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Jinah Kim, the George P. Bickford Professor of Indian and South Asian Art in the Harvard University Department of History of Art & Architecture, attempts to unearth “Unheard Voices” when analyzing medieval South Asian Art. Her research, the topic of the Mittal Institute’s latest Visiting Artist Fellows (VAF) Lecture Series, examines the role of women in South Asian art from a historical perspective, and sheds light on how this depiction impacts the politics of gender and social status of women in the modern era.

“It was a conventional wisdom to think that women’s participation in any social sphere was kind of limited in medieval South Asia, especially in Buddhist circles,” says Professor Kim. “And then I started examining a lot of images from 800 to 1200, and started seeing a lot of women. It’s only when you adjust your angle to look for these women that you start seeing them.”

Professor Kim shared numerous images of artwork, where tiny figures of women were hidden on sculptures or paintings. By looking for these depictions of women in stone, she was able to expand on the representation of gender dynamics in art. Her careful examination of representations of the female body in different contexts considered how medieval art depicts gender identity. She also compared this with images of deities or goddesses, and explored how and why they were shown as voluptuous figures.

Her talk also explored the concept of femininity and masculinity, both in regards to medieval South Asia and shifting concepts over the centuries. She shared other sculpture images, whose male bodies may be perceived as more “feminine” when viewed with a modern lens. 

The lecture was attended by this year’s cohort of Visiting Artists at the Mittal Institute, who offered their thoughts on the politics of gender and social status of women. “Women have been objectified throughout history and it’s still an ongoing process,” said Maheen Niazi, one of the VAF’s, a Pakistani artist whose work revolves around the blurred boundaries between religion and culture, where there are no strict demarcations. “An interesting part of the talk was the relation of women with the idea of inner and outer space. Coming from an Islamic upbringing, I found it very interesting how the culture is so dominant in our society, yet the struggle of the woman remains the same despite differences such as religion, cast, profession etc.”