Politics of the visual

Published : Jul 15, 2011 00:00 IST

In this photograph by Sonia Jabbar, Hajra Begum of Bandipora holds a framed photograph of her four sons killed in Kashmir and another who disappeared in 1990. - PHOTOGRAPHS BY SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT

In this photograph by Sonia Jabbar, Hajra Begum of Bandipora holds a framed photograph of her four sons killed in Kashmir and another who disappeared in 1990. - PHOTOGRAPHS BY SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT

A recent exhibition of photographs and a book to go with it reflect the strength and weakness of visual politics.

IF the common-sense saying Seeing is believing is anything to go by, the visual arts play an important role in making one believe in what an artist chooses to express or even question such a belief. It was this quality of art that led Okakura Tenshin, the founder of the Nihonga (roughly translated, swadeshi) school of art in Japan, to say, Art does not exist without being regarded as art, in other words without a discourse on itself. So, as a product of its own discursive practices, it is political. This view, expressed, in his book Ideals of the East (1903), was the final challenge to the 19th century Romantic slogan of Art for Art's Sake, held by Theophile Gautier, Charles Baudelaire and even Alexander Pushkin.

The political content of the slogan was clearly explained by none other than the Russian aestheticist and philosophical theorist G.V. Plekhanov, who pointed out how the belief in Art for Art's Sake arises whenever the artist is out of harmony with his social environment. So, we find that both from the position of a renaissance Asiatic idealism and from European Marxism, by the turn of the 20th century the political character of art was no longer in doubt.

The aesthetic battle then was about how this character was to be expressed in art. Okada Tatsuo, the Japanese critical thinker, made it clear in the mid 1920s that art cannot become the fuse for a social revolution, nor an individual revolution, nor a revolution in the life of the masses. Art as visual communication could indeed be a witness. It could evoke feelings about certain events or positions. But in the last resort, the viewer is free to decide on his own. Artists have used this capacity very effectively. For instance, in Francisco Goya's Third of May, machine-like faceless French troops of Napoleon's army shoot visually powerful unarmed Spanish patriots, one of them reminiscent of a crucified Christ. It is interesting how around the same time, 1819, we have Theodore Gericault's The Raft of the Medusa, evoking the 150 victims whom the captain and officers of the French ship of the same name left on a raft to die off the coast of West Africa while they escaped on lifeboats themselves. Both works, on two sides of the border, attacked the callous attitude of those in control to those they oppressed and those they exploited as cannon fodder, both at home and abroad. The message comes across clearly as the works are not only aesthetically powerful but also, when we put them together, give us the understanding of a similar situation on both sides of the border. This reflects how the works carry a feel of genuine objectivity.

A recent exhibition of photographs and a book to go with it, edited by Parthiv Shah and Sana Das, reflects the strength and weakness of visual politics. Their strength lies in the concept of Art as Witness: one can see the enormous capacity of visual aesthetics to pass on subliminal messages like Parthiv Shah's two empty bottles hanging on a barbed wire evoking the same emptiness on either side of the India-Pakistan border, or Sara Rahbar's photograph of the hand emerging from behind the burqa with a cut pomegranate reflecting sexuality and its suppression by people who claim to draw their authority from sources of the other world that can never be verified.

Other photographers, like Shahzad Noorani and K.M. Asad, highlight the plight of child labourers and bring out the determination and indomitable hope in children covered in carbon dust from the batteries they recycle, like the little girl with a hammer. The Pakistani artist Salima Hashmi's studies of the ongoing life of a craftsman's family strikingly portrays the transformation of old hand-made tools with rejected industrial goods reflecting transformations that leave the essence of feudal relations intact while creating the veneer of change that makes it harder for those at the receiving end. These visual images are witnesses to events in our times and our region.

