Dissensus - I

Artists: Hit Man Gurung | Khadim Ali | Neda Tavallaee | Priyanka D’Souza | Veer Munshi | Waseem Ahmed

Exhibition dates: 7 – 16 July 2017 
Venue: Bikaner House, New Delhi

Dissensus - II

Artists: Fay Ku | Gazi Nafis Ahmed | Hit Man Gurung | Khadim Ali | Neda Tavallaee | Priyanka D’Souza | Veer Munshi | Waseem Ahmed

Exhibition dates: 26 October – 9 November, 2017 
Venue: Punjab Lalit Kala Akademi, Chandigarh

Priyanka D'Souza, Untitled, Watercolour and pencil on paper, 11 x 25 inches, 2016. Image courtesy: The artist and Gallery Latitude 28.

Chronicle of the Veil

 

It seemed, sir, a woman, tall and large, with thick and dark hair hanging long down her back. I know not what dress she had on: it was white and straight; but whether gown, sheet, or shroud, I cannot tell. — Charlotte Brontë, Jane Eyre

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A woman, tall and large, wild and cackling mad — Bertha Mason, the iconic ‘mad woman in the attic’[1] from Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre, has become an epitome of Foucault’s madman[2], a metaphor for bodies on the line with revolting psyches, overcompensating for their systematized repression and functionalization in a society that relegates these to the margins of citizenship. The protagonist Jane Eyre recounts to her soon-to-be-husband Mr. Rochester the ‘visitation’ by the mad woman when “it removed my veil from its gaunt head, rent it in two parts, and flinging both on the floor, trampled on them." The tearing of the veil becomes a gesture both symbolic and performative, and has been widely touted as Bertha’s (and by extension Jane’s) rebellion against the institution of marriage. The torn veil encapsulates the drama of a (conjugal) subservience-turned-haunting, and more generally a flinging in the face of the societal norms. The indistinguishability of the habit — whether gown, sheet, or shroud — and the anonymity it bestows, often an afterimage of disenfranchisement and removal to the collective blind spot, is subsequently weaponized by these marginalized bodies towards ends of socio-economic justice, autonomy and free self-expression. The borders of the ‘specular economy’ (the domain of the eye), thus transpire as sites where ignominy is repurposed by the alterity into an invisibility that grants them cover for their guerrilla warfare. The specular economy cultivates its own blind spots — forgotten folds housing colonies of the disbanded — allowing an alternative motley ‘socius’[3] to come into existence. From these penumbral recesses of the agentic wor(l)d, the invisible marches unforeseen, materializing as a ghost, an impersonator or a temptress, towards its goal of restitution. This narrates the interesting ballad of the veil from its invention in the specular economy as a contrivance for monitoring and subjugating certain bodies and their labour (physical, emotional, and reproductive) to its subversive deployment as a technique for seduction and treachery, its association with mysticism and adoption in the process of sublation. The opacity and materiality of the veil presides over its function, whether as a contraption for deflecting undesired gaze or as a trope in the Dance of the Seven Veils, as a shroud for the dead or a mantle for the denizens of the inglorious underground. The veil obscures and reveals, inures and allures, ennobles and defames, cloaks and kills, fetishizes and sanctifies, desubjectivates and empowers. One veil to rule them all!

 

Sur-veil-lance

 

