Our Little Secrets

A Pakistani artist explores the shame and pride of her communityu2019s bathroom practices.

By Bushra Rehman Jul 21, 2005

We were in the kitchen, my mother and I, when she turned to me and said, “Did you know Amreekans keep medicine in the bathroom?”

I waited, not quite sure where she was going with this. She looked at me as if I was slow and then continued, “They keep it in the bathroom, and then they eat it.” There was triumph in her voice when she added, “And they say we’re dirty.”

I was surprised, not by the information, or that my mother had just found this out after living in the United States for 30 years. I was surprised that she, a proud woman who spent most of her time with people in our Pakistani community, had internalized the stereotype that we immigrants, Pakistanis, were considered dirty.

It was this conversation with my mother that I remembered when my sister Sa’dia, a visual artist, and I were discussing ideas for an art installation in the bathroom of the Queens Museum of Art in New York. Sa’dia was writing a proposal for an upcoming show and had just discovered that one of the only places left for an emerging artist like herself to exhibit was the bathroom.

In her last exhibition, “More Milk, Lighter Skin, Better Wife,” at the Gallery ArtsIndia in Manhattan, Sa’dia had created an installation using teacups. Each cup was handmade and branded with comments like: “You’ll look beautiful in gold,” or “First comes marriage then comes love.” They were the kind of remarks made by aunties to young women over tea.

Sa’dia realized, however, that teacups were not going to work in the bathroom. I suggested that instead of teacups, she use lotahs. Sa’dia laughed, thinking I was making another one of my bad jokes, but when I spoke to her again, she had developed the idea into the installation “Lotah Stories.” Both of us had no clue at the time that we were about to discover an underground world.

Hiding From Roommates, Even Lovers
A Hindustani word, lotahs are water containers used to clean yourself after using the toilet. They look like teapots without covers and are made of metal or plastic. With one hand, you pour the water and with the other, you wash yourself clean. Lotahs are commonplace throughout South Asia, and in many Muslim countries they are used for cleansing yourself before prayer. However, once South Asian and Muslim immigrants come to the United States, the pressure to assimilate forces many of us to make the transition from lotah to toilet paper. But there are some South Asians who refuse to cross over. Instead, they find themselves living double lives, using lotahs-in-disguise.

As Sa’dia began creating her art installation, “Lotah Stories,” it quickly evolved into a community art project. For months, people who had been solicited via email and word of mouth met in her apartment to decorate individual lotahs and record their stories. One hundred lotahs were collaged with labels from water bottles and soda bottles—common lotahs-in-disguise.

I had the opportunity to participate in this community project by creating lotahs and accompanying Sa’dia on her interviews with people who used lotahs. We soon discovered a secret society, one of closeted lotah users. We met people in streets and in cafes, even in their homes. These were strangers who were willing to lay themselves bare, not for money or fame (almost all the submissions were anonymous), but for the sake of being able to finally talk about their lotahs. We received emails from teachers, teenagers, high-powered lawyers, statisticians, artists,and first-generation and second-generation South Asians. Most of them were nervous and excited during the interviews and emails, but talking about lotahs seemed to free them somehow. Even though Sa’dia and I were strangers to them, the interviewees opened their homes to us and shared their secret lotah practices.

Listening to their stories, I was amazed by the depth of people’s shame and the lengths that they had gone to in order to hide their lotahs from co-workers, roommates, even live-in partners. And I wondered again, where did we get this shame? How did it sink so deep into our skin? Why did lotahs feel so dirty, when using water was more clean? But I knew that as immigrants, we’ve always been made to feel ashamed. The dominant culture knows that if you can make people feel shame, you can make them do anything.

During the project, one of the participants, let’s call him T, finally confessed to his white roommate that he had secretly been using a lotah. The roommate answered, “Dude, why didn’t you just tell me?” T was relieved, but he told us that he had to spend the rest of the evening listening to jokes made at his expense and constant reminders to wash his hands.