This brings us to the other side of the question. Can we turn Art as Witness into Art for Activism? Here we are treading on difficult ground. There are a series of photographs bearing images of those who have been killed or have died. Hajra Begum of Bandipora holds a framed photograph of four sons killed in Kashmir and one who disappeared in 1990 as witnessed by the photographer Sonia Jabbar. It is a particularly striking work of this genre, with Hajra's stoic visage reminding us of the fact that humans do not surrender to brute force. They must be convinced to change their minds. But can art alone do that? Obviously the best it can do is to remind us of human resilience in the face of oppression.

In art for activism, there must be an element of participation by the artist not only as witness but also as victim. One can see this in the photograph of Dr Binayak Sen's Adivasi hospital in Bagrumnala, in Chhattisgarh, taken by Sebastian M. Hongray from Manipur, who filed the first case against the Armed Forces Special Powers Act. His photograph of Sen's hospital when he was in jail brings out an unstated absence, with an out-of-use hand pump in the forefront, reminding one that a source of solace had dried up. Here the important element is not the evidence itself, but the aesthetic sensitivity it is put forward with. Does it in fact break the wall between the audience and the actor, as in the plays of Badal Sircar, to strengthen the impact of a work of art by involving the audience in the unravelling of its aesthetic? But then that takes us to performance art, which is already a step ahead of visual art.

From this perspective, the visual arts have limits that must be recognised if their expression is not to be reduced to posters or clips from catchy advertisements. There is, however, a path here being blazed for protest art in a photograph by Parthiv Shah of a performance by the artist Indersalim. Etched out against the imperial war memorial of India Gate, we have the artist with a hangman's noose around his neck, holding a wooden beam above him reminiscent of pictures of Jesus Christ carrying the cross or of Goya's victim of the Napoleonic wars. Here we not only see performance art as a step forward in activism but also observe that its impact goes beyond the visual, like the direct confrontation of a participatory street theatre action like the one that led to a lathicharge on Badal Sircar's play at Curzon Park in Kolkata or the murder of Safdar Hashmi during an election campaign in Sahibabad near Delhi. Its impact is more effective also because of the number of other good works of art it brings to the mind. It is by setting a work of art in a context of a broader aesthetic memory that one universalises its meaning. And once universalised, it communicates its message that much more successfully, as it creates its own sphere of objectivity. That is why a good work of art can achieve what often a mere demonstration may not. Its universal appeal then links it in an art historical chain that gives it its eternity beyond the life and time of an individual act of creation. That is why such art is met with sharp resistance.

The important thing to stress here is how the aesthetic validity and the breadth of vision that give such a work its universal appeal and objectivity and are important. Art as Witness' appears to lack this dimension as it tries to narrow down its view to a few instances only. If the happenings in Kashmir, Delhi, Chhattisgarh, the north-eastern States and Uttar Pradesh and communal carnage in other parts of India are covered extensively in the exhibition, the Maoist destruction of railway stations, schools and public buildings is missing. The wanton destruction of such necessary elements of the infrastructure that people may have limited access to but which they desire cannot be overlooked as part of the broader struggle for human rights.

Similarly, in terms of countries concerned, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nepal, Iran and Myanmar are there, but Afghanistan and Sri Lanka are missing despite the fearful human rights violations by so-called freedom fighters and the state machinery. This exhibition is part of an Amensty International project, so one wonders why such gaps were allowed to remain and limit the credibility of the visuals that we have before us. Clearly, one cannot play fast and loose with reality in this way without losing out on credibility. The visual arts, precisely because they allow one to create concrete images of a virtual reality through the eyes of the artist and with his or her skills, are equally demanding that this reality is not played around with.

If this essence of realism is lost by haphazardly putting together whatever one gets or by limiting the subject matter to one's narrow political purpose, then the impact of the works is lost as well. They appear one-sided at best and haphazard at worst. And in an age when both the visual image and the word are gang-raped in public by the mass media and its commercial mentors representing narrow vested interests, objectivity is much more necessary than ever before in the visual arts today.

It might have been better for the organisers of the exhibition and the editors of the book to have taken more time to fill in the gaps and give us a more comprehensive and objective picture of a world without fear and torture, without the death penalty, disappearance, custodial violence and wars of oppression.

Suneet Chopra is an art critic and writer.
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