The current global political milieu characterized by heavy sur-veil-lance and censorship, has been hailed as ‘post-truth’ and ‘the new brutality’ pointing to a reductionist approach to criticality and the breakdown of civil discourse[4]. In a treacherous turn, ​what we have been made to fear — anarchy — has been unveiled as a false enemy propped up by the ​institutions to consolidate their own ​position, protected and ​furthered through ​ever-constricting panopticism and​ hegemonic identity databases​, as well as systematic​ gentrification and​ taming​​/curbing of critical forums. ​​Anarchy, that could well stand for the self-reflexivity and dynamic vitality of a system, enabling discovery of viable avenues out of existential cul-de-sacs, has been turned on its head, to disguise the real enemy at work —​ the ossifying proclivities of neoliberal capitalism ​that seeks to foreclose all the alternatives and stamp out dissensus —​ betraying the truth of the foreboding words from Shakespeare’s Macbeth 'Fair is foul, foul is fair.' The Persian artist Neda Tavallaee tells such a tale of formalised censorship of women's bodies in the Middle East, the strictures imposed on their autonomy​ and leisure​, and the general accrual of​ mystery ​by these bodies when seen through a veil as well as their Orientalist exoticization as odalisques and Turkish bathers. These bodies have been ordered to the veil, both literally and symbolically, forcing them to seek new alliances and latitude within the extant configuration. Through her works, Tavallaee attempts to make visible these alternate economies and the beauty therein, as well as their struggles and predicament. In this saga of unsung heroes, foregrounded against the narratives of predominantly male prowess, such as the Shahnameh, that pervade Iranian culture, taboo on women's bodies and expression meets everyday forms of resistance and small personal victories. The allusion to the grand legacies of the miniature tradition, serves both to enshrine these female characters, conspicuous in their absence from the annals of history, as well as underline the antiquated nature of prevalent accounts that fail to speak to the current condition. The series entitled About Havva (Havva being the Islamic name for Eve) is dedicated to an episode from 2016 that witnessed the unwarranted detainment of some Iranian fashion models active on Instagram. The models, under charges of indecency, were subjected to protracted interrogations, with advances made on their person, and released only after confiscation and destruction of their professional portfolios, phones and computers — all for the crime of beauty and being able to express it. The artist subsequently decided to collaborate with one of these detainees, encouraging her to share her story (art and poetry being few of the accepted mediums through which Persians are wont to expressing themselves) and even flirt with the chador (veil), the token of her subjugation. The model of Tavallaee's cyanotypes, as with Waseem Ahmed's burka-clad figure, seem to give the lie to the bullet-proof invincibility of the veil, by presenting a horrifying scene where certain bodies can be hurt, raped and silenced with impunity.

 