Turning Secrets into Art
"Lotah Stories” is part of “Fatal Love: South Asian American Art Now,” an exhibit at the Queens Museum of Art in New York that runs until June 6. The exhibit features both well-established Shazia Sikander and emerging artists such as Rina Banerjee and Chitra Ganesh.

Most museum visitors don’t expect to find art in the bathroom, but at the Queens Museum, whether they are waiting in line, using the toilet or washing their hands, visitors can experience “Lotah Stories.” When visitors enter the bathroom, they will find lotahs suspended from the ceiling and in the window niches by the sinks. The lotahs are covered with collaged paper cut up from water bottle labels. Some labels are torn, some carefully cut out and glued. The lotahs are placed near the sinks so that viewers can’t avoid looking at them while they are washing their hands. While visitors are waiting on line for a stall to open or are using the toilet, they listen to an audio loop of stories recorded from people who use lotahs. Some of these stories are full of shame and others full of humor. Most have an element of both.

I sat down with Sa’dia in her Brooklyn apartment during one of the lotah community parties leading up to the installation’s opening. The apartment was covered with cat hair and water bottle labels. There were people—Indian, Pakistani, Bengali—spread out on the carpet, cutting and gluing labels, laughing and joking.

How did you decide to use the bathroom for your installation space?

Well, to submit an art proposal for the exhibit, I had to take a tour. I went with one of the curators to the second floor gallery. She showed me the space and said, “We want this artist here and this artist there [naming well-known artists].” She said, “If you have something that fits the corner we’ll look at it and see if the dimensions will fit.” It seemed like every place was already covered.

When she saw I looked discouraged, she said, “That’s just an idea. We don’t know if they’re going to be in the show.” She showed me spaces like the elevator and the ramp. And then, laughing, she said, “You could even do something in the bathroom.”

I said, “Can you show me the bathrooms?”

We went in there, and I liked the light in the morning time. There were windows, a niche, between the sinks. I saw my father doing wudu in the bathroom [cleansing before prayer] and how it is always embarrassing to do wudu in a public space. So it was with this memory of shame and love that “Lotah Stories” was born.

When did you decide to do the interviews?

At first, I was going to have lotahs in all the stalls, but I didn’t want people using them as a trashcan to throw garbage in. And the title from the beginning was “Lotah Stories.” While I was discussing the installation with my friends, they would be very excited and they would start telling me their funny lotah stories. I wanted to have the stories in their voices.

What did you think of the interviewees?

They seemed so relieved to finally talk about it. When we were actually recording, they were open, but once you clicked the button off they became very concerned that we would reveal their names and tell people their secret.

What was the lotah-making process?

I first began collecting the labels. I asked all my friends to collect labels. Not to go out of their way but whatever they drank. Sometimes I would sneak downstairs into the trash bins, and I would take the labels off of the water bottles and soda bottles. But I’d wash them.

Why use water bottle labels?

I was using water bottle labels because these were common things that a lot of Pakistani use when they hide the fact that they use a lotah in a public restroom. You can’t just whip out your lotah, but you can use something that carries water but that wouldn’t bring too much attention to itself.

So, of course, a water bottle.

People use other things instead of water bottles and soda bottles. They use plastic cups and Styrofoam cups or small water jugs. One woman was using a measuring cup. I chose to use water bottle labels because it’s something that’s familiar. I know that some people will get it. They’ve used water bottles as a disguised lotah. They’ve been in that situation.

Why do you think there is so much secrecy around lotah use?

It’s different from the ideas of “cleanliness” in American culture. Americans think that their way is right and everything else is wrong.

How do you feel the project turned out?

It helped a lot of people come out to people they used to hide their lotahs from. One friend finally told her boyfriend that she lives with, that the watering can in the bathroom wasn’t for the plants.

So what’s the future of “Lotah Stories”

In the beginning, I wasn’t expecting that great of a response, but I feel all these people that emailed us and who we had the opportunity to interview, they inspired me to show it in other places, not only New York. I want it to be a much bigger installation, more overwhelming to represent how much it’s hidden. I’d like to show it in bathrooms across America.