Politics of art and the real artpolitik: Artists in discussion for India Art Fair 2018

Are the subjects of art and politics inseparable, more so today than ever before? Indulge speaks with artists set to storm the upcoming India Art Fair 2018.

Jaideep Sen Published :  01st February 2018 06:55 PM   |   Published :   |  01st February 2018 06:55 PM
'Bombay' (detail) by Riyas Komu

'Bombay' (detail) by Riyas Komu

At the India Art Fair 2018, a lot of the attention will be on works with impactful political content, especially in the section, ‘Insights into the cultural landscapes of neighbouring countries’, by artists from the subcontinent. One among the more provocative works is Unveiling Womanhood by Tayeba Begum Lipi from Bangladesh, where she appears in a video wearing a hijab (veil) made of stainless steel razor blades, screened inside a room decorated with hundreds of colourful blouses.

Alongside, Yasir Waqas, a graduate from National College of Arts, Lahore, will look at matters of belief and conflict. “My work addresses the contradictions within a system, which can lead to inner destruction, and on a macro level, infect the whole society,” he says.

Concerns such as Yasir’s are not isolated. Zoya Siddiqui, a graduate from Beaconhouse, Lahore, and currently a Fulbright scholar at the University of Pennsylvania, will show two photo series — Blind Views and Public Views — based on her interactions in the public and private domain, in upstate New York and in Lahore. 

Unveiling Womanhood by Tayeba Begum Lipi

Among artists from India, Riyas Komu will exhibit a series of woodcut prints that explore acts of physical violence in social spaces throughout the history of independent India. “The series explores the misuse of power by people — to self-organise, to take law into their own hands, to disregard constitutionally granted freedoms. The images themselves are frozen in time, but they become a reminder of how people’s ignorance promotes and sustains enmity in our social space.”

Riyas’ concerns run deeper, as he explains, “I think it’s important to highlight the casual cruelty with which people can kill others for not subscribing to their beliefs, or for being different.”

Rithika Merchant, an Indian artist based in Barcelona, Spain, addresses issues of mass displacement and forced migration in her work. Whereas, Sudipta Das from Assam, a fourth-generation migrant from Bangladesh, extends the concerns in an installation that captures “the emotional disoriented state of refugees”. Sudipta observes, “Our homelessness has ushered in a restless state of disorientation — of being both here and there — always moving and re-moving.” Her work thus creates “the impression of a cluster of migrants, huddled together as a fearful, vulnerable bunch, in an embodiment of the harsh wounds of migration and alienation”.

Artists from the subcontinent apart, Hasanul Isyraf Idris will bring in some context from Malaysia, discussing sensitive issues of censorship, persecution and oppression against the backdrop of his personal history. In a series of email interactions, artists showing at India Art Fair 2018 gave Indulge their views about art, and the role that artists play in shaping present-day discussions. Excerpts from the interviews:

1947 by Riyas Komu


What is political art, in your view?
Riyas Komu:
‘Political art’ is not a category, it is a wide-ranging argument. It defies easy categorisation because many of the artists, while not being explicitly political, are in fact responding to the times in their own way. So I don’t think political art needs to have the obviousness of protest or activism. It can be subdued and be indirect. And many people’s politics is not with the State, it’s with their community, discrimination or issues generally not discussed, or sometimes it’s with art itself. Wouldn’t that also be political art? I am unsure how to define or identify political art in a time like this. I don’t think we should overstate what art can do in a society, whether political or not. But as only art can do what it can do, we must protect it.
Zoya Siddiqui: I believe political art explores difference, hierarchy, power, social relations, etc. It may do that through any form, be it performance or protest. I do believe that ethics in this exploration are important, and that the artist be cognisant of their own social position in relation to everything.

How would you distinguish political art as a form by itself? 
Avijit Dutta:
‘Political art’ aims to initiate and trigger the thought process of viewers. It is often quoted that the greatest of reforms start inside the minds of the people. In sync with this belief, politically or socially relevant art works on the minds of viewers. And, since it converses directly with the mind and soul of onlookers, it is a strong means to initiate change in our surroundings.
Yasir Waqas: To me, political art, ‘the term’, refers to art made with the intention of provoking a viewer to see things differently or take a step to do something about an issue. 

A Soaring to Nowhere by Sudipta Das

How do you perceive artworks that make a political statement?  
Tayeba Begum Lipi:
In South Asia, we all live within a political atmosphere. But political statements in artworks are not an obligation. From time to time, though, I do work on political issues — especially, the Partition and border concerns in the subcontinent have a great impact in some of my works.   
Rithika Merchant: I see two ways to perceive political statements in a piece of art. The artist may have created a piece as a specific political statement or the artist may have created a more universal artwork that resonates with a particular political situation of the time. I strive to make art that is more in the second category. My work is often triggered by a specific event that has taken place, and links to more universal ideas relating to that initial feeling as well. 

Is it essential, in your view, for artists today to make a political statement?
Tayeba Begum Lipi:
I do not believe in chances. It depends on someone’s personal and professional life, beliefs and feelings about society and surroundings. Artists are human beings and, of course, many of them believe in a kind of responsibility for society. But then again, artists are not newspapers, and there is no pressure to work on political issues. There are several artists gaining visibility without doing politically charged works.
Riyas Komu: I have been creating works of art that have political undertones since the early stages of my career. I don’t see them as ‘political art’, I see them as art. I don’t consider my art as a means to carry a message or to make statements. I see them as an archive of our times. I think it’s also a reflection of the time and space where I grew up and live now. My latest works explore the recent fractures in the cohesiveness of our democratic systems and co-dependence.
Yasir Waqas: It is every artist’s responsibility to make people conscious about problems in society. More artists should produce works which question beliefs and ideologies. I also think art should be more publicly displayed, to get larger viewership, as it is a reflection of the people themselves. For that to happen, we need to practice and preach tolerance first. In many cultural settings, not all art is accepted or tolerated. Art is a form of expression. You may not like one’s medium or the thought, but that doesn’t take away his or her right to express it.

