Art & Voices Matter: STIR original series on issues of communities at the margins

A series of interviews that put a spotlight on global art practices that focus on issues at the margins of the broader society.

by Dilpreet BhullarPublished on : Apr 26, 2021

“There is, it would seem, in the dimensional scale of the world a kind of delicate meeting place between imagination and knowledge, a point, arrived at by diminishing large things and enlarging small ones that is intrinsically artistic.” - Speak, Memory, Vladimir Nabokov

In the tug of war between artistic imagination and empirical knowledge, the purpose of human existence is put on a scale to measure the significance of larger good of life. Invariably, relegating the imperative need for creative practice to the dispensable periphery. Antithetical to the overpowering worldview to decisive pragmaticism, it is the imagination of the artist that magnifies the matter that is pushed to be of minuscule importance. If we accept that art is a reflection of life, then the art, artists and cultural practitioners over the centuries have represented a world beyond the sole aim of appealing to flattery. Inherent to the visual lexicon is the idea to metamorphose the inner mind to the perceptible external reality that enables and touches both the creator and audience. To give a few instances of the same, Guernica by Pablo Picasso talks about the loss of human life in the face of the Second World War. Dorothea Lange's iconic photograph Migrant Mother portrays the plight of a mother during the Great Depression.  

Art may not hold the centre of the universe, one that steers the giant wheels of political or economic ships…yet its symbolic value has incessantly threatened the mantle of superiority. The participatory nature of art, attentive to the politics of power, disturbs the towers of universal assumptions. Pertinent to the key tools of analysis, its description and interpretation, is the exercise to critique the centre. The two-pronged critical approach of cultural inquiry is a denial of ‘othering’ the marginal life to keep the doors open to multiplicity. 

The many purposes of artistic imagination include the power to evoke a response from a viewer that has remained consistent and even an unrefuted crucial intent underpinning the act of creating art. Taking this as the point of departure, the artist and practitioners in the series Art & Voices Matter embrace the heterogeneity that requires courage in the face of all odds. The aspiration to represent a share of reality that is present, yet a step away from recognition is necessitated by the urge to cause a ‘stir’ in the world fraught by binaries.

Over the past several years, the arts as a discipline has created reverberations that are felt in the present, lest not to have the mistakes of the past peddle through the future. The discrimination based on race and gender, abuses of political supremacy, as well as economic disparity and uneven impact of environmental issues lay bare the fragility of social structures. If the health of a society is determined by the presence of diversity sans affirmative norms, then the solidarity towards the others involves action and engagement. The creative minds, under consideration, suture the wounds caused by the ‘oblique’ lying between center/periphery, I/we, major/minor, outside/inside, us/other… to name just a few.

The artists and practitioners in the series Art & Voices Matter have arrived at a ‘point’, to which Nabokov refers, that facilitates amplification of the matter otherwise rendered ‘small’ by the ‘large’. The practitioners build their work on the idea that art has the capacity to resonate, beyond the exclusive state-approved citizen, with disenfranchised too. Moving against the tide that sweeps the order of things under the force of homogeneity, the artistic imagination strives to create space for conversation and dialogues in the hope of sewing the lines of harmony amongst different voices.  

1. Art & Voices Matter: Artistic suppression…myth or fact?

A trained printmaker, Sangita Maity’s Forest without the Sky is a critique of the devastation wrought by hyper-capitalist rubber plantation | STIRworld
Sangita Maity, Forest without the Sky, Woodcut print, 24 x 13.5 inches, edition 1 of 4, 2020 Image: Courtesy of Shrine Empire Gallery, Sangita Maity

Artistic suppression is an inherently oppressive set of consciously or incidentally performed actions that function under the guise of rejection. Suppression occurs when ‘hosting’ agencies actively alter the trajectory of artistic production by suggesting what can and cannot pass as works of art; or how an artist should or should not posture themselves so as to gain public attention, failing which the end result is some form of career suicide. Suppression involves the subtle and not-so-subtle ways in which artists are denied legitimacy through variating manners of gatekeeping. They could be publicly dismissed as crazy, unstable, menacing, or there are simply no takers for their work because it allegedly doesn’t appeal to broad-enough sensibilities. The fault is always portrayed as not belonging to the institution. The artist is often forced to internalise their shortcomings and is made to feel responsible for their exclusion. Any attempt made to critique the system is usually met with instant gaslighting. You are often led to believe that you are simply ‘imagining’ your non-belonging, even as the exclusion directly affects your livelihood and endangers your ability to sustain your practice.

