Why we must bring more voices into the making of art

Most often in art and representation, identity is defined by the violations people endure, by their victimhood.

Published : Aug 24, 2023 11:00 IST - 7 MINS READ

Mohd. Intiyaz

Mohd. Intiyaz | Photo Credit: intiyaz.com

The visual artist Mohd. Intiyaz is suspicious of beauty. Currently an exhibition of his wares, bunched together under an intriguing and provocative title “Baad Me Aana” (Come By Later), is underway at the Method Art Gallery in Kala Ghoda, Mumbai. A lot of his canvases—paintings of Muslim life in India, the social, the intimate—are hemmed in by striking, arabesque borders in teal, red, green, and gold. There is embroidery, too, on the borders of the fabrics on display.

The association was immediate. The borders seemed to hark back to Mughal miniatures, with their rich, thick borders of foliage. If I was an art critic, that connection, that dervishing swirl across centuries, would be central to the way I grasp at Intiyaz’s artistry. Intiyaz, however, is not convinced. In what I see as a continuing, cascading culture of beautification, he sees a facade. What are you beautifying? What are you shielding with your beautification?

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On his way to Jamia Millia Islamia University, where he got his MFA in painting, Intiyaz would always see people sleeping under the Nizamuddin flyover. Months later, after a vacation, when he was treading that same path, instead of the usual sprinkling of yawning people, there were flowers and trees, the walls were painted, and a board prominently said “Beautification”. This displacement, this suspicion of a beauty that evicts lives, leaked into his work, along with patterns he had osmotically grasped from henna drying on hands, and from the artistry of his own family, who work in textiles.

Productive doubling

It is this doubling that I find productive, tensile, and fascinating—to invoke beauty, and yet to be suspicious of it. In trying to represent Muslim life—of figures rendered translucent because their identities are slippery and many do not have official papers; of his mother praying; of a man putting up a protest poster—he never renders it passive, and in framing the Muslim in the cross-currents of these doubling pressures, he is doing with representation a slippery, meandering thing. He is not allowing us to fixate on either the suspicion or the beauty, but leaves our mind and senses tossing about, here and there, unsteadily.

When we think of the idea of representation, however, something neater, less seasick comes to mind. The critic Jacqueline Rose, who has worked and written intensely on psychoanalysis, in her book The Plague: Living Death in Our Times contends with the idea that “being human is to be irrevocably in touch with both the intimate and social pain” to bridge, to lessen the gap “between inner life and the reality of the world”.

  • An exhibition of Mohd. Intiyaz, under the title “Baad Me Aana” (Come By Later), is underway at the Method Art Gallery in Kala Ghoda, Mumbai.
  • Identity in art is more often defined by the violations people endure, by their victimhood.
  • Instead of the hollow calls for representation, what if we look towards authorship? To bring more voices into the making of art, to allow them the space to release their interiority?

Social pain is without edges because it is, after all, an idea; one that is embodied over a mass. And I suppose, when we are used to a certain socialised idea of representation—that our stories of minorities are more comfortable thinking in terms of community than individuals, as generalised pathos, not individualised grief—we forget that there is an intimate life that is crumpling and germinating under that broad social banner.

“Finding end line”  by Mohd. Intiyaz,, mixed medium on sack, 3.7 ft x 2.4 ft.

“Finding end line”  by Mohd. Intiyaz,, mixed medium on sack, 3.7 ft x 2.4 ft. | Photo Credit: intiyaz.com

Think of the trans figure in shows like Made In Heaven and Taali, cobbled together as an eternally, recursively, sedimenting figure of trauma. Their trans-ness is an excuse to fling them into the worst crowds, the sleaziest homes, the most terrifying dates. In this re-telling, trauma becomes essential to the trans identity. Joy feels like a trifle. Despite the casting of a trans actor, Trinetra Haldar Gummaraju, in Made In Heaven, and including trans people in the making of Taali,whichare shaped as forward-looking leaps in representation, what is being represented is not so much an identity as a plea. After spending eight hours marinating in Made In Heaven, I still could not remember the character’s name, my colleague and I kept referring to her as “the trans character”. You can see through the effort in the writing, to ask what makes her trans more emphatically—receiving a litany of pain that can be fleshed out in a cavalcade of wounds—than what makes her a protagonist in her own right.

That we experience violence as we tunnel through the world is a statement that is both apparent in its gait and relative in its stain. We experience this violence disproportionately, across the contours of gender, caste, religion, and sexuality. We tend to cocoon our identities around it, hardening the shell, softening its lining.

But when identity is articulated as a safe space, the assumption is that the thing which unites us, binds us in this communal hearth, is the violence we experience. That we fold into a fist only by shielding off the world. When starched, articulate feminists like Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie pose arguments, wondering how a trans woman, who was born in the body of a man, and spent years, decades even, reaping the seeds of patriarchy and male privilege, can suddenly one day expect to partake in womanhood, something rankles. My friend, a woman, reading Adichie’s statement to me over the phone, wondered, is that all you see a woman as—a repository of violence over which only you have sole ownership? To stamp on bruises an intellectual property. To own the violence the world commits on your body. What kind of grotesque pride is this?

But this is what violence does in Jacqueline Rose’s assessment. The critic Parul Sehgal while assessing the work of Rose notes that “violence… forecloses… multiplicity, and the sense of self that sustains it”; that violence is “the hijacking of thought”, withering our interiority, making us increasingly unwilling to embrace the fundamental contradictions that exist within, preferring to flatten out identity into our victimhood. It gleams with joy as we express ourselves solely through the violations we endure.

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This posture might be intentional. Rose, when writing about the “paradox of the transsexual bid for emancipation”, notes that the more visibility is offered to trans people, the more hatred and violence they invite for themselves. “Feminists have always had to confront the violence they expose and—in exposing—provoke, but when a transsexual person is involved, the gap between progressive moment and crushing payback seems even shorter.”

And so, even the offering of a limelight has to be softened, strategic, sympathetic. This is when protagonists become pleas. It is the unerring awareness of the audience that produces characters that are meant to satisfy a prejudice, not a personhood.

When we are unable to extricate virtuous art from good art, there is something rotten about the world that forces us into this posture, and something yielding in the way we accept this posture as natural. Instead of the hollow calls for representation, what if we look towards authorship? To bring more voices into the making of art, to allow them the space to release their interiority. There will be a spillover—if Zoya Akhtar and Reema Kagti write more blazing women, they also write kinder men. This is not representation. It is not a posture, pretending to make the world better. It is how they see the world. The difference between being told to tell stories and telling stories—that seems to be the bridge to cross, and perhaps, collapse.

Prathyush Parasuraman is a writer and critic who writes across publications, both print and online. He also authors a newsletter on culture at prathyush.substack.com.

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