This post/project contains visuals of blood and religious figures that may cause discomfort to certain viewers.
For the third prompt in the studio course, we were asked to engage in discourse through making, with a reading of our choosing.
I chose a reading from our Contemporary Dialogues in Design class, that I had read and dissected with my colleagues about a week before starting this prompt.
The Ad Hoc, the Illicit, the Controversial
Author: Craig Martin
Published: Aug 11, 2022
Published: Bloomsbury Publishing
In chapter 3, Valuing the Deviant and the Illicit, Craig Martin initiates a discourse on the intricate relationship between the ‘licit’ and ‘illicit’ or ‘good’ and ‘bad’ design, and the implicit assumptions that arise from what is regarded as socially ‘normal’. Using a range of diverse examples, he situates deviancy within the context of a multitude of social rules, influenced by factors such as power, status, time, space, race, class, ethnicity, political, and economic situations. He goes on to explain the historical evolution of innovation from being a term that was negatively charged with the associations of challenging an existing political order to becoming a positive embodiment of creativity, entrepreneurialism, and invention. Finally, he uses this argument in urging us to consider the value of illicit innovation as an essential tool to understand, challenge and improve design systems and infrastructures of the future.
A compelling text from the reading that was the starting point for my design response.
Reading through this text, I was enthused about exploring the notion of ‘behaviours that defy social norms’. I wanted to look at the basic biological act of menstruation and the various implications it has in a culturally sensitive context such as India.
A spirited discussion with my instructor Cameron prompted him to run to the nearest bathroom on campus and bring back a poster put up by the Student’s Union, illustrating the availability of menstrual products on campus. The silhouette of the sanitary pad, he said, reminded him of the Virgin Mary!
This observation sparked off an internal debate about the strange contradictions in the treatment of divine versus mortal women. I decided to visualize these thoughts through a set of ‘provocations’.
Juxtaposing the physiology of menstruation against a theological context.
Imagining divine entities experiencing basic biological processes.
Pure vs Impure
Reverence vs Shame
Sacred vs Stained
This visualization lent itself to a second provocation. This time I included other ‘revered’ figures – Indian goddesses, a nun, a female warrior…
I deliberately chose images where the figures are depicted in all white – the colour of ‘purity’, ‘virginity’, ‘innocence’. I contrasted these stark white figures, against the deep crimson of menstrual blood, shamelessly leaking from them – a reminder of an inherently biological process that has purportedly been disassociated from their divine being.
For the next 2 provocations, I wanted to focus on the communication around menstruation in the mainstream. I have grown up watching television commercials where menstrual blood was depicted using blue liquid. I always questioned why that was the case, especially when commercials for band-aids and antiseptics showed visuals of red blood in the injuries they treated. So why was menstrual blood the only one that had to be turned into blue? Is it because it was ‘impure’ blood oozing from an innately private body part, that too of a woman?
I wanted to address this by doing a simple design tweak of editing the blue liquid to red in mainstream commercials for sanitary napkins. To my surprise, most of the new commercials had already started replacing the blue liquid with red!
For the final provocation I wanted to play around with the various ‘euphemisms’ for menstruation that have become all too common across various cultures.
These code words deemed as more ‘appropriate’, especially around male figures, become gatekeepers of these conversations, further enforcing the traditional stigmas and shame associated with menstruation.
From these ‘provocative’ explorations, I wanted to realize a design outcome through visual storytelling that would spark conversations.
Staring at visuals of red menstrual blood, I was reminded of the colour’s symbolism and significance in Indian culture. In India, red is a highly auspicious colour. It is worn by Hindu brides in traditional wedding ceremonies. It is the colour of the bindi, a red dot applied by Indian women in the centre of their forehead as a marker of the powerful ‘third eye’ that retains energy and wisdom. Red is also the colour of sindoor or vermillion worn by married women in their hairline as a marker of their marital status. An Indian bride’s hands and feet are stained by alta – a bright red dye, representative of fertility and prosperity. Another custom is when a Hindu bride steps into her new home by dipping her feet in a mixture of milk and vermillion, leaving behind bright red footsteps, as a symbol of the goddess Lakshmi entering the household, believed to be the bringer wealth of good fortune.
I decide to create a short animated story that juxtaposed the red from these traditional Indian symbols with the red of menstrual blood. The idea here was to initiate discourse on the celebration of certain aspects of womanhood versus the shaming of an everyday biological process. Enmeshing cultural symbols of celebration with a process that is culturally looked down upon as impure.
For the animation style, I choose to look back at the history of social messaging driven by storytelling in India. I was quick to recount the nostalgia-ridden classic ‘Ek Anek Aur Ekta’, an educational animation film created by the Films Division of India. Commissioned by the Government of India in 1974, it was aired on the state-owned television channel ‘Doordarshan’, as a way to teach children the value of the proverb ‘United we stand, divided we fall’. I decided to use the simplistic illustration style of the characters for my animation as an homage to this popular visual from the past.
The Final Animation
I created the animation as a frame-by-frame illustration, giving it a raw quality inspired by the ‘Ek Anek Aur Ekta’ film.
I also wanted the animation to translate into a tangible object, so I made it into a flip book – something that could be picked up, flipped back and forth – played with!
The reading prompted me to think more deeply about the harmful yet ‘normalized’ social and cultural systems that have long dictated the treatment of women in society. My aim with this project was to question these traditional diktats using the power of visual design and storytelling. The animation is intended as an ‘implicitly explicit’ tool to empower conversations around a taboo topic and challenge the normative structures that uphold long-held oppressive systems of shame and subjugation in conservative societies.
Having a couple of previous failed attempts at trying to address these concerns through my professional design practice, I am learning that there are more subtle, implicit ways in which deviant design can be actualized, that are more long-lasting and eventually more effective.