2. Art & Voices Matter: Ahmadzai tells women centric tales in her cloth and ink works

Vivaldi’s Summer Season | Arshi Irshad Ahmadzai | STIRworld
Vivaldi’s Summer Season Image: Arshi Irshad Ahmadzai, Courtesy of Gallery Blueprint12

Arshi Irshad Ahmadzai’s art practice deals with her visual understanding of the female figure from a feminine point. Her works represent her own artistic freedom as an artist. The practice develops from her own journey and the representation of the female, as an entity and body, in society, history, politics, and in her religion to raise the sensitivity for her viewers. Often her images extend into words from her mother tongue, Urdu and also in Persian and Arabic. The words are often stories that are closely related to the visuals, while at other times lose their structure to make space for words that may not be coherent narratives, and in this way, speak of how the lives of women are thought of as devoid of meaning and matter.

3. Art & Voices Matter: Bakeryprasad a.k.a. Siddhesh Gautam discusses the Dalit movement

Cow Nationalism by Siddhesh Gautam | Siddhesh Gautam | STIRworld
Cow Nationalism by Siddhesh Gautam Image: Siddhesh Gautam

Siddhesh Gautam brings the Dalit movement to an accessible place through his poignant illustration style. Gautam is a graduate of the prestigious NIFT in Mumbai, India, and later NID (National Institute of Design). In Pune, he co-founded Studio Gendaphool and worked as a commercial designer for years before becoming involved in the Dalit movement. As his engagement grew, he became further drawn to the cause. In time, Gautam relocated to Delhi to immerse himself fully in the movement and the activities which surrounded it in the country’s capital. He has since been working independently as an illustrator, writer, researcher and teacher. He has worked with publishers, media houses, scholars and given lectures and talks, both within India and across the globe in pursuit of the improved rights of the Dalit community.

4. Art & Voices Matter: Daniel Knorr on interrogating authoritarian structures

Destroyed Stasi documents, fused into stones | Kontakt, collection of Erste Bank Vienna, AT | STIRworld
Destroyed Stasi documents, fused into stones Image: Courtesy of Kontakt, Collection of Erste Bank Vienna, AT

Daniel Knorr is a contemporary artist who was born in Bukarest, Romania, and lives and works in Berlin, Germany. He often uses unlikely materials in order to generate political and theoretical discourse through his artistry. Major themes that play out within Knorr’s practice are representation, historicity and, in the case of his artwork dealing with destroyed Stasi documents, a deeply sensitive interrogation of authoritarianism.

The artist has represented Romania at the 2005 Venice Biennale, and has gone on to participate in high-profile art exhibitions such as documenta 14. Today, Knorr’s works can be found at several avenues; most notably, in the Migros Museum in Zurich, the Stasi Museum in Leipzig and the Pinakothek der Moderne in Munich.

5. Art & Voices Matter: Exotic Cancer layers the narrative around sexuality, and society

Wine by Exotic Cancer | Exotic Cancer | STIRworld
Wine by Exotic Cancer Image: Courtesy of Exotic Cancer

Exotic Cancer is many things, some of which include artist, illustrator and feminist. Her professional work as a stripper in Melbourne, Australia, gives her insight into an otherwise unheard community. Exotic Cancer remains anonymous in her identity, but vocal and resonant in her practice. Her work reads as quick, single-frame comics extracted from her creative universe. The narrative created in the process speaks of gender, sexuality, beauty and their commercial and personal aspects. Exotic is a meld of erotica and gender politics which creates a deep sensual appeal while sparking a conversation. Her work brings to the fore an important dialogue around the experience of sex workers, their rights and perspectives. Her work is primarily showcased on Instagram. This platform reacts with her work through its viewers, which often leads to censorship of her content. The artist responds to this with her direct experience of biased censorship. Her work is risky, bold and articulate.

