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Shilpa Gupta’s art practice illuminates the silenced history for an inclusive world

The minimalistic aesthetic of contemporary Indian artist Shilpa Gupta’s art punctures the intransigence of borders and boundaries to open the world of shared histories and cultures.

by Dilpreet BhullarPublished on : Jun 25, 2020

On a white sheet of paper, the national borders defining India are made visible through the multiple outlines rendered in colour blue. The series 100 Hand drawn maps of my country by Mumbai-based contemporary artist Shilpa Gupta, besides the maps of India, includes the hand-drawn maps of Canada, Israel-Palestine, Italy, France and South Korea by the people of these respective nations. The blues against the spotless white invite the audience to dig deeper and decipher the layered history of these nation-states. As the refugee crisis unfolded in the year 2016, the global mainstream media did not leave a chance to underline the human calamity that knocked at the doors of the European member states, South America and South Asia. The political theorists agreed that it was one of the many grim consequences of the 20th century’s events of partitions between the zones of conflict.

100 Hand drawn maps of my country | Shilpa Gupta | STIRworld
100 Hand drawn maps of my country Image Credit: Courtesy of Shilpa Gupta

Little has been done on the part of the practising artists to translate this historical development of borders into the process of making an art piece. Gupta is one of the few artists who are sensitive to the forces that silenced the parts of history and interweave those moments of erasures into her work as experienced by individuals. For this series, Gupta asked citizens hailing from the aforementioned nations, with troubled border history, to sketch the map of their place from memory: mindscape as their only point of reference. Carbon tracing of the 100 maps onto the paper, which she has collected over the years, gives shape to this series. Gupta conceptualises to visually translate the variegated political orders that led to the (de)formation of the Radcliffe Line, in the case of the Indian subcontinent, which is not to be mistaken as an isolated episode of modern history. While watching Gupta’s work, its scale does not necessarily stand synonymous with the extravaganza. It is the thoughtful minimalist aesthetic carved around the crucial themes of home, belonging and borders that define her art practice. 

Untitled (Mobile Gate swings side to side and breaks the walls) | Shilpa Gupta | STIRworld
Untitled (Mobile Gate swings side to side and breaks the walls) Image Credit: For Lyon Biennial 2009, photographer Ela Bialkowska, OKNO Studio, Courtesy of Shilpa Gupta

As part of the Venice Biennale 2019, Gupta’s Untitled work (first shown at the Lyon Biennale 2009), with metal gate – tall spikes and superimposed metal structure – is not unmovable. The gate is mechanised to hit and break the walls on which it is installed. The purpose of the gate to provide security and safety is defeated when a heap of broken pieces lies against the damaged wall. The trio – gate, wall, stones - frames the work in-making to suggest the functional motive of the object is beyond the scope of pre-definition. The human actions set the object in motion to determine its utilitarian purpose. In a similar vein, the gate - a metaphor for barbed wires and fences - fixed with the notion of inflexibility, turns to break the bonds that it was going to protect. Gupta, talking about her ideas that steer her journey towards the realisation of artworks, in an interview with STIR, says, “Between the beginning, which could be a drawing, a scribble in a book margin, a note or even a conversation, the in-between process is constantly changing and rarely even the final format is fully known. One is always in a fragile state of trying to resolve the technical and production aspects around a piece while being driven by a gut feeling, the impetus to start the work”.

I live under your sky too (animated light installation) | Shilpa Gupta | STIRworld
I live under your sky too (animated light installation) Image Credit: Shrutti Garg, Courtesy of Shilpa Gupta

Her works such as 100 Hand drawn maps of my country, My East is Your West and Map Tracings have defied the fixed idea on borders and nation as propounded by the high politics. The porous boundaries have subverted what was supposed to be absolute for the longest of time. Gupta adds, “I have grown up in a diverse neighbourhood of the city of Mumbai, where the by-lanes are abuzz with different languages and dialects. We are essentially fluid in our existence and capable of inhabiting multiple sites of being. However, zones of belonging are constantly being manipulated through methods of exclusion and erasure, be it based on gender, religion, map lines, and as we have seen in the past devastating months, economic disparity has left thousands of migrants stranded”. The demography of Mumbai has left an impression on her practice too. Gupta’s self-initiated light project at Carter Road Promenade read the sentence “I live under your sky too” in three languages: English, Hindi and Urdu. The multilingualism of the installation calls for a collective national identity. Her other outdoor light installation MEIYW (My East Is Your West), now installed for a long-term at Rosemary Square in Florida, once again emphasises the fluidity of the borders disturbing the geographical directions of east and west.