The Offering

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The offering is a method of magical thinking, a smearing of will over nature with its affiliated ceremony and designated site. Usually dressed up in complex notions of purity and wholeness, the oblation is made to a higher-power in expectation of receiving a boon/blessing.  The consecrated embodies elements of divinity and temporally commands the centre of great magnetism and influence before being sacrificed at the altar for greater good. The ceremonial dissipation of this “accursed share”[5] has been purported to accrue great cultural capital and authority to the conductor of the sacrifice. The Italian philosopher and political theorist Giorgio Agamben identifies the figure of the homo sacer (the sacred man), variously referred to as the wolfman/ werewolf banned under the pain of death, as one occupying a ‘zone of indistinction’ between man and beast and representing the bare-life at the heart of sovereignty[6]. In other words, the reducibility of the human to a bare life banned and removed from the citizenry, has long been employed by sovereignty to situate and reinforce its own power and prerogatives. That which has been banned, posits Agamben, “is delivered over to its own separateness and, at the same time, consigned to the mercy of the one who abandons it – at once excluded and included, removed and at the same time captured.”[7] Isolating a set of bodies and their subsequent removal to their “own separateness” is the all-too-familiar dialectical process of assertion of authority and capital accumulation, be it the colonial and post-colonial institutions of slavery, or the mass-removal of Semites, gays and political dissidents to concentration camps in the Nazi Germany or, the carceral systems in Guantanamo, Syria, Palestine, North Korea, and elsewhere, as well as the recent purging of homosexuals in Chechnya, and the general bolstering of the alt-right against racial minorities, reflected in perverted slogans such as ‘White Lives Matter’, in various parts of the world. Priyanka D’Souza’s No Urdu on Dilli’s Walls, Miyan is inspired from the similarly titled poem by Manash Firaq Bhattacharjee which speaks of a “saffron lock” guarding the tongues in Delhi, a city celebrated for its rich cosmopolitanism and cultural syncretism. D’Souza uses the Judaic metaphor of ‘writings on the wall’ to institute a political statement against the stifling right-wing conservatism that appears not only to be policing culture and speech within the country but also given to much ahistorical tinkering and propaganda in order to produce a saffronised draft of history, completely dismissive of the co-existence of and contributions from various cultures and quarters. An earlier work by the artist made a study of the Mughal architecture for various ways in which architectural features and design were employed in the service of consolidating state power. The photographer Gazi Nafis Ahmed works in a similar vein to gaslight accounts of exploitation and violence meted out to various minorities in Bangladesh. Earlier works such as Inner Face presents a humanizing document of lives lived under the ban, the malefic penal code 377 that decrees out ‘unnatural’ sexual activities and continues to loom as a hanging sword and an open alibi for discrimination against and assault on the precarious lives comprising the LGBTQ community. Another series entitled Made in Bangladesh recorded the dismal working conditions, dull routine, and bleak prospects as well as everyday hazards and ordeals characterizing the notorious garment factories in Dhaka that supply clothes to noted international labels such as Gap. Hit Man Gurung’s recent series This is My Home, My Land and My Country...traces the downward sloping curve of the Nepalese society in the aftermath of the earthquake as well as the ensuing political dissensus with the coming into effect of the new constitution in 2015. In the work entitled Sold Gurung begs our attention and recognition of the spiraling figures denoting the human trafficking between Nepal, India, East Asia, and the Middle East. A large canvas from the same series entitled We are in war without enemies...I indexes the tardy pace of rehabilitation work undertaken by the government as well as the mismanagement and embezzling of relief funds. The notion of ‘home’, ‘otherness’, and transcultural identity are ongoing investigations with the Taiwan-born, New York-based artist Fay Ku who, like the other artists in the show, repurpose the seductive aesthetic of traditional miniature painting (in this case, Chinese gongbi and xieyi in addition to Indian and Persian miniaturist styles) to weave a micro-poetics of contemporary concerns. On a stage where the efficacy and translatability of art into political action is frequently called into question, these artists point to another direction, towards a politico-aesthetic practice which amounts to a radically different world-view and politics conditioned by the aesthetic that one keeps, in an extrapolation of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis[8]

 

 

​Iconoclasm

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Obliteration of history is no mean task, the​ labour being long and arduous. Two stone Buddhas hewn into the side of a cliff in the Bamiyan valley in Afghanistan, stood vigil of the ancient Silk Road connecting China to the markets in the Middle East and beyond. Dating back to the fourth and fifth century CE, these monumental statues had become the identity markers for the region, firing the imagination of centuries of writers, with the ​figures being​ re-incarnate as mythical lovers Salsal and Shamama​ in the imaginary of the local Hazara​. The restive majesty of the s​culptures​ also attracted the interest of generations of iconoclasts, who sought to make a statement by bringing these low. First came the Mongolian hoards led by Genghis Khan​, spelling havoc for the Hindukush valley but the Buddhas were somehow spared. This was followed by the 18th century attempts to destroy the statues by the Mughal Emperor Aurangzeb and the Persian ruler Nader Shah who subjected these silent sentinels to determined cannon-fire. The larger of the two statues, Salsal was partially defaced by the Afghan king Abdur Rahman Khan in the 19th century in a campaign to quell a Hazara rebellion. Nevertheless, the stolid figures continued to grace their niches more or less intact, at least till the turn of the millennium when the spectacle of their annihilation by the Taliban authorities was enacted and broadcasted to a stunned international audience. The Taliban Information Minister at the time appears to have bemoaned the slow pace of iconoclasm stating "this work of destruction is not as simple as people might think." The longwinded process that comprised shelling these monolithic custodians of Hazarazat using a combination of anti-aircraft guns, artillery and anti-tank mines, and subsequently blasting them with dynamite and finishing off with a rocket, brings to mind the disproportionate, extended cruelty explicated by Gieve Patel in his poem On Killing a Tree.​ ​

