Fashion collection 'Red Thread' by Putri Adif studies female sexuality and genital mutilation
Interview, 21 June 2019
Putri Adif’s first textile collection, Red Thread, was recently presented at Why Not – housed at The Substation for one night. The performance, depicting goriness and frustrations surrounding female genital mutilation (FGM), paid homage to the designer’s Malay culture. The presentation opened with Getaran Jiwa by Malaysian composer P. Ramlee – a somewhat festive song laced with deep sadness, conveying the revelations of FGM based on the takeaways from the designer’s personal experience and research.
Your collection brings a largely neglected aspect of female sexuality to the surface. You mentioned that Red Thread seeks to evoke conversation and re-evaluate the importance of safety for the female body. Did you intend to focus on aspects that go unnoticed in our society today?
PUTRI ADIF: Throughout the research process for my collection, I found that it was still very tricky to find proper resources for such a taboo topic. Only in recent years have women started protesting more against FGM and uniting other individuals to go against laws to protect other potential victims. As it is most commonly carried out in the name of tradition, most girls have no say in the decisions made on their bodies. Personally, I was circumcised as a baby so that I would be ‘clean’ – according to my mother. I think she meant that I would be ‘purified’. She told me that when she was younger, her aunts and cousins would chase after her around the kampong (village) because she did not want this.
There are many ways of female genital cutting, such drawing blood with a prick, excision of the clitoral hood or the clitoris itself, and ‘infibulation’ which is a highly controversial practice that involves sewing the vagina shut to leave a small hole, preventing sexual intercourse. I believe many are blind to how extreme this is, along with the many long term health and mental concerns as a result of FGM.
Many girls face internal conflicts regarding their faith, and those who reject FGM may be seen as going against the beliefs or disregarding family tradition and values. As a result, these women face hostility by their own community. Some people who have gone through FGM have trouble being comfortable in their own bodies. Trauma relating to sexual experiences have also been reported.
What is the significance of the silhouettes and individual layers in Red Thread?
PA: When designing Red Thread, I started with direct referencing. I did the red stitches running, and added that element into my designs. In wanting to depict pain with the details and textures, things like swollen skin, stitches, cuts and puffiness came to mind. When deciding on the fabric, I chose soft and fragile as metaphors for preconceived notions of femininity and purity of a woman. Stronger colours were chosen to juxtapose the fabric. I guess you could say that the play between fabric and colour places the idea of purity against the goriness and pain of FGM. The concept of translucent garments on a woman’s body is controversial in my culture, but I think it’s an impactful statement of empowerment.
I also referenced the Malay and African cultures. They are similar in the way that both have fairly conservative heritage, and circumcision is carried out with a celebration. The African culture celebrates circumcision with rituals, prayers, playing traditional instruments and singing.
This happens when the girl is usually circumcised in the house – her screaming and crying left unheard over the celebratory music outside. Inai, or Terinai dance, is a traditional Malay dance performed during the circumcision ceremony of royal court children.
In telling the story of the girl who had to go through FGM, I will be including this dance as part of my presentation at Why Not?
Have you always seen fashion design as a mediating tool for such concerns in your own practice?
PA: I’ve only started designing fashion for a few years now and I would say it’s still the beginning of my journey. During my time in art school, I was very unsure about the type of artist I wanted to be. At the start, I designed because I liked it and only had the intention to do something that was nice and unique.
I first discovered that I was ‘sunat’ as a baby during a conversation with my mother. ‘The doctor only cut a bit’, she said. When I asked her why I had to go through the procedure, she could not give me a clear answer. After trying to find answers online, the idea to design my collection based on FGM came to mind. I wanted to express my own feelings in the collection, and so naturally that provided purpose in the garments I designed.
I believe Red Thread can narrow the gap with further commentary between older and younger generations, but it is just my personal portrayal. I’m not trying to change the mindsets or force my beliefs onto others. All I wanted to do was tell the story of a girl who’s deserving of her own body, and encourage her to understand her own sexuality.
Given that fashion has been treated as a space for experimentation of sex and identity, did you have to go through a process of analysing the meanings of sex to people, specifically individuals who had to go through FGM, in order to create Red Thread?
PA: I did not get the chance to meet individuals who had to go through FGM. I wish that I got to, so I am planning to start a series to my collection after the show. It’s my way of extending the collection and learn more about the topic.
Ultimately, any woman is deserving of their own body and sexuality. I will be translating other practices that suppress women in my culture into my next collection. Red Thread was solely based on research and documentaries I’ve found on FGM, as well as my mother’s and my own experience and feelings.
In the context of Why Not, do you find that the themes of your work along with your intended artistic display of the collection would likely be undermined or even censored if faced with an institutional structure or traditional presentation format?
PA: When placed in an institutional context, my work was discouraged from touching upon the meaning of the collection because it was deemed as too controversial. I didn’t really have much say in the styling and final decisions either. A large part of it was based on profitability and trend. Such limitations pushed me to embark on Why Not with the team. It was a chance for me to present my works in its full potential while not confining it to a traditional setting.
In my opinion, the focus that was pushed to me focused largely on business and marketing. On one hand, it’s understandable as the fashion industry is competitive and highly driven by profits around the world. However, if institutions continually encourage their students to rely on a certain format, fashion and design may end up losing their value in the years to come.
Putri Adif adopts new and sometimes controversial concepts of the Malay culture. As a multi-disciplinary artist, she conceptualises collections, editorials and films. Her work mixes contemporary with traditional styles, and seeks inspiration from narratives and textiles of various cultures around the world.
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