Gender has long been a topic that has informed Shubigi’s work. In fact, for 10 years prior to Pulp, she performed under a male pseudonym S Raoul, in an attempt to experience the art world as a man, and to disassociate her gender from her works. In an interview with Indian publication The Week, she said: “As a woman, I would always be that female artist talking about feminism. The content of my work would never be critiqued. I wanted to remove that whole idea. Look only at the work, don’t look at the artist.”
The persona of S Raoul was a case study in the discrepancies experienced by male and female artists. In a way, she sought to dismantle the inbuilt stereotypes that pervade the industry through a satirical performance that ended with the “death” of her male alter-ego where he tripped and “died” at the exhibition itself. Through Raoul, she strove to break down the “patriarchal structures that existed in art and in science, in academia and the literary world, and so on”.
Funnily enough, and perhaps to reinforce her point that sexism is still widespread in the art world, she tells me that some men attempted to mansplain the concept of satire to her during the exercise. She says,
laughingly: “It got to the point where I actually had someone catch on that the work was a hoax and satire, and they actually explained satire to me. I was also accused of plagiarising the persona I invented. That’s because people can’t believe a woman can do so many things. We can do one thing well, but we can’t be problematic. Break those boxes, and we are heavily scrutinised when we do.”
Being told what she can or cannot do seems to be a recurring theme in her artistic career. Even for Pulp, she experienced pushback from men in the literary world, with someone even telling her “you’re not [specialised] in history, what gives you the right to write this book?”, says Shubigi. “I replied: ‘So?’ I’m not encroaching on their turf; I’m allowed to write a book about whatever I care about.”
This, perhaps, makes for a disparaging commentary about how the art world still continues to favour men over women, as well as certain classes. Shubigi says: “At one time, 89 per cent of artists represented by galleries in Singapore were male. Art school graduates are mostly women. This is typical, and there is a massive gap that increases based on the level of education. Most pursuing PhDs are men. We are balancing out, but most of the labour is performed by women even now. The lowest paid jobs in the art world are mostly done by women. Then, take a look at auction figures for instance. You’ll see a difference between male and female artists.”
The most expensive artwork by a female artist (Georgia O’Keeffe) sold on auction for US$44.4 million (S$61.6 million). The record for a male artist? Jeff Koons’ Rabbit, which sold for US$91.1 million. A study by the US-based National Endowment for the Arts reveals that women artists, on average, earn 74 cents for every dollar made by a male artist – this is a lot worse than the 93 cents to the dollar that women in the corporate sector make compared to men.
Pulp III, A Short Biography of the Banished Book, at the Singapore Pavilion, 59th International Art Exhibition, Venice Biennale 2022. (Photo: Her World Singapore)