6. Art & Voices Matter: Indu Antony talks about the discomfort of the creative process

Cecilia-4 | Indu Antony | STIRworld
Cecilia-4 by Indu Antony Image: Indu Antony

Indu Antony is a visual artist based out of Bangalore, India. Her fascination with the visual medium has been a life-long affair, and yet it was only a little over a decade when she made the choice to formally turn to the arts and to photography as a career. Training to become a medical practitioner, Antony flouted familial pressure and convention to pursue her passion for visual expression. Her work often comes across as a poignant social commentary on communities and people living in the fringes. She explores pertinent questions revolving around feminism, body positivity, trans rights and gender. She has been exhibited both in India and internationally, including the Ada Slaight Gallery, Ontario, Canada House17, Luxembourg, FotoFest Biennale, Housto, to name a few.

7. Art & Voices Matter: Kim Leutwyler on the articulation of gender and sexual identity

Start the riot by Kim Leutwyler| STIRworld
Start the riot Image: Kim Leutwyler

Kim Leutwyler was born in the United States of America and is based in Sydney, Australia. She is an emerging artist with a stunning visual vocabulary that extends across a variety of media.

Leutwyler’s work presents a preoccupation with themes of gender, queerness and sexual identity. She combines vibrant colours with intimate visions of her subjects in order to create art that speaks to the spirit of the LGBTQ+ community.

8. Art & Voices Matter: Macidiano Céspedes’ works derail the heteronormative structure

Segundo | Macidiano Céspedes | Art and Voices matter | STIRworld
Segundo Image: Courtesy of Macidiano Céspedes

At the structural intersectionality of undocumented and queer stands the work of the Peruvian photographer, Macidiano Céspedes, who lives in Buenos Aires, Argentina. More often than not, the logics of heteronormativity lead to quotidian challenges that determine the lives of trans refugees and sexual minorities. To break the silences on boundaries whether those define the nation-states or gendered identity demands a synthetic perspective of both the people from within and outside the community. The pivot moment of change in a contested territory comes from the within before its voice could be heard near and far. In a similar fashion, as an insider, the photographic practice of Céspedes is indeed aimed to reveal the politics of recognition, yet with a need to identify and critique the normative order of belonging.

9. Art & Voices Matter: Morad Montazami sifts through complexity of Southern Modernism

Exhibition view of Michele Ciacciofera, Senza Inizio Senza Fine | Michele Ciacciofera | STIRworld
Exhibition view of Michele Ciacciofera, Senza Inizio Senza Fine Image: Courtesy of Michele Ciacciofera

Morad Montazami, archivist, art historian, publisher and curator, based in France, served as a Tate Modern curator for “Middle Eastern and North African” between 2014 and 2019. Pursuing since then his path as the director of the independent platform Zamân Books & Curating, he is committed to transnational studies of Arab, Asian and African modernities. He has curated three editions of the recently concluded exhibition New Waves: Mohamed Melehi and the Casablanca Art School Archives first held at The Mosaic Rooms in London, followed by MACAAL in Marrakech, and lastly at Concrete, Alserkal Avenue in Dubai. He was curator of Fugitive Volumes: Faouzi Laatiris and the Tetouan Institut National des Beaux-Arts, Rabat, and Bagdad Mon Amour, Institute of Islamic Culture, Paris. He has published several essays on artists including Zineb Sedira, Walid Raad, Latif al-Ani, Bahman Mohassess, Michael Rakowitz, Hamed Abdalla, Jeremy Deller, Francis Alÿs and Eric Baudelaire. The curatorial-archival practice by Montazami is attentive to the historical inquiry into production, consumption, as well as erasure of knowledge systems: a means to dismantle the inherent meaning of the imperialist’s waxed eloquence on naming and mapping.

