Vishal Kumaraswamy looks at race & caste via the lens of performance and identity

Iruvu by Bengaluru-based artist Vishal Kumaraswamy looks at the space and time that is occupied by the subaltern body and how it relates to futurisms.

by Sukanya DebPublished on : May 24, 2022

The term ‘subaltern’ was coined in the context of postcolonial thought by Italian theorist Antonio Gramsci in order to identify the cultural hegemony that is produced in order to exclude various social and racial groups, denying agency in the larger society. With the term there is a certain collapse of experience that can be seen as the ‘subaltern’ being, looking at the commonalities between similar but different power structures. Looking at the historicisation of the subaltern figure, postcolonial discourse often is not cognisant of the fact that subaltern discourses can be seen to be taking place between intellectual figures who have spoken about liberation across the globe. Visual artist Vishal Kumaraswamy talks about the identification and value of concurrent discourses that are in conversation with each other through a consideration of similar experiences and ways of being, while also taking into account the very contextual specificities in talking about the Black and the Dalit community or Bahujan body.

Still from Act I: Nauke, Iruvu (Presence), 2021, Video | Vishal Kumaraswamy | STIRworld
Still from Act I: Nauke, Iruvu (Presence), 2021, Video Image: Courtesy of Vishal Kumaraswamy

As Kumaraswamy informs STIR, “It comes from this assimilating impulse, where the dominant class is saying that all postcolonial identities are the same. How do you talk to people who are undergoing or have similar histories to yours? And that goes back to connections between Black radical thought, between the war, between Ambedkar. These corners have always been in conversation. At which point did we forget or choose to not continue in that tradition?”

ಇರುವು Iruvu (Presence), a four-channel video work by Kumaraswamy, looks at the inhabitation of spaces in relation to the subaltern body. The video work is divided into four chapters or channels, each looking at the subaltern body through the lens of Black radical and Bahujan discourses in identifying exclusion, violence, and occupation of space. Iruvu takes place through the viewing of the singular performing body in relation to its environment, from the outdoors, to domestic space, to the digital realm. What is identified here is that the Dalit or Black body is always in performance.

As the artist says, “The idea was to address this idea of bodies in specific spaces. Spaces that either aren’t designed for those bodies to be there or spaces that are unable to contain the presence of the bodies there. And both of them are in part to do with the kind of stereotyping that takes place - what body gets to be seen where and what bodies get to exist in certain places. What bodies have the luxury to be banal and what bodies have the demand placed on them to always be in a performative state.”

Still from Act III: Suli, Iruvu (Presence), 2021, Video | Vishal Kumaraswamy | STIRworld
Still from Act III: Suli, Iruvu (Presence), 2021, Video Image: Courtesy of Vishal Kumaraswamy

Through the work there is a consideration of space and time, while also inhabiting the languages of radical and postcolonial discourses, including the likes of Ambedkar, Audre Lorde, bell hooks, and Fred Morten. There is the idea of ‘comfortable’ inhabitation that is also explored through the idea of domestic space that is incorporated into the video works, asking the question of ‘rest’ in relation to the subaltern body. Where is it that the subaltern body is not performing? ‘Space’ is not just space for the artist, as it includes the spaces of academia and scholarship, as well as that of language, which is described as a space of struggle, identification and assertion.

An excerpt from ACT I nauke (vessel) of Iruvu (Presence) Image: Courtesy of vishalkswamy_studio on Instagram

In conversation with STIR, the artist describes the ‘obfuscation of the image’ in digital space, that is depicted as a set of grids and volumetric visualisations of bodies, where the image becomes a point of identification. This goes back to the idea of ‘interpellation’ by French philosopher Louis Althusser, where there is a certain enactment of violence through this process, extending to the image form which becomes a space of surveillance, characterisation and assumption by dominant classes or castes in this case, or the larger state. There is an implication that is placed on the body to be visible and in performance.

Still from Act III: Suli, Iruvu (Presence), 2021, Video | Vishal Kumaraswamy | STIRworld
Still from Act III: Suli, Iruvu (Presence), 2021, Video Image: Courtesy of Vishal Kumaraswamy

Through the video works it is also noted that identification becomes a point of containment as well as resistance for the subaltern figure. The visual identification of race and caste become a point of contention as they are recognised as a matrix of power relations, rather than an aesthetic form. It is to be noted, that a person of Dalit or Bahujan lineage is not identifiable through any particular visual markers, due in part to the complex understanding of caste as a whole.

This series of works is part of a larger project for Kumaraswamy on Subaltern Futures, where there is an investigation of ‘futurisms’ that can be deployed or envisioned. Time is complicated when one considers Afrofuturist thought that looks at speculative futures as well as pasts that become spaces of liberation and thought. 

Still from Act IV: Aayama, Iruvu (Presence), 2021, Video | Vishal Kumaraswamy | STIRworld
Still from Act IV: Aayama, Iruvu (Presence), 2021, Video Image: Courtesy of Vishal Kumaraswamy

The Indian artist explains, “Part of the work as part of my larger project on Subaltern Futures is saying that there is no futurism because we don’t live in the same time. We live in ‘subaltern time’ that is moving very differently. And the reason behind moving at different speeds, not just different dimensions, is because of the colonisation of the term and entire intellectual space.”

Still from Act IV: Aayama, Iruvu (Presence), 2021, Video, Vishal Kumaraswamy | STIRworld
Still from Act IV: Aayama, Iruvu (Presence), 2021, Video Image: Courtesy of Vishal Kumaraswamy

The exhibition is on view online since January 7, 2022.

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