Bengal-born, New Delhi-based Mithu Sen’s latest solo exhibition at the Australian Centre for Contemporary Art (ACCA) in Melbourne, in partnership with the Kiran Nadar Museum of Art, is a spotlight on her two-decade long journey as one of India’s most important contemporary artists on the international stage. The exhibition, titled mOTHERTONGUE, is presented as a mind map—a nod to Sen’s long arc as a poet, performer, and artist, who has consistently challenged the received norms of both the art world and the world as a whole. She chats with Frontline about her preoccupations with language anarchy, myths of identity and sexuality, authoritarianism and resistance, and the challenges of being labelled “a female artist from South Asia.”
Can you tell us a little about the exhibition and how it holds together your work of over 15 years?
My exhibition mOTHERTONGUE is a moment in the long arc of my engagement with lingual anarchy. The title itself alludes to the more primal and corporeal relationship we have with language, through our bodies. mOTHERTONGUE is an invitation and a provocation to abandon our known languages, and instead, reflect on unintelligible and unknown languages to search for our common denominators. For me, language is a sign of imposed cultural differences, and English, a reminder of colonial dominance. This exhibition thinks about identity, cultural differences, and global politics through the prism of language, and in doing so, scrapes at language in all forms—not just textual, verbal, and oral—but also, language as motifs, performance, and sound.
The issue of language and English in particular has always inflected my work. Moving to Delhi and encountering its anglophone art world as well as a network of hierarchies made me reckon with a loss of language, I was comfortable with neither Hindi nor English. Over the years, my trajectory has not been a linear passage from one moment to another, instead, it has been a case of dwelling in parallel across different forms, returning ultimately, to language.
I work with (my) English because I want to respond to its complicated history as an artist. For better or worse, as an artist I have to operate in the lingua franca of the art world. Then, as a citizen of postcolonial India, it is English that is culturally and legally seen as the language of the educated. I do it with great anxiety and discomfort, and I believe in visualising the labour of participating in the anglophone art world, I make some of these problems legible.
One of your pieces in the show is a cheeky riposte to what it means to be a female artist from the Global South. What is the burden that “female artists from the Global South” have to carry?
How to be a SUCKcessful artist (2019) is a pedagogical satire that sees conversation on postcolonialism bound within relations of neoliberalism, patriarchy, and the institutions of art world and academia. As an artist from the Global South, I have explored the afterlife of colonialism through language and gender. However, as my art grew traction and I started travelling, getting invited, and so on—I found that being seen as a “female artist from the Global South” comes with its own problematic limitations. It facilitates a practice of self-exoticism to be deemed worthy of having your work consumed by the Western institutes of the art world and their audiences. It is this very burden that I take an issue with in my video, and more recently addressed in a lecture-performance titled iWitness 2023 for the Sharjah Art Foundation’s annual March Meeting at the Sharjah Biennale.
We must recognise our own agency and ability to participate in these conversations, and not treat presence as either privilege or favour, as many Western and “global” institutions are bound to do. There are a lot of flattened identity markers and clichéd expectations attributed to women artists from the Global South, to make our lives, experiences, and concerns consumable for a global audience. The challenge we have is to turn this fetishising gaze back to the Global North and interrogate the myth of a global contemporary art scene.
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You work with multiple mediums—photography, film, installation, poetry. How do you decide on the medium for your works?
I have continually asserted that my preferred medium is LIFE itself, and that all artworks are essentially “by-products”. The issue of medium is not the central problem for me when I begin a project. For me, a project begins when I have identified a theme and have begun thinking about and in response to it. When I decide on a medium for a theme, and more and more, the mediums I choose, like QR codes, ChatGPT, performance, and installation end up being multi-format. With medium-as-life and art-as-byproducts, I approach work conceptually through research, play, and humour, and attune it with materiality of a form whether paper, performance, or digital media. This perpetual shape-shifting helps me work in relation to the changing world, and also allows me to maintain my agency and countering capitalism.
Your practice has been about (un)constructing received and established dogmas, hierarchies, notions, and systems to create new possibilities. What are the origins of this resistance and questioning, and what is the cost?
I understand what we perceive as “taboos” or “social conventions”, as myths. For me, myths are how identities, codes, and markers of what is normative, idealised, and replicated take over our personal, professional, and political lives. I address several myths in my work from the persona of an artist, to the market. I propose alternative possibilities that may be absurd and incomprehensible on the surface—for example, gibberish as the language of people—but which at their core, remind us of the absurd and incomprehensible things that we normalise in the name of society.
