Han Mengyun on Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak

In order to trace the history of repression and reveal the mechanism of power that silence the subaltern woman, the comparative literature scholar Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, in her seminal essay “Can the Subaltern Speak?” (1988) drew on the excruciating example of the English abolition and criminalization in 1829 of the Hindu rite of sati, the self-immolation of a widow upon her deceased husband’s funeral pyre. Using Derridean Deconstruction, Spivak enables us to identify two lies in the absence of the woman’s voice-consciousness: “White men are saving brown women from brown men” by the British to erect their moral high ground above the colonial subjects as a means for epistemic subjugation; “The women actually wanted to die” by the Indian nativists, to whom sati was an important proof of their allegiance to tradition as a reactionary ideology and a nostalgia for lost origins. In Spivak’s own words: “Between patriarchy and imperialism, subject-constitution and object-formation, the figure of the woman disappears, not into a pristine nothingness, but into a violent shuttling which is the displaced figuration of the ‘third-world woman’ caught between tradition and modernization.”

Gazing into the abyss where subaltern women dwell, I saw darkness and silence in their utmost clarity. A moment of searing awakening, akin to the clinical experience of diagnosis, of symptoms long felt, neglected, and endured but never acknowledged, for they have no record in history. Between the father and the alien tongues that I speak yet do not speak me, I question the possibility of belonging. Any attempt to utter ends up in a violent shuttle into the unnamable gaps of languages, places, and bodies, or a bad breath lurking behind the teeth. The illness of absence is terminal – the subaltern cannot speak.

I do not wish to claim subalternity in my position as a Third World intellectual woman with access to cultural mobility. But the understanding of the Third World female subaltern’s predicament and women’s perennial absence in art and literature, via the theoretical tools provided by Spivak, proved incredibly helpful in interrogating the mechanisms and problematics of (self-)representation in the complicity with patriarchy, colonialism, imperialism, and globalization, which construct the interior voice(s) spoken by the other(s) in me. Such an awareness is ever more critical and necessary in thinking about the ways in which I must honor my agency to speak, with well-informed caution, as a female artist from China participating in the global art arena today, without falling prey to the violence of representation and to the sweetness of self-orientalisation. But self-preservation is not enough and “women must tell each other’s stories”.

Spivak’s politics of translation, rooted in her concern with the subaltern women, is the foundation of the politics of my current visual practice. Spivak claims that “translation is necessary but impossible.” With some knowledge of Sanskrit and Indian literatures, I was struck immediately by the immeasurable distance between some 18th-century Bengali female poet and a Victorian English poetic prose writer that Spivak attempts to overcome. That insuperable difference of existence between two – if not more – languages is what I experience and contemplate on deeply while growing up during the Opening-up period in China. Not only has my multilingual education enriched me with the diversity of world cultures, it has also built a Tower of Babel that fissures me. Each language occupies a room with a window overlooking disparate landscapes, both within and without. My gendered experience further compounds the difficulty beyond literality. This schizophrenic existence fragmented by the multilingual cacophony and silenced womanhood is the basis of my understanding of that impossibility of translation. Ultimately, to translate means to construct the Other in a world that does not recognize her. To assume such possibility is to violently deny the Other’s difference. Such an idea of difference is exactly what makes translation impossible and at the same time necessary, for the problems of globalizing monolingualism and Americanization loom larger. 

To me, painting is also language and in fact must be conceived as many. Each painting tradition is intimately connected to the culture and language that forge its specificity and semiosis. Yet the current discourse on painting is still mostly dominated by the European and post-war American modernist tradition and thus speaks Western imperial languages. When one thinks of painting today, “oil-on-canvas” comes to mind, including its rules and emancipatory means. But what about 畫 (huà),ارژنگ (arjang) ,نگار (negâr), चित्र (citra) and beyond, along with their respective episteme? Our globalized art world speaks less languages as multiplicity is homogenized into the dominant, which allows the flowing of capital at the convenience of difference’s disappearance. On the other side of the double bind, women have always been painted and painted for. 

Despite and because of the impossibility of translation to make a just world and to instate the parity of cultures, we must translate. For the subaltern women who are double subjugated into disappearance, women – for themselves and for other women – must make their own image, with the awareness of the risk of the double bind and violent transcoding. The activism in my art practice is to recognize difference between cultures, to retrieve and repair lost and damaged episteme via the learning of languages, and to supplement where women are made absent and silent. “The task of the translator”, says Spivak, “is to facilitate this love between the original and its shadow, a love that permits fraying.” I find this love extraordinarily moving for it embraces fraying as a result of inevitable conflict between difference. By transgressing all borders, my task as a translator-artist is to foster this kind of love that would turn Hegel’s contempt for the manifestation of difference in non-western art into genuine fascination, to build a Tower of Babel as a lighthouse of global diversity, to be the echo of the subaltern, and to welcome women to enjoy the wealth of world languages and images as their own legacy. 

This is my feminist project of future anterior. 


Han Mengyun (b. Wuhan, China) is a multimedia artist, multilingual writer and a mother currently based in London. Her practice aims to decolonise the Eurasian transcultural episteme from the Western discourse. The medium of painting works as the critical prism through which she recognizes and negotiates the conflicts of perception between different painting traditions. She weaves the personal and collective experiences of the female subaltern into an alternative space of solidarity in search of a planetary cultural discourse. 

**An abridged version of the essay will be published in print by ArtAsiaPacific Jul/Aug issue, 2023.