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To save her I would murder the world

My roommate and I print a bootleg copy of Sanam Khatibi’s To save her I would murder the world (2016) using our university library’s poster printer because we cannot afford to buy one of her actual paintings. The paper is thin and soft from the freshly applied ink, warping noticeably in my grip. The printer leaves thin, vertical white stripes across the piece, but we hang it above our IKEA couch anyways, using heavy-duty shipping tape to fix it to the wall. My roommate writes the title in her neat handwriting along the bottom edge of the painting. She says that she loves how Khatibi titles her work, “They’re almost more exciting than the paintings,” and I almost agree with her.

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Sanam Khatibi, To save her I would murder the world, 2016, oil and pencil on canvas, 140 x 180 cm

In the painting, a naked woman straddles a cypress-green crocodile. She leans forward slightly with her left arm delicately placed on the crocodile’s ridged back to keep her balanced. Her right arm is tucked behind her. She holds something against the small of her back, but I cannot make out what it is. Her form is so finely detailed and shaded that I have to squint to see her mosquito bite tits and the neat V of her mons pubis more clearly. She gazes into the distance, seemingly unperturbed by the beasts fervidly copulating throughout the landscape. An indistinct, humanoid figure stands on the side of a hill holding some sort of spear or club. A fleshy-pink phallus hangs between its legs like a dog’s slimy, beet red penis flopping around.

The crocodile holds a severed arm in its mouth, dragging it across the olive colored earth. Streamers of red and pink flayed flesh are wedged between the beast’s rows of hooked, white teeth. There is no corpse in sight. I stare at the bottom-left corner of the painting where a female figure is being mounted by a large, brown cat. Or rather, I assume it’s a cat. Her head is thrown back, perhaps in ecstasy, and the feline has her neck in its mouth.

I find myself wondering if the painting is based on a myth, so I spend several minutes googling “woman riding a crocodile.” My search turns up a bunch of articles about a Florida woman fighting to keep her pet alligator who wears clothes and “rides” ATVs, so I change my search to “woman riding a crocodile myth.” I have more luck this time and discover a handful of blog posts about the Hindu goddess Akhilandeshwari.

One of the many forms of the goddess Parvati, Akhilandeshwari’s name translates from Sanskrit as “never not broken,” a double negative that reveals the goddess’s perpetual state of physical, mental, or emotional brokenness. However, rather than understanding brokenness as a detriment, the goddess represents that difficulties in our lives are opportunities for us to continuously recreate ourselves. Akhilandeshwari rides on the crocodile because it represents our human fears: the fear of death, failure, inadequacy, rejection, loss, among others. Like a crocodile that plucks an antelope from the banks of a watering hole and thrashes it around in the water until it’s disoriented, fear can swallow us whole. Yet, Akhilandeshwari rides atop the crocodile, allowing fear to carry her forward.

I have been thinking about fear a lot recently, though I hardly think I’m the only one. Fear and anxiety have become a permanent fixture in the U.S. public psyche as we face the rapidly approaching U.S. presidential election; infernos raging across California; global deaths from Covid-19 rising to more than a million worldwide with more than 210,000 in the United States alone; the failure of the Kentucky Attorney General Daniel Cameron to bring murder charges against the three police officers that shot Breonna Taylor; the second most active Atlantic hurricane season on record with nearly two months left in the season; the ongoing genocide of Black trans women with the murder of “Goddess” Aerrion Burnett; just to name a few of the crises that have been on my mind recently. Almost everyone I talk to describes a deep foreboding and hopelessness for the future, a sense of paralysis in the face of seemingly unstoppable global catastrophes that appear to worsen by the hour. It feels like we live in a world that is “never not broken.” However, I’m also cautious of conceding our ability to hope and enact change in the face of uncertain and fearful visions of the future, turning to nihilism and inaction instead.

Sanam Khatibi’s To save her I would murder the world offers us a different way to think about our relationship to fear. She describes an interest in the “thin line that exists between fear and desire, and how closely they are interrelated,” which I find especially evident in this painting because we cannot distinguish the subjects’ relationships to power, violence, sensuality, or each other. The landscape is ambiguously erotic and dangerous, death and pleasure exist in close proximity. The female figure in the left corner of the work exudes sexual pleasure, while also being at the mercy of the panther whose murderous jaws could snuff her out instantly. Khatibi erases the line between animal and human, suggesting that we are motivated by primal urges more than we would like to think. We are just another desirous and murderous creature in her world.

Khatibi makes us question: Is the crocodile declaring it would “murder the world” to save the woman riding on its ridged back? Almost certainly. Are they lovers? I like to think so. Will the ominous figure standing on the side of the mountain rush forward and attack them? Perhaps not: the severed arm in the crocodile’s mouth is a heavy-handed warning of what could happen to anyone who threatens the woman. The two corpse-like figures at the forefront of the painting conjure uncertainty about what transpired before we arrived as witnesses. In spite of all these anxiety inducing elements, the painting radiates a feeling of romanticism as the love between this woman and beast becomes a ward against encroaching danger.

In Khatibi’s surreal, alluring world, fear appears inescapable. The female figure is naked, exceedingly vulnerable, and perched atop a fearsome animal that could dismember her in moments, yet she rides the crocodile easily like the goddess Akhilandeshwari as if leading some grotesque parade. She appears unaffected, unmoved. She has anticipated danger. She does not allow herself to be swallowed by fear. Instead, she blithely climbs on top of the most frightening beast in sight, allowing the crocodile to carry her forward. The crocodile—as a metaphor for fear—guarantees her safety in the face of menacing threats and becomes an unexpected object of her affection, irreversibly changing her relationship to the world.