by Vatsala SethiDec 31, 2022
Threading the Horizon: Propositions on Worldmaking through Socially Engaged Art Practice is an exhibition presented by Khoj International Artists’ Association, located in New Delhi, India. The exhibition highlights 14 different projects by artists that have socially engaged components as their primary basis—including working on long-term projects with localised communities across the country. These projects respond to denotations and negotiations within the public sphere, creating productive sources of income, pedagogy, creative engagement, and are in support of community-led efforts to revitalise, reorganise, respond, and reinvent. The exhibition serves as a way of documenting and showcasing the work and negotiations being carried out every day.
At the centre of these ongoing projects are graded responses to overwhelmingly felt patriarchal systems of violence and violation, that underpin sectioning of society, labour, autonomy, and class. In response to these crises that have historical, economic, and sociological significance, these projects have approached gendered space, violence, and autonomy through the primary modes of community-building, creative invigoration, and educational tools. Where government and public funds in the country are allocated towards a broader equalisation, the on-ground work that is done with localised communities largely falls on the shoulders of independent workers (including artists and educators), along with non-profit/governmental organisations. As national projects laud techno-optimist fronts like the smart city, it becomes even more important to continue carrying out the ground-work that is needed in order to make a claim to long-term change in a systematic fashion.
In conversation with STIR, the curatorial and programmes team at Khoj spoke about the nature of the projects undertaken, as on display for Threading the Horizon, “Our focus on these issues is more than a curatorial interest. It is a shared exercise in learning how to live and work in an area (urban village of Khirkee, New Delhi) that is constantly on edge. While most of these community art projects started out as short-term interventions started by artists-in-residence at Khoj, we have always felt that it was crucial to allow artists to work within their own sphere of influence and do it over a sustained period of time. For any art practice that sets out to affect change, trust building and longevity is key.”
At the core of these ongoing projects is also the question of what art can do and how it can foster effective change. Public art projects receive a complex set of drivers, where international funding is made extremely difficult to receive in the country, while at the same time there is an internal push within the arts community to continue public art and community-based projects that focus on lower-income, marginalised identity, and gendered ‘other’ groups. The sustainability of practice and funding is a major concern within this kind of work, where the future is never certain.
Threading the Horizons takes these problems into consideration and presents the audience with the successful building of tools, alternative infrastructure and support within involved communities. The project Cotton Stainers led by Shweta Bhattad of the Gram Art Project, focuses on a community of women farmers and weavers in Paradsingha village in Madhya Pradesh, where their unique creative expression lies in the making and utilisation of woven cotton. The premise of the project surrounds the common crop pest known as cotton stainers, which attack cotton balls, leaving them with stains, as their name suggests. However, the project foregrounds the character that these stains can accommodate and environmental significance of these pests, that allow for the flourishing ecology.
Towards Feminist Futures, a long-term project by Jasmeen Patheja, under the aegis of Blank Noise, looks at fostering feminist solidarities through crowd-sourced testimonials around personal experiences of sexual assault. Through this project, the artist has collected garments that survivors of sexual harassment were wearing at the time of their assault, on display at the exhibition. These garments have also featured in street rallies as part of the public nature of the project. The provocation at the centre of this project is the hashtag statement ‘#INeverAskForIt’ that references the commonly publicised adage––that so-called revealing clothing warrants gendered violence––that is found in a misogynistic and largely patriarchal vocabulary, featuring in the domestic or familial sphere, to news reports and public proclamations by politicians. The display also features a whiteboard with details on anonymous testimonies of sexual assault in the public domain, along a statement written with marigold flowers, commonly used for garlands, that says that nine rapists were garlanded in the country, referring to the hostile environment, and even profiteering off of violence by their perpetrators, that sexual assault survivors are witness to in India.
Change Room Archives is an ongoing project by Baaraan Ijlal that also looks at the site of testimonials, this time, however, featuring a sound installation with (translated) transcriptions of the recordings. The primacy of the voice is important to this project as the artist considers the lived experiences of women—cis-gender and transgender—as they tell their own stories of growth, feature, desire, and coming to terms with one’s identity––gendered, sexual, and otherwise. Often these testimonials take the form of the confessional perhaps, where the audience is drawn in on an extremely private part of the speaker’s life, one such story leading up to one’s initiation into sex work at a young age and their active enjoyment of sex itself. Through this project there is a drawing of acceptance around personal stories that are highly stigmatised in a societal setting, but hold personal truths.
Other projects featured include––Extra Time by Princess Pea that looked at the mobilisation of football in order to empower young girls; A Fever Dream of a Feminist Internet by Padmini Ray Murray, that looks at the idea of ‘seed banks’ as a productive metaphor for considering relationality on a societal scale; Gendered Spaces by Sumona Chakravarty and Nilanjan Das, that looks at the articulation of masculinity and gender within a community. Speaking to their engagement with questions of gender, the team at Khoj responded, “In the realm of articulating social change, the category of gender-based violence has largely been recognised as a domestic experience. However, with Threading the Horizon, we hope to bring to the fore the quotidian experience of violence and the experience of such violences in the public realm. The incubated projects at Khoj have forged resilience through strategies of spacemaking, visibility of women and gendered minorities, ungendering bodies, building voices and bearing witness—artistic practices where the everydayness of violence is explicated through acts of invisibility, discrimination, and exclusion.”