Q&A: Tayeba Begum Lipi

Born in 1969 in Gaibandha, a town in the northern part of Bangladesh, the artist Tayeba Begum Lipi first sprang to global attention at the Venice Biennale in 2011 with her sculpture of a bra made from stainless steel razor-blades. Now she has her first show in London at Pi Artworks. It includes a pram and a cot made from razor-blades, and silk screens of female head coverings and masks in razor-blade frames. There are also bikinis, a nightdress and a vagina made from a mesh of golden safety pins.

Rachel Spence: Why razor-blades?

Tayeba Begum Lipi: I am the 11th of 12 children. During my childhood, someone in my family was always giving birth at home. My brothers would always be sent to the shop by the midwife to buy new razor-blades because that was what she would use if she had to cut the baby out. One of my strongest memories is of those razor-blades boiling on the stove. If I close my eyes, I can still hear the water bubbling.

RS: And the safety-pins?

TBL: Safety pins are part of women’s daily lives. To fix a sari, you often need a lot of safety pins. However, I started using them after an NGO called White Ribbons asked me if I would make a quilt for them for an exhibition in London. They sent me the case-history of a young woman who had got pregnant when she was under-age and been forced to get a dowry from her poor family.

One morning she was found dead, having been tortured by her husband’s family. They had suffocated her with the blouse of her sari. When it was pulled out of her mouth, the safety pins were still in it. So I used safety pins in the drawing I made on a baby quilt.

RS: At the recent Dhaka Art Summit, you produced a remarkable installation about your experience of a miscarriage which included photographs of your ultrasounds. Did you hesitate before embarking on such a personal topic?

TBL: Oh, for such a long time! After I set up the installation I didn’t want to go back there at all. But afterwards many women came up to me and said: “This has happened to me too,” so perhaps it was worth it.

RS: Are there topics you shy away from?

TBL: For example, after the Rana Plaza tragedy [when more than 1,100 workers were killed after a garment factory collapsed] some artists made work about it. But my partner [the artist Mahbubur Rahman] and I did not even go and see the site. It was such a painful, shocking event, it felt inappropriate to make work about it.

RS: So it’s easier to make work about your own experience?

TBL: Yes, the world is so big, I prefer to concentrate on what is around me, what I really know. Many of my experiences are common to many women in Bangladesh, so when I make work about myself, it is also I hope universal.

My childhood remains a very strong experience from me. I did not come from a wealthy family. My parents really struggled to give us an education. If there was any money, they used it to buy us books not toys or clothes.

Both my parents are dead. But sadly my mother died before I became an established artist. She never saw my work. So much of it is a conversation with her, a way of saying: “You are always with me.”

‘Never Been Intimate’, Pi Artworks, London, until March 31, piartworks.com

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