Thanks to the anon who submitted Laila as our April 2014 Young Alumna of the Month (#YAOTM). Submit your choice for May 2014 YAOTM here.
Laila Alawa is a phenomenal leader, interdisciplinary thinker, and tremendous writer. She has written on issues of feminism and gender inequality, racism and discrimination, and religious pluralism aiming to include marginalized minorities of race, religion, and culture in the national discourse on politics, social welfare, and justice. Through her blog, Coming of Faith, Laila has also demonstrated her innovative approach to understanding and conveying identity, particularly of Muslim women, to the masses. In addition, her work with Unity Productions Foundation and Muslim Public Affairs Council reveal her unwavering dedication to advance Muslim Americans in fields of media, government, and public/social policy. An awesome human being all around!
A few months ago, I saw this photograph furiously circulating around social media. It is of a well-dressed, White woman sitting on top of a chair that is propped up by the thighs of a mannequin. This mannequin lays topless on its back, its arms in long black gloves, with its long legs upright in long, black, platform heeled boots. A small platform with a large black cushion rests on the ass and large squished breasts of the mannequin. This object was created by Norwegian, New York City-based artist, Bjarne Melgaard, and this photograph of Garage Editor-In-Chief Dasha Zhukova, accompanied an editorial published on Buro 24/7. The controversy that surrounds art is what fuels its necessity, because the act of making art is an act of making meaning, and that meaning fuels our existence. That act of artistic production and meaning-making can liberate us, or it can be blatantly destructive and oppressive. In this article, I will argue that this photograph is the latter, and I will elaborate on the importance of evaluating gendered and racial hierarchies reinforced by this image. Later, I will take on the Toni Matelli sculpture, Sleepwalker, at Wellesley.
The Chair both functions as an object and through its mimicry, serves to objectify. When sitting on this chair, the participant is poised to penetrate the bound mannequin below, which is in a sexualized, subservient position. Melgaard states that he is informed by sadomasochism and heavy metal music, and he presents a submissive Black woman as his subject.
In her fabulous essay, Fascinating Fascism (1974), Susan Sontag analyzes how fetishized sadomasochist aesthetics reinforce fascist power dynamics, and why S&M appropriates fascist imagery: “Sadomasochism has always been the furthest reach of the sexual experience: when sex becomes most purely sexual, that is, severed from personhood, from relationships, from love. It should not be surprising that it has become attached to Nazi symbolism in recent years. Never before was the relation of master and slaves so consciously aestheticized… Now there is a master scenario available to everyone. The color is black, the material is leather, the seduction is beauty, the justification is honesty, the aim is ecstasy, the fantasy is death.”
In Chair, Melgaard, a white, queer male, manifests violent sexual fantasies on an inanimate sculpture of a Black woman. Her existence as an object of pleasure is marked by the bright make-up on her face, her fit and well-proportioned body, and her voluptuous breasts.
I’m not a love at first sight person. But I know the moment I realized I wanted to be a sociology professor, and I can pinpoint the moment when it hit me – almost 10 years later, with my PhD nearly in hand – that maybe I could do something else. Maybe I could work at a tech company.
I started with an analogy to love, because, as many people do, I experienced my calling to academia as one might experience love: only one option felt right, exactly right, for me. The summer after my sophomore year at Wellesley, I went to Berlin for a summer seminar and research program. I remember the moment, back at home reading Sartre and Arendt in my parents’ backyard, that I realized a life of reading, writing, and exchanging ideas might be possible for me. I could be a professor. With the support of several Wellesley professors, I pursued that path to the sociology graduate program at Yale.
I was a happy and productive graduate student. Yale awards the same, relatively generous funding to all PhD students. In the absence of financial competition among students and the financial pressures of larger cities, a spirit of collegiality and a pleasant atmosphere prevailed in New Haven. I liked my cohort. I liked my friends. My advisors read my work and actively supported my intellectual and professional development. During the first four years of my graduate program, I published three papers and co-edited a book with two of my advisors.
I decided to enter the job market early. “Early” in the academic sphere means that I had spent 4 years in graduate school when I decided to apply for jobs. This is where the love I felt for the academy began to sour. Academia and I, we could have stuck with it: making compromises, downgrading expectations. We might have made it through the rough patch just fine, and be better now than ever. But I don’t know how I might have turned out as a professor, because I broke off from that path.
I took a job at a tech company.
Thanks to Kate Ciurej ‘08 (@katecbrown) for submitting Serena as March 2014 YAOTM!
Serena Wales ‘09 continues to inspire me in the ways she combines her technical skills and entrepreneurial drive to build new tools to help governments engage their citizens. After graduating with a degree in Media Arts and Sciences in ‘09, Serena spent a couple of years as a programmer at a New York City agency called Purpose, constantly working to improve her coding skills. In 2011, Serena won a Code for America fellowship, and spent the following year building software tools to boost civic engagement. Serena then founded her company, Textizen, where she is now CTO. Textizen helps governments solicit citizen feedback through the simple, ubiquitous means of text messaging. Textizen continues to grow and thrive under Serena’s leadership, and has been used in over 10 cities across the country.