Aïcha Snoussi, Bugs (Anticodexxx) (2017)
In Bugs (Anticodexxx), Aïcha Snoussi again uses notebooks to create an installation work that denies the typical function of an index or reference book. Like The book of anomalies, Bugs (Anticodexxx) is a series of notebooks filled with drawings and displayed so that only a limited number of the pages are visible to the viewer. As in her other works, Bugs (Anticodexxx) problematizes the gender binary by depicting uncanny genital forms and by hinting at non-normative sex acts. In Bugs (Anticodexxx), however, Snoussi seems more explicit about the disruptive potential of queerness. The title, “bugs,” may refer to organic insect life, and may also refer to an error in code, such as a software bug. Additionally, the “xxx” in the title connotes pornography or explicit sex.
Snoussi has articulated that performing non-normative or deviant sex acts can be an embodied, queer method of disrupting social systems that rely on heteronormativity and monogamous, reproductive heterosexual sex. Lauren Berlant and Michael Warner summarize the application of deviance, stating, “Queer critics [have] embraced deviance not as an inevitable counterpart to conforming behavior and an integral aspect of the social world, but rather as a challenge to the stability and coherence of that world.” Snoussi sees deviant, penetrative sex between female-bodied people as such a challenge to the coherence of normative sex acts and sex and gender relations. Thus, for her, engaging in such acts and alluding to them in her art subverts hierarchies of sex and gender.
Subverting normative sex and gender in artwork that uses strategies of surrealism also subverts the normativity of European Surrealism. Allmer summarizes how European Surrealism engaged in oppressive politics while also touting the undoing of hierarchies, stating, “whilst surrealist thought radically challenged hierarchies, it often remained blind to its own gender politics, locked in a heterosexual, sometime homophobic, patriarchal stance positioning and constructing women (and never men) as artists’ muses, femme-enfants, virgins, dolls, and erotic objects.” Bugs (Anticodexxx), as well as The book of anomalies and other artworks by Snoussi, engage with this particular condition of the European Surrealist movement. Snoussi, a queer woman, uses images of female genitals to unravel patriarchal constructions resulting from the male gaze. She also undoes the gender binary by repositioning deviant sex as central to the disentangling of hierarchies and typical knowledge systems.
In one page from Bugs (Anticodexxx), Snoussi presents the possibility of a fetus inside a womb. Here, a ball-like figure inhabits the center of a page. One side is curved and develops into a bulbous extension. In contour, the shape is readable as the back and the head of a fetus.
Yet, there is something not human about this figure. Where a human fetus would have eyes, this figure’s ‘face’ is unmarked. Where a typical human fetus would have two arms and two legs, this figure has multiple tendrils extending from it, each ending in a bulb of a different shape and size. In the main body of the figure, organ-like shapes seem to indicate organic life, but then again, nothing can be said with any certainty about what this figure actually is. Its fetal status casts even more doubt: the figure may develop into something unlike its present state. The figure presents the possibility of reproduction from deviant sexual coupling.
Genitalia are imbricated in reproduction, making embryology a particularly prescient area in which to discuss the many different forms of chimeras. Tetragametic chimeras occur in humans when two eggs are fertilized separately in the womb, but then fuse together. This results in one individual having genetically distinct cells. In mosaicism, as exhibited by tortoiseshell cats or people with two different colored eyes, the individual has multiple genetic codes as a result of the combination of two or more populations of cells with different genotypes in one individual, but which developed from only one fertilized egg. A third version of chimerism, microchimerism, occurs when a small number of cells that originated in one individual are found in another, genetically different individual. This occurs during cell transmission in the umbilical cord between mother and fetus. Fetal cells can remain in the mother, and maternal cells are sometimes found in the fetus, rendering most human females who have experienced pregnancy a type of chimera. Because chimeras disrupt the normative family, the female presents an ironic quandary for the family: its normativity is based upon a reproductive act that makes the female into a chimera. If most Tunisian female mothers are chimeras, then the fiction of social authority is exposed; its very basis is corrupted, ironically, through the acts that it requires for perpetuation.
