Tanzila Ahmed is Reclaiming the Power of an Auntie’s Stare

LOS ANGELES — In 2016, two Muslim women were removed from an airplane, ostensibly because their stares made a flight attendant uncomfortable. It was just one of many such incidents that year. As Niala Mohammad, a journalist, wrote of her own experience of being removed from a plane

Although the incident was humiliating it was also eye-opening. Until it happened to me, neither my friend nor I had realized how common this trend had become …. It isn’t just about what happened to me — increasingly Muslims are a part of a cycle of discrimination that targets them due to their appearance.

These incidents are the jumping-off point for Los Angeles artist Tanzila Ahmed, who began painting a series of works titled Aunties with Deadly Stare in the midst of COVID lockdowns. The one-week show, on view at LA ArtCore through July 15, includes dozens of paintings made with acrylic and eyeliner and collaged with paper materials like newspapers and comics.

The compilations feature various brown aunties, with pink laser beams beaming out of their eyes to represent their deadly stares. They are adorned in homage to Bengali folk art, with simple white saris that reference the Mukti Bahini female revolutionaries. Their laser beams cross papers like a train ticket from India, a Bangla Islamic text, or even a Daredevil comic.

Part of the show’s ethos is its range of repetition: The gallery is filled essentially with aunties with deadly stares, but each one is unique and each is bound by the common experience of a deadly stare. Each variation highlights auntie energy in a new way. In “All Wrapped Up Auntie,” the auntie’s blue hair circles around her alongside Bangla Islamic texts shaped into turquoise eyeballs. In a painting on a skateboard, the aunties fade into faces, and then just eyeballs; all of us with aunties can feel ourselves shrivel in fear.

Tanzila Ahmed in collaboration with Mira Jacob, “The Aunties See You”

“Of course the gaze is deadly,” notes the exhibition press release, which has the dry humor of Ahmed, who for years co-hosted the popular #GoodMuslimBadMuslim podcast with Zahra Noorbakhsh. “It quietly judges your clothing, your marriage, your weight, your cholesterol, and shrivels your self-esteem into dust. Everyone who interacts with an Auntie knows this.”

Toward the back of the gallery is Sorshe Phul, a photo series of Ahmed with writer Neelanjana Banerjee captured by Wajiha Ibrahim-Shaikh. The series references California’s mustard flowers and “the Bengalis love for all things mustard.” Ahmed and Banerjee stare outward confidently, reclaiming their gazes.

My own gaze landed on a few lines from a poem by Banerjee: 

If you want 
to connect
to your ancestors
then put on 
a silk sari
& sit on a wooden stool
in a field of mustard flowers
for a moment (or for all of time)
you will be soothed.

I found the poem soothing. Then I turned around to see a drop cloth of golden eyeballs staring back at me, and my self-esteem shriveled into dust.

Tanzila Ahmed, Dropcloth of aunties’ eyeballs
Tanzila Ahmed, “What Will People Say?’
Tanzila Ahmed, “Harem”
Photo by Wahija Ibrahim-Shaikh from the series Sorshe Phul featuring Tanzila Ahmed and Neelanjana Banerjee

Tanzila Ahmed: Aunties with Deadly Stares continues at LA Artcore (120 Judge John Aiso Street, Little Tokyo, Los Angeles) through July 15.

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