‘For, in your tongue, I cannot fit’ (sound installation with 100 speakers, microphones, printed text and metal stands) | Shilpa Gupta | STIRworld
For, in your tongue, I cannot fit (sound installation with 100 speakers, microphones, printed text and metal stands) Image Credit: Pat Verbruggen for YARAT Contemporary Art Space and Edinburgh Art Festival, Courtesy of Shilpa Gupta

Standing in the middle of the hall, surrounded by metal spikes, microphones hovering above your head, the large-scale multi-channel sound installation For, In Your Tongue, I Can Not Fit by Gupta is bound to hold your attention. The 100 metal spikes, each penetrating a sheet of paper embellished with a poem, accompany the 100 suspended microphones. I saw this work at the Kochi-Muziris Biennale 2018 and its memories are etched like the smell of freshly baked porcelain clay. The politics of censorship around the work of literature and writers have been dominant in Gupta’s work For, In Your Tongue, I Can Not Fit, which is inspired from her previous work Someone Else – A library of 100 books written anonymously or under pseudonyms. The poem of 14th century Azerbaijani poet Nesimi inspired the title of Gupta’s sound installation, which has been part of the major exhibitions around the world. Like blatant heresy of Nesimi verses that led to his condemnation and later execution, the set of 100 poets featured in the installation have been persecuted, imprisoned or made to die on the gallows. The verses are read in the original languages, ranging from Arabic, Azeri, English, Hindi, Russian, Spanish and many more to underscore the repeated political assertion on the freedom to voice an opinion. 

The written word, whether presented through narration or installed on the piece of art, has been a constant feature of Gupta’s art practice. She talks about her artistic inclination towards literature, “I work with everyday material and I am interested in definitions, logos and symbols. Be it in banners, signposts, maps, or data, text is a present part of how we see and comprehend what surrounds us. At times, part of the text is printed in very fine font, where the viewer needs to come close to the work. It implies the act of looking and registering. Sometimes, the text is used to annotate an image or object in a manner that encourages one to think about the act of archiving”.

1:2138 (wood, glass, brass and smuggled Dhakai Jamdani sari | Shilpa Gupta | STIRworld
1:2138 (wood, glass, brass and smuggled Dhakai Jamdani sari) Image Credit: Courtesy of Shilpa Gupta

The trade routes between India and Bangladesh contributed to a shared history and culture before the partitions and international borders separated the legacy of the land that was united, and not divided. With the work 1:2138, Gupta brings to the forefront the history of textile and trade of the regions that was put to rest post the division. This work — an orb made out of cotton thread — encapsulates the art practice of Gupta to its best. The title of the work - 1:2138 - is the actual length (1/2138) of the international border running between India and Bangladesh. The orb encased in a glass box with a caption engraved on a brass plate is perched on the top of the table. Shrouded in history — the material shredded threads from a single Dhakai Jamdani sari, the form of an object as if placed in a museum and aesthetic of minimalism — the work bespeaks creativity that Gupta has painstakingly strived for and successfully achieved. The historicity of Dhakai Jamdani sari lies in its multiple folds and to unpack it is an experience of taking a step down the memory lane with care and sensitivity, lest spoiling the tenderness of each moment. By turning the exuberantly expensive sari, which for many years has been smuggled into India, to an orb, Gupta takes a step further to initiate a dialogue with the silences of history of the troubled regions and aesthetic of what constitutes the visual metaphor. 

The materials play a crucial element in Gupta’s art practice and she engages with it in an unprecedented way to push the viewers to see it as part of her visual language and aesthetic. Gupta explains this, “I am interested in how meaning is created and methods are employed to generate narratives, be it via amplification, erasure, or obliteration. Be it a flap board found in a transit zone, a microphone that stands between the speaker and listener, a garment that is smuggled, a soap that melts away, the material carries narratives of movement and slippages. In fact, one of the reasons I tend to change mediums is to avoid the weight of a style which can become restrictive”.

Gupta’s aversion to labels of any sort around her works stems from its restrictive nature that does limit the possibilities the artist aims for. Excavating cultural history from the everyday objects, reclaiming the poetics of lost literature, visually reinstating the futility of borders, indeed cry to remain outside the practice of tagging. It is worth to wait and watch what silences Gupta illuminate with her forthcoming works to turn a new leaf in history. 

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