Return to Sender: Women of Color in Colonial Postcards and the Politics of Representation

This NYSCA-funded project involves the completion of a short film “Women of Color in Colonial Postcards and the Politics of Representation” (approx. 20 min), a community screening and discussion at Cinema Arts Center; an art exhibit (including film stills and collages based on 19th-early 20th century postcards), an artist talk at Huntington Historical Society; and a free screening of the film at Ma’s House & BIPOC Art Studio in Southampton.

I will edit a short film that subverts images of South Asian women in British colonial postcards and sparks a discussion about the representation of women, especially women of color and women from marginalized communities.

I chose three colonial postcards. The South Asian women they depict seem two-dimensional, posing awkwardly in empty studios with painted backdrops, without any voice or agency. I inverted this patriarchal Orientalist gaze by filming three contemporary women (Fatimah Arshad, Urvashi Bhattacharya and Sumayia Islam) with connections to the postcard women’s hometowns and histories. They were shot in a studio in Rochester, NY, by videographers Dylan Toombs and Boris Sapozhnikov. The women dressed and posed like the postcard women, but then broke with that staging and transitioned into a pose of their own choosing – whether it be reading a book or putting their feet up. Later, we filmed a conversation inside a South Asian home. They talked about the project and how their own stories intersect/don’t intersect with it. In a way, this allowed the postcard women to jettison their silence and take control of their narratives. The studio footage will be layered with fragments of this group discussion in which the women discuss identity, belonging, erasure, and media representations of brown women.

I want to bring the film to audiences that struggle with visibility and stereotypes. The film will be screened at Cinema Arts Center on Oct 1, 2023. I hope to do outreach through marketing and social media posts, but also through the three panelists who will participate in the post-screening discussion. They are Madeline del Toro Cherney who teaches at Stony Brook’s Department of Anthropology and can deconstruct Native and Latinx stereotypes; Nia Adams who is a community organizer and will bring decolonial, abolitionist analysis to the conversation; and Farhana Huda Islam, whose social justice work has allowed her to work closely with Muslim communities on Long Island.

An art exhibit at Huntington’s History & Decorative Arts Museum in mid Sept and artist talk(s) for Huntington Historical Society members and young professionals will reach new audiences. We are using multiple media and an interdisciplinary approach to produce more engagement with the project.

Unlike previous projects, I see this grant as allowing me to workshop the film by creating direct dialogue with frontline communities. Such public discussions are important as the world continues to be fractured along racial lines and painful colonial histories are disappeared. Artists and activists must unpack existing structures and “identify points of leverage for our own intervention” – cracks and fissures which allow us to prefigure an alternative world.

This project is made possible with funds from the Statewide Community Regrant Program, a regrant program of the New York State Council on the Arts with the support of the Office of the Governor and the New York State Legislature and administered by The Huntington Arts Council, Inc.

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