 

Becoming Demonic

 

One might well ask, 'What happened to the souls of Salsal and Shamama after their limestone bodies were smashed?' One conjecture would be: unbeknownst to the spectators watching with burgeoning horror the tragic fate of the sculptures, the silent spirits finally unfroze and fled their cold corpses, passing into the surrounding Hazarazat where they found warm hosts in the much-persecuted Shia community that protested their wanton destruction by the Taliban. Their dislocation from the niches ensconcing them paved the way for their molecularization and universalization, and the subsequent commune of their agency through the Hazaras. The successful passage of the Bamiyan Buddhas into the Hazara ancestry was secured by a geographic proximity and cultural affinity, as well as a fractured mindscape susceptible to ingress by subjectivities alien/ inconsistent with the self. This outlines the basic tenets of demonology, identifying it as the science of a self divided, with its various dividends/claimants vying for local control[9]. The demonic, thus transpires as a colonised self, harbouring foreign consistencies and contingently reorganised through anastylosis and bricolage.  It materialises as a monstrous subjectivity, stitched together and animated like Frankenstein, where each assembled part is in colloquy with its individual past funnelled to the present. What renders a body ripe for possession is an exposure to violence, emotional vulnerability and an affective openness —​ attributes not uncommon with the social pariahs. ​Nor is it just the Bamiyan Buddhas that speak to us in this manner from the realm beyond the veil, but an entire hauntology of characters from literature, cinema, the antiquity as well as personal memoirs, that roam the psychological reaches of our gray matter as spectral presences out of joint with time. The study of humanities is a call for a volitional cultivation of the demonic that welcomes alien incorporation, and the artist in particular trains to be multiplicitous; a perfect vessel for channelling these possessive spectral clusters.

For the Night is Dark and Full of Terrors

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Hazara artist Khadim Ali, like others in the exhibition, exploits the seductive aesthetic of Persian miniature painting to inflect contemporary concerns. Taking the 10th-11th century Persian epic Shahnameh as his point of departure, he presents a complicated characterization of the residents of its pages such as Rostam, Sohrab and Esfandiyar, much like the masterful Ferdowsi himself, tracing their persistence and renewed significance in present times. Are the ambivalent beasts of his paintings externalizations of a demonic psyche, disputed and stretched, usually found in an assembly of their kindred (or perhaps cloned selves), projected outwards to solve a dilemma? It is a case where all the external signs of an inner struggle have resolved into pot-bellied be-horned brutes, leaving their faces tranquil and wiped of worry, a conflicted person in reverse. Calmly, they converse about human foibles, the follies of war, the interchangeability of virtue and vice, and the trials of the refugees — the tense sombreness and perils of their parley betrayed only by a gesticulation here, a fire there. A previous series summoned the ghosts of the Bamiyan Buddhas to tell their story in resonance with still others: recent tales of iconoclasm such as the destruction of the Assyrian heritage by ISIL that has come to define a segment of global contemporary terrorism. The terror that a bearded or veiled figure inspires as well as the blind retaliatory racism it is met with, is a recurring concern with the artist Waseem Ahmed. In a previous work, the destruction wrought by the Taliban is contrasted with the curious case of the Vajrapani — a bodhisattva bound to the Buddha and encapsulating his power — whose violent aspect has been harnessed for the task of guardianship and protection. Another body of work addresses the demonization of the mulla who sometimes feature in Ahmed’s work wearing a bomb-vest, in a projection of the unrest it harbingers. Violence, however, is not a factor of religion itself or of personal presentation, and can spring from any quarter: the artist wants us to remember. Both the psychopathic killer and the merciful saint reside within us, and this multiplicity and hybridity of being, the chimerical butcher-scapegoat/ animal-saint is revealed in the characters of his paintings.

