Looking back…Abouna…Scolding…Mona Lisa…

I was re-reading Fanon yesterday and thought to add this thought to my previous post about Abouna:

When we look at something, it immediately becomes an object, both literally and grammatically. As subjects, we can pass judgment on or criticize the objects of our gaze, and not expect them to reply. We say “That table is black”, and we do not expect it to change its colour because we have already proclaimed it to be black. We say “That boy is stupid” and we do not expect him to walk up to us and tell us that he is not, because in looking at him and judging him, we now hold a certain power over him, the power somewhat similar to the type of power that a hypnotist has over his patient. Our gazing upon another object forces the object to act a certain way: that way usually being the way we have declared them to be or some other way that restricts what he can do as compared to what he would do if we were not looking.

However, what happens when the object looks back? As Angela noted in class, we felt a discomfort when Amine’s father looks directly back at us in Abouna’s opening scene. That discomfort comes from the fact that our object has now looked back, and in a sense, has now become a subject. He is looking back directly at the people who have made him an object, and asserting his own right to be a subject like them, while making them his objects. Even though the father is still an object (he is a movie character), we cannot help but feel that it is not right for him to look back at us and make us subjects, because in looking back, he wields some power over us, albeit minimal. That quick shift from subject to object and vice versa shows the dynamism of gaze and power: The “gazer” can easily become the “gazee” from one moment to the next.

From experience, in Nigeria, when an adult scolds you, you are expected to look down, and never right back at them, or worse even, in their eyes. Looking back can easily land one a slap, or extra punishment. This is also true in many other parts of the world (although from speaking with other people, the US seems to be an exception). I find this rather fascinating because it directly relates to the power of one’s gaze over another: while the adult is scolding you and you cannot look back, he/she is the subject and has the right to admonish you for your wrongdoings. You are the object, you have to now act according to what the adult tells you (in terms of a punishment, or in terms of what you now consider to be right and wrong according to them). When you look back, you now equate yourself to the adult. “You have done something wrong, you deserve scolding/punishment!” is their opinion; “I haven’t done anything wrong, I do not deserve any punishment!” is yours. By holding opposing but equal opinions, we are now two equal forces who have no power over each other.

Another example: Leonardo da Vinci’s painting: the Mona Lisa.

Mona Lisa

Mona Lisa

The thing that fascinates me most about this painting is how she is looking right back at us (or at least ME!). When I was much younger, the image scared me because I thought she was looking at me, judging me even. The little smirk she has on her face made it even worse: Mona Lisa seemed alive, even though she was just a painting. Now I think about it, could it be because she was looking right back at me, and asserting her right to be “human”: to have thoughts, judgments, opinions, and feelings just like me?

I never thought about this concept this way, but now that I do, I think it’s rather fascinating, innit?


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