In Tunisia, Habib Bourguiba helped to shape embodied Tunisian subjects by structuring a state that could control their sexual relationships, their private and public lives, and women’s relationships to themselves and men, and their children. The institution of the 1957 constitution and the Code of Personal Status brought about changes in two related conceptualizations of women: the lessening of kin community power and the granting of women’s rights. Women were no longer as beholden to male kin’s expectations for marriage or career. Marriages no longer occurred with as much relevance to kin networks, the kin community became decentralized, and women gained more control over their reproduction, their children, and their marriage. For example, the CPS granted women the right to initiative divorce and outlawed polygamy. However, social change takes place over a period of time. According to Foucault,
The ‘invention’ of…new political anatomy must not be seen as a sudden discovery. It is rather a multiplicity of often minor processes, of different origin and scattered location, which overlap, repeat, or imitate one another, support one another, distinguish themselves from one another according to their domain of application, converge and gradually produce the blueprint of a general method…On almost every occasion, they were adopted in response to particular needs… This did not prevent them being totally inscribed in general and essential transformations, which we must now try to delineate.
State methods of control and use of citizens are often taken up by society and reinforced within its norms. In this naturalization, many citizens do not realize that they are acting out and upholding state mandates. The CPS was a major factor in the naturalization of the Tunisian state’s requirements for citizens because it delineated the very terms of social engagement for women.
Snoussi’s artworks reconfigure such terms by alluding to non-normative sex and gender. In regards to women of the European Surrealist movement, Allmer quotes Donna Haraway, expressing that “women surrealists’ works explore the ‘intimate experience of their boundaries, their construction and deconstruction.’” Allmer continues, “They explode and undo binary and hierarchical categorisation by… perverting (in its sense of turning round) tradition, showing that tradition is not a fixed entity, but that it already inoculates its own transmutations and becomings deconstructing itself from within, thereby producing new forms.” Bugs (Anticodexxx) likewise perverts genital shapes. Here, an uncanny threedimensional cavern alludes to a vaginal cavity that is at once sexual and terrifying, its red walls that shred through the page in layers recall the interior of the female body and also menstrual blood. Such perversions demonstrate the transmutability of categories and hierarchies. Similar to women surrealists in the 20th century, Snoussi’s artworks articulate her investigation of the social conditions in which a queer, Tunisian woman exists, and propose new arrangements that transgress the boundaries imposed by such constructions.
Another detail from Bugs (Anticodexxx) presents a creature with multiple appendages. Its body is no more than a stalk, in itself phallic, and its offshoots vary in proximity to plant-like or animal bodily organs. Each appendage seems able to penetrate. Yet plants do not reproduce through penetrative intercourse, a condition that again confounds the social meanings of penetration and reproduction for normative sex.
Further, the plant’s structure resembles cattails and pussy willows, linguistic references that refer to female genitals in French and in English: le chat (cat) is French slang and pussy is English slang for vagina. The merger of phallic structures and vaginal connotations in a single drawing complicates the penis/vagina binary, where two anatomies that are opposed to each other when they are separate are here part of the same configuration.
Chimeras such as these offer new bodily, and therefore social, potentials for organization. Imagining new physical structures for the composition of bodies exposes the uncertainty of the physicality of familiar and conventional bodies. For example, in describing Dorothea Tanning’s painting The Mirror, Whitney Chadwick asserts that “It is not, after all, a woman who occupies the feminine position [of looking in a mirror] here but a hybrid, an anthropomorphic flower, a grotesque being that blurs the boundaries of animal/vegetal/human worlds and collapses the binaries of sexual difference.”
Uncanny mergers of animal, vegetable, and human such as those in Snoussi’s artworks rebuke authorities such as systems of gender, sex, heteronormativity, and patriarchy. In doing so, they further demonstrate the arbitrariness of the social meanings of bodies and their use by the state and the extra-state.
Anne Marie E. Butler.
In Unintelligible Bodies: Surrealism and Queerness in Contemporary Tunisian Women’s Art. State University of New York at Buffalo, ProQuest Dissertations Publishing, 2019.