideas of female sexuality and achieves an understanding that is associated with fullness rather than lack. This is a critique of preceding sexist theory that characterizes women as inferior to men because of their lack of a phallus. The multiple layers of the individual pieces allow this work to be read as a labyrinth that can be explored in order to discover the intricacies of female sexuality. Each piece is established as a site for transformation and contemplation of the collective unconscious of the women who have been a part of this project.

Sexuality remains taboo in Indian culture, and is rarely a topic that falls under appropriate discussion. While it has been found that a majority of North American parents engage in conversations related to sexuality and sexual relationships with their children (Mazzuca 2003), these conversations are less common in Asian Indian families (Nanda 2000). Having these conversations allows parents to educate their children about safe sexual practices and behaviours. Furthermore, it allows children the opportunity to ask their parents about sexuality and engage in open communication. The inability to create spaces for open conversations about sexuality manufactures an environment that lacks appropriate information about sexual health or sexual education. The piece ਗੁਰਸ਼ਰਨ (Gursharan) from the ਫੁੱਲ (phul) series was created throughout discussions with my mother, who immigrated to Canada from India in 1992. It was evident that when she was in India, she never received any information or education related to sexual health or sexual behaviours. Additionally, she had never learned about the female anatomy and was perplexed when I asked her to draw the vagina, saying “But what goes where? We never talked about this when we were your age … we weren’t supposed to.” There is a transference of this phenomena onto diasporic Indian communities; parents did not receive sexual education during their adolescent and childhood experiences, and lack the expertise to provide such knowledge to their children.

Additionally, the Indian immigrant population has faced many challenges throughout their migrations to Canada. Immigrants face many challenges through acculturation to their new lives in Canada. According to Statistics Canada (2005), the issues immigrants face when moving to Canada include finding an adequate job, learning an entirely new language, discrimination or racism, adapting to a new cultural environment, and more. While adapting to the new environment is a key concern to immigrant populations, retaining their own cultural values, beliefs, customs and traditions remains essential. Attitudes about sexual relationships are considered a part of these cultural beliefs, and women are required to retain modesty (Gupta, 2014).

Image by Simranpreet Anand

Whilst there are benefits to being a part of the diasporic community, there exist elements of a patriarchal structure that are severely damaging to the women of the community. Traditional practices consider women as “inferior” to men, and in some cases, the property of men. In Punjab, female infanticide and foeticide (femicide) contribute to a skewed ratio of female to male births (Premi, 1994). This femicide is seen as a continuation of violence towards and a devaluation of the girl-child and the woman, and is illustrative of the prevalent cultural belief that girls are a burden to the family (Bhatnagar, Dube, & Dube, 2005). Dowry further exemplifies the asymmetrical practices of indian culture where women are taken into their marital family solely based on the inheritance of a dowry. Dowries are understood as a contributor to the phenomenon of femicide observed in India (primarily in Punjab). Dowries have led towards numerous acts of violence towards women; this occurs when a marital home believes they have received an inadequate amount of dowry. The maternal family is extorted, and when the family is unable to pay more dowry, some women are beaten or killed. In some cases, these murders have been conducted in a severely violent manner where the women are doused in gasoline and publicly lit on fire or have acid thrown at them (Roy, 2000). A further example of gender-based violence in Indian society includes honour killings, a homicide that occurs when a woman has tarnished the honour of a household. These practices are often the result of patriarchal views on women and their position in society. Women are the viewed as either the property of their father or their husband, and  are forced to comply to rules or face consequences (Gill, Strange, Roberts, & Palgrave, 2014). In these structures women operate as a commodity, where they are unable to take control of their own bodies or sexuality.

The ਫੁੱਲ (phul) project is an intervention into a cultural deeply rooted in patriarchal practices. Both psychoanalytic and indian cultural structures present the female and the female body as a site of violence, objectification and misconception. ਫੁੱਲ (phul) aims to transform this understanding, and present an empowering image of the female form. It is a reinterpretation of the psychoanalytic theories of lack and the phallus, allowing the vagina to emerge as an uncovering of the unconscious. The aesthetic is inspired by mandalas across various cultures, allowing this work to tap into a collective unconscious that allows for human flourishing. Human flourishing is understood as an integral component consequence of transformation and development (McCormack & Titchen, 2006). Human flourishing is linked to achievement of a sense of wholeness that can be offered through the interpretation and creation of mandalas that allow for a glimpse into the unconscious (Mulcahy, 2013). The mandala has been a growing artform in popular culture in the past few years; many online social media platforms allow a space where various artists can showcase their work. Each drawing is imbued with delicate details and references to various forms of mandala artwork, including traditional designs and patterns along with the incorporation of designs found online. The appropriation, and creation of, forms, symbols, and imagery allows for multiple interpretations.

Image by Simranpreet Anand

While the pieces themselves are interpretations of female genitalia, this work does not aim to be erotic. The intentions of this piece are to educate rather than to stimulate. Each drawing is carefully crafted, and establishes a visual complexity that captivates the viewer. Nevertheless, the framework and construction of each piece is centred around establishing a discursive conversation concerning the female and the female body in Indian society. The individual drawings are created through interactions with diasporic women, discussing issues related to being a woman of Indian descent. This piece reconfigures and re-articulates a psychoanalytic and cultural viewpoint towards the Indian female body. This piece is a site for transformation and empowerment, where the female body is not surrounded by taboo and lack. It aims to critique injustices towards women, and to encourage a resilient cultural shift that relies on a navigation of diverse theoretical, personal and poetic observations and insights.



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Chart 4 Greatest difficulties new immigrants faced since arriving in Canada (Cited 4 years after arrival*). (2005). Retrieved April 1, 2016, from http://www.statcan.gc.ca/pub/11-008-x/2007000/c-g/4097864-eng.htm

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Simranpreet Anand
Simranpreet Anand is currently a student at UBC completing a joint major in Psychology and Visual Arts. Her work engages with the topics of psychology, feminism, and culture and how they interrelate and collide with one another in modern society. Simran’s artwork has been strongly influenced by the interplay of her Indian heritage and upbringing in Canada.


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