10. Art & Voices Matter: Nirvair Singh Rai on documenting the Rohingya refugees

Portrait | Nirvair Singh Rai | STIRworld
Portrait Image: Nirvair Singh Rai

As a young visual storyteller, Nirvair Singh Rai has already won critical acclaim for his work covering the Rohingya refugees, which not only raises questions of representation but delves deeper into the layered question, analysing what exactly is being represented. Is the story that we are telling a crude chronicling of ‘captivating theatrics’ or are we taking the time to explore beyond the surface revealing a picture that is whole, all-encompassing, and provokes the urgency of viewing the Rohingya people as humans first. Singh's work moves beyond that abstract image of a humanitarian issue that has been made of the Rohingya refugee camps by popular media. His images are perceptive, documenting the emotive range of his subject with remarkable uncanny, weaving their stories into a distinct imagery. Perhaps the intimacy of his work stems from the fact that each photo series transforms into a personal journey, an investigation of the internal landscape of the one behind the lens intersecting with the psyche of those being captured and represented on film.

11. Art & Voices Matter: Sajan Mani puts a spotlight on casteism through his work

Public performance at Bangalore | Sajan Mani | STIRworld
Public performance at Bangalore Image: Courtesy of Sajan Mani

Sajan Mani is a multidisciplinary artist. His practice revolves around the issues of marginalised and oppressed communities, especially those discriminated through the lens of cast and skin-colour in India. He himself hails from a family of rubber tappers in a remote village in the northern part of Kerala (India). His performative work reinforces the prevailing dichotomies of pain, shame, fear, and power. He uses the body as socio-political metaphor to boldly confront these emotions. Several of Mani’s performances employ the element of water to address both, the ecological issues particularly related to the backwaters of Kerala, as well as to the common theme of migration. His recent works consider the correspondence between animals and humans, and the politics of space from the perspective of an indigenous cosmology.

12. Art & Voices Matter: Shadi Ghadirian’s witty take on the key concerns of everyday life

Miss Butterfly – a work by Iranian photographer Shadi Ghadirian | Art & Voices Matter | STIRworld
Miss Butterfly – a work by Iranian photographer Shadi Ghadirian Image: Shadi Ghadirian

The fantastical tale with a butterfly, a spider, and an assemblage of insects oversees the successful escape of the butterfly from the web of captivity laid by the spider. While flying towards the sun, the butterfly is caught abruptly in the web, woven by the spider. The eight-legged makes a pact with the butterfly: it will set her free only if she manages to get the insects to satiate its hunger. After having learned the sorry situation of the insects, the butterfly offers herself to the spider- if the latter can devour her. The sacrifice that the butterfly is about to make moves the spider only to let her continue the journey towards the sun. To let the insects also partake of the pleasure of her emancipation, the butterfly calls out to them, but her plea falls on deaf ears. The reluctance on the part of insects does not deter the butterfly to give wings to her desire to have a rendezvous with the sun. Sifting through the layers of silence, struggle and strength, this tale inspired the series entitled Miss Butterfly by the Iranian-photographer Shadi Ghadirian. The metaphorical implications of the tale navigate the works of the artist who strives to represent the issues that have long entangled the lives of women, and beyond. Despite the efforts to deprovincialise the ‘centre’, often the works by the artists outside the circle of the west are seen through the lens of national singularity. However, from the centre of her home-nation, Ghadirian’s photographs add voice to the issues of censorship, modernity, sectarian politics, to name but a few, that find resonance beyond the shores that are familiar to her.

13. Art & Voices Matter: Making the revolution irresistible…dissent through art

Savarna Gaze | Siddhesh Gautam | Art & Voices Matter | STIRworld
Savarna Gaze Image: Siddhesh Gautam

Moments of social and political strife have historically propelled artists to create emotionally charged artworks that come to define the eras they sit within, often transforming the parameters of art-making within those times. The last century has had a proliferation of such instances, including the emergence of Dadaism after the first World War, the drawings that portrayed the Bengal famine in the 1940s, and the art around the rise of the Black Panthers in the 1960-80s. Globally, as well as notably in India, 2020 has been a period that has jolted the grounds on which visual arts have blossomed, by virtue of the seeds of creative dissent sown by artists who defy the mainstream imaginations of the art world. This text aims to reflect on two periods of protest that sent ripples across the fabric of the country, and the dynamic ways in which artists who belong to affected communities have responded.

Art & Voices Matter
Co-curated by Rahul Kumar and Dilpreet Bhullar, Art & Voices Matter is a STIR original series of interviews with global creative practitioners who bring to the core the issues of communities that may be seen at the periphery.

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