A work by Yasir Waqas


Would you like to produce more politically charged artworks?
Hasanul Isyraf Idris: To be honest, I’m not entirely sure. I have no objection to political art, nor do I have strong opinions about it. As such, political opinions might emerge occasionally in my visual art practice. I am not obligated to be political, yet at times, I feel compelled to rise up and speak through my artwork, and at times I prefer to be silent. I feel that socio-political situations are relevant and related to my body of work in this phase of my practice. Among my works, HOL (Higher Order Love) Chapter 2.3, Wound : Environment of Naga and Doubt resonates concerns of migration, oppression and discrimination.
Avijit Dutta: My work evolves from personal experiences and contemplations, it imbibes and portrays different conflicts of the human minds more than any political overview or statement. And, yet, it’s always good to see politically inspired works. An artist is a part and parcel of society, and if he has something to say, he does so in his medium of expression. A socially or politically charged work often brings to notice many intricate aspects of society, which often go unnoticed. According to me, such works are doorways towards unveiling the core aspects about our existential realities.

Blessed Water by Rithika Merchant

The idea: “All art is political in the sense that it engages society in some way, either influencing or influenced by it” — does this apply to your practice?
Riyas Komu:
Yes. But, I don’t set out to make political art, or art that has the effect of sloganeering. The art I make is a response to our time. It is informed by our histories, lived experiences, and the socio-political spheres of our lives.
Rithika Merchant: We are at a time when now, more than ever, we are seeing a lot of social issues that have lurked below the surface, bubbling up. It’s an urgent time. This weighs on me and I find it difficult to make art about anything that is not a response to this. 
Sudipta Das: I believe that any artwork or project reflects the socio-cultural and political context that surrounds it. While some are more blatant in putting out those concerns, others are more subtle, and their works voice those concerns in a more latent manner. I have to agree that political issues influence my art. However, this is spontaneous. I try to connect to political issues from an emotional point of view. Thus, the pain and anxiety of the migrants become important to me as I share somewhat similar emotions as a descendant of a migrant family. Through stories and images, I have developed a consciousness towards such issues and hold them close to my heart.

A still from Blind Views by Zoya Siddiqui


Do you agree that all art is inherently political in nature?
Tayeba Begum Lipi:
In a broader sense, yes. Not all, but most of it. My work often reflects questions of gender, LGBT community, dislocation, relocation, and so on.
Hasanul Isyraf Idris: Yes, I do agree, even the art scene can be political. For example, participation at art fairs also need certain considerations. Almost everything is relevant to politics and political strategy. 
Yasir Waqas: All Art Is Political. Whether it deals with personal or societal issues, at one point or the other, it affects the viewer, and the art world, raises questions or at times brings to light issues that are ignored. Politics directly affects all of us, whether one has a disposition or not, and it also affects the art, which is a product of our social conditioning.
Zoya Siddiqui: I believe all artwork is inherently political — we are all inevitably a part of social relations and power dynamics. Everything is politically pertinent, since it reveals those dynamics, whether the artist does it consciously or not.

We see a number of artists addressing social issues today. How effective do you believe their attempts are to truly make a difference?
Zoya Siddiqui:
An artist working politically may not produce change necessarily, but she may dream of it or at least produce the hope or trigger for it. For instance, the Awami Art Collective created an installation in Jinnah Bagh, Lahore, listing the deaths of the marginalised Shia community through sectarian violence. The list triggered people to stop, read, think and contemplate. The work may not have ended sectarian violence, but it affected people who encountered it, in the hope for a ripple. The effectiveness of a political work is therefore unknowable, but it might be increased by helping artists gain visibility through support.
Hasanul Isyraf Idris: These are definitely issues not to be taken lightly. In the Malaysian context of censorship, racial and religious matters are extremely sensitive issues, and penalties can be quick and harsh. There are things to consider before a statement is made.

Low Frequency Bhasma (2017) by Hasanul Isyraf Idris

A lot of art tends to get discussed in select groups. How would you like to extend appreciation in a more inclusive rather than exclusive manner?
Zoya Siddiqui:
The aesthetics and language of a project that desires to be accessible and inclusive must emerge from the people. For such a project, the institution of galleries and museums needs to be challenged. There is a lot of interesting work done in public spaces now. 

What ultimately makes a powerful work of art?
Rithika Merchant:
A powerful work of art conveys ideas and emotion. It expresses something visually that sometimes cannot be put into words. Life, humanity and all that comes with it is not always beautiful, and art that reflects this may not be conventionally beautiful either. Sometimes, art can be confrontational and uncomfortable. This does not make it any less impactful. 
Avijit Dutta: Sometimes, the use of a non-conventional medium not only strengthens the artist’s dialogue, but also makes it more inviting and fascinating. Being visually appealing is not what art aims at, but ‘expression’ is the most needed element. Beauty can be an added advantage, but without expression, it will be a like a body without soul.
Riyas Komu: At a time when 140 characters (now 280?) count as a complete thought, maybe the role of art is to highlight the resistance born of complexity — of the dissent implicit in artistic works, perhaps occasionally to remind us that some things cannot be condensed for convenience. 
Hasanul Isyraf Idris: I keep an open mind. Fundamentally, an artist should have the freedom to express their thoughts. Artists from all over the world respond individually, collectively and parallel to each other on issues such as oppression, LGBT, and feminism. These acts would not necessarily result in an ideal or utopian environment, but they are gestures of hope for a better world.

India Art Fair 2018 is on from February 9-12 in New Delhi.