The feminist counter-apocalypse

A recurring motif in a mural by Indian artist Nilima Sheikh prophesies the end of man.

by Rosalyn D`MelloPublished on : Jan 25, 2021

Armed with a borrowed pair of crutches, in the throes of immense pain on account of a torn ligament, I found myself cursing the ableist strategies that continue to dominate the display of art. While I was grateful for the smoothly functioning elevator at the Shilpakala Academy, the venue of the Dhaka Art Summit, whose fifth edition I was visiting, I wondered about what constituted the criteria for making an exhibition friendly for differently-abled people. Did this constitute at all a subject of curatorial studies? Or does ableist privilege imagine that the bare minimum is enough. Though I could access artworks, I was often unable to immersively engage with many of them because I couldn’t be still long enough on crutches. I accepted it as part of my body’s inability to withstand the pain of supporting itself. I was glad to be visiting Dhaka for my research and not exclusively to review the Summit. The injury I sustained while trying to get off an ill constructed footpath made unfeasible any kind of critical review. While I still nurse numerous regrets about the limits of my attention, months later, I am still processing a revelation that was, in fact, facilitated purely by my challenged mobility.

Were it not for my having to huddle between paintings, one crutch at a time, carefully distributing my body’s weight so it didn’t land too squarely upon the swollen mass surrounding the region of my torn ligament, I wouldn’t have viewed Nilima Sheikh’s Beyond Loss as meticulously.  I have always thought of Sheikh’s approach as the visual equivalent to the kind of intertextual discursive energy that permeates through the poet and classicist Anne Carson’s sprawling essays. Sheikh’s enormous five-panel mural, completed in 2019, was a moving ode to Kashmir, a region whose turbulent political fate she has been incessantly mourning across her oeuvre. I have often felt secretly relieved never to have been formally tasked with critically appraising Sheikh’s works. I have many long-standing doubts about my ability to condense the vastness of her every endeavour in prose while still retaining the mystique of her every painterly gesture. The daunting scope of Beyond Loss, or even Terrain: Carrying Across, Leaving Behind, her 2016, 16-panel tempera painting that encloses an octagonal space, which I saw at documenta14 as well as at Bikaner House in New Delhi is difficult to transpose into a literary medium, which is ironic, considering how Sheikh appropriates the tensile economy of the written word, borrowing expansively through citations. Her stencilled invocation of fragments from Aga Shahid Ali to Lal Ded is coupled with her evocation of textured fabric through her embroidered exploration of the plasticity of cassein tempera. The multiple narrative sequences encoded within her panels have the quality of cave or rock paintings. We glimpse the two-dimensional immediacy of what they connote, and yet they exist in other-worldly ways.

A motif from the first panel of Nilima Sheikh’s ‘Beyond Loss’ drew my attention | Chemould Prescott Road | STIRworld
Panel 1 of Nilima Sheikh, ‘Beyond Loss’, 2019, five-panel casein tempera and canvas scroll. Commissioned for Dhaka Art Summit 2020 Image: Courtesy of Chemould Prescott Road and the artist

What struck me during my differently-abled movement through her artistic documentation of the ramification of India’s continuing actions upon Kashmir that violates the vestiges of its constitutionally validated autonomy was her use of apocalyptic imagery. ‘Immediate trauma finds historic/mythic prototypes. Dire times call for apocalyptic vocabularies,’ she has said in reference to this work. The recurring motif is of a female figure squatting on the ground, lighting a hearth upon which rests a cooking pot. It is a figure of feminist resistance and resilience; a symbol of survival and endurance. The work seems to suggest that after the inevitable destruction wrought by intersecting forces of patriarchy-capitalism-nationalism comes to pass, amid the ashes within the wasteland will arise, once again, this huddled figure lighting a fire upon a hearth, brewing hope.

The immediacy of the image of a female figure in front of a hearth lighting a flame conceals its revelatory dynamics | Chemould Prescott Road| STIRworld
A detail from Panel 1, Nilima Sheikh, ‘Beyond Loss’, 2019 Image: Courtesy of Chemould Prescott Road and the artist

Or does it prophesy the end of ‘Man’ as an entitled category? Through the course of a corona-infected 2020 I have returned repeatedly to this recurring motif that assumes numerous variations as it is iterated across panels in Sheikh’s mural. It continues to sustain something in me that I want to call hope. Recently, while reading an essay from Joanna Zylinska’s 2018 book, The End of Man: A Feminist Counterapocalypse, the image resurfaced in my conscious memory. Zylinska builds on Catherine Keller’s conception of the ‘counter-apocalypse’. ‘If counter-apocalypse reveals anything—it does so in ironic mimesis of the portentous tones of the original—with which it dances as it wrestles,’ Zylinska summarises. Her work is invested in challenging human exceptionalism, the lens through which we construct even our complicity in the destruction of our habitats and the imminence of our doom. She wants to cut the Anthropocene down to size. “The feminist counter-apocalyptic framework creates a space for an ethical opening to the precarious lives and bodies of human and nonhuman others—including the male bodies and minds that have been discarded in the downsizing process of disruptive semiocapitalism,” Zylinska writes. “In doing so, it promises liberation from the form of subjectivity that is pinned to a competitive, overachieving, and overreaching masculinity. It also prompts us all to ask: if unbridled progress is no longer an option, what kind of coexistences and collaborations do we want to create in its aftermath?”

The motif of a survivor female figure in a desolate landscape lighting a hearth recurs in the fourth panel of the expansive work | Chemould Prescott Road | STIRworld
Panel 4, Nilima Sheikh, ‘Beyond Loss’, 2019 Image: Courtesy of Chemould Prescott Road and the artist

Zylinska proposes relationality as a more compelling model of subjectivity. “Instead of positing a human subject that is separate from the world he (sic) inhabits and in which he can make interventions, it acknowledges the prior existence of relations between clusters of matter and energy that temporarily stabilize for us humans into entities—on a molecular, cellular, and social level,” she says. I understand this as a more metabolic paradigm wherein the human is not at the centre of but is a part of an ecology. The perception of privileged sentience entails ethical responsibilities rather than rendering the human exceptional.

The solitary figure preparing a meal serves as a reminder of the transformative resilience of women in the face of trauma | Chemould Prescott Road| STIRworld
In the detail from Panel 4, Nilima Sheikh, ‘Beyond Loss’, 2019, the female figure returns as the keeper of the flame Image: Courtesy of Chemould Prescott Road and the artist

As I wade through the recent slew of images and articles about the discovery of tens of thousands of paintings of animals and humans created on cliff faces stretching almost eight miles up to 12,500 years ago in present day Colombia, I wonder if it could be processed as a portal into a relationality that perhaps once was or could be. It is amazing how they are being dated based on their depictions of now-extinct ice age animals. I am trying to synthesise this discovery about our ancient human past with feminist premonitions about the counter-apocalypse in an effort to excavate hope for the present and the future. At the heart of my reflections lies a question about what endures, and the visionary role of artistic legacy. I wonder if the female figure in front of the hearth is both cooking and making art; feeding the counter-apocalypse.

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