Hauntology

 

Finally, with his installation Relics from the Lost Paradise, the Kashmir-born artist Veer Munshi seems to literalize the dictum ‘History is Alive’. Both the reliquary and the coffin are repositories/ resting places for the dead, with the difference that one is configured to the task of animating/ remembrance, the other with that of putting way/ forgetting. While contact with the contents of the former, is deemed salubrious and hence desirable, the thought of exposure to the contents of a grave would engender abject horror and repulsion. Both these objects are charged, albeit differently, with magical properties. One heals while the other haunts. Mobilizing the strong charge of abjection and grim consequence, induced by the imagery of a disinterred grave, the artist, in an emulation of the passion of Heathcliff[10], offers up for examination a war-torn and dismembered body of Kashmir as a corpus delicti, opening a space for meditation on the protracted strife and the larger question ‘why war?’ The audience is invited to take a walk through the graveyard of history and throw themselves open for possession by the undead past and the dying present in a corrective danse macabre. Often times, all that the dead want, is for someone to hear their story before the graph shifts from the paranormal to the normal again.

 

It all begins with an acknowledgement!

*****

 

[1] Gilbert, Sandra M, and Susan Gubar. The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth-Century Literary Imagination. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2000.

[2] Foucault Michel. Madness and Civilization: A History of Insanity in the Age of Reason, trans. Richard Howard, London and New York: Routledge, 1964 (1961).

[3] Butler, Judith. “The Lesbian Phallus and the Morphological Imaginary,”

in Bodies That Matter: On the Discursive Limits of “Sex”. New York: Routledge,

1993, 57–91.

[4] See the editorial "The New Brutality" by Rosi Braidotti, Timotheus Vermeulen, Julieta Aranda, Brian Kuan Wood, Stephen Squibb, and Anton Vidokle in the E-flux Journal #83 - June 2017. http://www.e-flux.com/journal/83/142721/editorial-the-new-brutality/

[5] See Georges Bataille’s The Accursed Share: An Essay on General Economy (French: La Part maudite), trans. by Robert Hurley. New York: Zone Books, 1988 (1949).

[6] Agamben, Giorgio. Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life, trans. by Daniel Heller-Roazen. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1998 (1995), pp. 72.

[7] Ibid., pp 72.

[8] A hypothesis that states that a language, its structures and semantics uniquely determine the perspectives and shape habits of thought in the culture in which it is spoken.

[9] See the editors’ editorial in the E-flux Journal #80 – March 2017. http://www.e-flux.com/journal/83/142721/editorial-the-new-brutality/

[10] Brönte, Emily. Wuthering Heights. London: Thomas Cautley Newby, 1847.

Installation view, 'Dissensus - I' at the Bikaner House, New Delhi. Image courtesy: Gallery Latitude 28.

Salomé with the severed head of John the Baptist immediately following her Dance of the Seven Veils, as portrayed by Maude Allan in her production ‘Vision of Salomé’ (Vienna, 1906).

Fay Ku, Offering, Graphite, ink, acrylic and oils on layered sheets of drafting film, 42 x 30 inches, 2017.

 Image Courtesy: The artist and Gallery Latitude 28.

Fay Ku, Tread, Graphite, ink, acrylic and oils on layered sheets of drafting film, 42 x 30 inches, 2017.

Image Courtesy: The artist and Gallery Latitude 28.

An 1885 illustration of the Buddhas of Bamiyan by Iwan Lawrowitsch Jaworsk.

Khadim Ali, The Haunted Lotus, Watercolour, gouache and ink on wasli paper, 4 parts: 93 × 66 × 6 cm each, 2011-2012. 

Image Courtesy: The artists and Gallery Latitude 28.

For more information on the exhibition click here.