This is not always met with easy acceptance, as there is always censorship at various levels involved. Sometimes as an artist you anticipate resistance to your ideas and end up self-censoring. Sometimes a topic will be controversial only in the Global South, but not in the Global North, or vice versa. On several occasions, institutions have invited me to offer institutional critique and performative interventions through my work but have found it too much—making it all the more confusing about the value and consumption of critique. How much is too much? And who gets to decide it?
You have often been censored for your explicit sexual visuals. Are our attitudes in India becoming more open or closed towards sex, sexuality, and gender?
Unfortunately, it is not just gender and sexuality any more. The ring of censorship has broadened and now encompasses the smallest of things, anything that is seen as ambiguously suggestive or could hurt sentiments. These red flags are frightening because there is just about everything that we do that can cause controversy. Sometimes, merely the fact that one practises the profession of an artist is enough of an offence.
I try to comment on these things whenever possible. After the pandemic, I was told that there is a market demand for uncontroversial and non-political art, that people want art that makes them happy. I was trying to think about what exactly could fit in this framework. In response to this, I made a series of “drawings” (‘Until you unhand’ isa set of uncoloured, uncontroversial, /satvik/, and virtuous happy-prick drawings, which serve as a disclaimer and an exercise in perceiving what the images are and are not.
We seem to enter into a gridlock of a conceptual binary that seeks to negotiate the effects that images generate, as well as the conundrum of seeking happiness through art and the larger historical purpose) by pricking white sheets of paper with non-controversial motifs such as flowing fountains, sunrise, birds, mountains, and roses along with an artist’s declaration/contract form that says,
“I, Mithu Sen, hereby declare that given the current unprecedented climate, as an artist, I am socially distancing myself from all unhappy, dark, negative images by strictly following the YES/NO list below. Here I present a set of uncoloured, unsuggestive, uncontroversial. /satvik/, virtuous, and happy-prick drawings as by-products of this limbo-time, and as my self-censoring performative gesture. Therefore, this room only contains ‘ART’ that says:
As discreetly legible by-products of a continuous and disciplined aggression—pricking paper—these became artefacts of apolitical consumerism and escapism for me.
In another series “Apolitically Black 2019” for an exhibition at India Art Fair in 2019, I blackened the surface of my previous artwork from 2007, anticipating hurt sentiments for the controversial subject matter. In masking the controversial subject matter, I also ended up tarnishing its market value.
The “(un)appropriateness” of having nudity and violence as the subject matter, these past artworks were carefully blackened and decorated with flora and fauna imageries. This was done in consideration of the atmosphere of totalitarianism, parochialism, and violence reigning in the politics of the country where the work gets transformed through a self-censored performative gesture.
The work was accompanied by this contract/declaration below:
“I, Mithu Sen, hereby declare that I have un-done two of my artworks—Dance After Depression-1 and Perhaps U-1, originally exhibited in the solo show ‘Half Full’ in 2007. The “(un)appropriateness” of having nudity and violence as the subject-matter, these artworks are carefully blackened and decorated with flora and fauna imageries, so that the exhibition and its exhibits can be safeguarded from any possible ‘unwanted trouble’ and subsequent loss, given the unpredictability of current political climate.
Despite the layered identities and compound values that these works had accumulated, thanks to their defacement, they need to be seen, in the final estimation, only as by-products of an artistic performance of self-censorship, done in the interest of defending the institutions of contemporary art and art market. Each by-product carries an extended caption with duly listed past provenance.”
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You have spoken a lot about language politics. Some of your works and performances have found utterances in gibberish. Could you explain the power structures that you seek to critique through such work?
Throughout my career, I have identified an uncodified subconscious language through visual and performative practices, which I call “un-language”. My intention is to not invent a new language, but [to provide] a counter to language itself. In this exhibition, un-language stretches across mediums of poetry, video, performance, lecture, contracts, social medium, and glitches. It is addressed through alphabets, punctuation, emojis, signs, guttural sounds, nonsensical phrases, and so on. It is the primary material around which everything revolves. In doing so, I am attempting to speak to my audience with an urgency, and address not only the power structures that command knowledge-making and distribution like universities, museums, and so on; but also the conceits of English-medium schooling, legal English, cosmopolitan circles, and popular culture.
What are you working on now? What are your future projects?
I am trying to make my unworld more habitable and believable while global warming and new-age fascism tighten their grasp on the world… I am also trying to wrap up my monograph that has been in the works for the last 10 years!
Sukhada Tatke is a writer and reporter based in Edinburgh. She writes on books, culture, immigration, and history.