Visual artist Waswo X Waswo revisits his 2015 miniature painting series, Chaos in the Palace
Photographer Waswo X Waswo is best known for his sepia-toned photographs of India. But his 2015 work, in collaboration with Rajasthani miniaturist R Vijay, showcases a more political side to his work. Titled Chaos in the Palace, this series of 18 miniatures deals with concepts such as colonialism, rise of the right wing and race relations. And even now, after half a decade later, they ring relevant. We speak to Waswo X Waswo about the work.
How does it feel to look back at and revisit these works, considering how much they are still relevant to our current reality?
Chaos in the Palace, our suite of eighteen miniature paintings, was very much a product of 2015. We seldom make overtly political work and I prefer to keep the concepts behind our paintings focused on the personal and relatable experiences that make up our shared humanity. Chaos in the Palace broke from this approach in that it was much more of a direct response to the events of the times. Liberal-minded Indians were still reeling from the election, and were fearful that an intolerant Hindutva had gained ascendancy. In Europe, the refugee crisis from the Syrian Civil War soon became a much larger migrant crisis as Angela Merkel opened Europe’s borders to the world. Many of us, myself included, feared for what this might mean to Europe’s longstanding traditions of free-wheeling liberal secularism. These fears seemed to be confirmed in the attack on the Charlie Hebdo office that January which killed twelve people. Religious fundamentalism seemed to be on the rise worldwide, and this was mirrored in the rise of right-wing parties in France and Germany, Hungary and Poland, that reverted to
stoutly Christian (and white) views of their countries. As the political situation became increasingly complex, and also polarized, it seemed that traditional liberalism had lost its way. Years of materialistic decadence, and presumed security in the supremacy of liberal beliefs, left it prey to the rising ideologies of Intersectionality and Critical Race Theory which shamed any attempt to defend Enlightenment ideals as White Supremacy. “De-Colonizing” became the trending word in western academia as European history was combed through, re-written, and deconstructed in a way that left people of European descent with little source of civilizational pride. All of the above was horrifying to me. Chaos had entered the palace of liberal secular philosophy and society. The attack was being waged on many fronts, and still is today. If our suite of miniatures was prescient, it is that we were trying to sound an alarm bell for what continues to unfold today.
Some of the panels are a strong parallel to what's going on in the world right now. What inspired the work at that point in time?
In one panel a bust of Voltaire is being pulled off its pedestal by two men who look of Turkish origin, and another who looks European. Another man seems to be setting fire to the walls of the palace. Of course, this is meant to represent an attack upon Enlightenment values, and by extension, European civilization, but we also threw in Nandalal Bose’s famous depiction of Mahatma Gandhi hanging askew upon the back wall. This is meant as an ironic reference to Gandhi’s quip that western civilization “would be a good idea” when asked what he thought about it.
In another panel a group of orange dhoti-clad Indians set fire to a painting by MF Hussain, while in another panel this same group burns books. In yet another panel the group is seen to be holding my collaborators and me hostage in a corner, with our arms raised to the air in surrender. But the suite implies more than attack from without. Other panels hint at decadence by the inclusion of glamorous but meaningless art by Andy Warhol and Jeff Koons. The queen seems to be preoccupied with fashion, unthinkingly adorning herself with trophies from the natural world; the king is ridiculous as a tiny figure upon a giant thrown. The implication is that this civilizational and philosophical palace has helped bring about its own destruction through self-indulgence and letting down its guard.
How was it collaborating with R Vijay?
R. Vijay and I have worked together for over fourteen years, so this was a continuation of a long and fruitful artistic dialogue. Chaos in the Palace marked the first time we brought Dalpat Singh in as an assistant. He painted all of the palace backgrounds before R Vijay filled in the details. Dalpat has continued to work with us to this day.
What are you working on currently?
We’re currently working a suite of eight Nayika. There’s nothing political in this suite, except it will be a bit darker than most, and a bit homoerotic. I really do not like to get too political in our work. Chaos in the Palace was an exception, but a powerful exception. It was a cry from the heart, which I think the best of art always is.