IN the last few months, the art that has grabbed the people’s attention has been over far-reaching concerns — from issues such as the jallikattu agitations at the Marina Beach in Chennai, to the Syrian refugee crisis in interventions at the Kochi-Muziris Biennale in Fort Kochi. The image on this edition’s cover, a still from a performance piece by the Bangladeshi artist Mahbubur Rahman, which was on display at the show, The Artist as Activist, at the Eli and Edythe Broad Art Museum, USA, last year, is not far removed from these concerns. The work strikes home a powerful message – going by the concession that every piece of art is open to interpretation. Mahbubur is one among a handful of artists from the subcontinent set to take centrestage at the India Art Fair 2017. We spoke with some of them about their ideas of activist art – be forewarned, not all of this is meant to be sensually pleasing or outwardly enjoyable. Rather, these works are meant to provoke thought, with the hope of driving collective social change.
How do you see art evolving as an effective medium for activism?
Timothy Hyunsoo Lee: Art has always been a medium for activism – think back to the AbEx (post-World War II Abstract Expressionism) movement, or further back, to the Renaissance. Art as a form of activism has become more provocative and explicit, but it’s a development that responds to the current state of society – one that is desensitised, with a short attention span, and needy. We live in the post-internet age, where knowledge is accessible at our fingertips, and no individual has true privacy. As a result, people are more aware than before about the injustices, crimes, and pains in the world. And artists, in particular, are becoming louder with their works.
Anila Quayyum Agha: All of us, as citizens of the world, need to practice activism. We need to hold ourselves accountable for what is happening in all parts of the globe. A child going hungry or unable to go to school should weigh on all of our conscience. Refugees, and war, should give sleepless nights to all of us. We need to hold politicians accountable, and make them deliver on promises that brought them to their positions.
Bandu Manamperi: In Sri Lanka, since the 1990s, artists have created work that is highly critical of the socio-political situation. For protest, art is a great medium. Especially, performance art in public spaces. Sri Lanka’s culture has now naturalised, so to speak, the idea of art in protest. Performance art, music, cinema, drama and installations are important elements in social movements, and getting social media visibility.
What does art mean for you today?
Avinash Veeraraghavan: In 2017, I would say that anything an artist claims is art, is art. To be honest, the majority of people don’t encounter contemporary art in their day-to-day lives. Events like the India Art Fair, and the Kochi-Muziris Biennale, open up contemporary art to the general public – to view, and engage with.
Bandu Manamperi: Art has become extremely directly socially engaging than ever before. You have to deal with diverse social groups and deal with interpersonal, institutional, ethical issues. Unlike the 1990s and 2000s, today people are more educated about art. Questions and comments like, “Is this art?” and “This is ugly, anybody can do this”, are not heard anymore. Instead, now you have fierce questions about the artist’s role as a ‘cultural agent’, and the purpose of his art. Also, art is in the news. Many ‘art activists’ grab media attention, and go into the complex mixture of social media visibility.
Sanjoy Bhattacharya: There are sections of society that give artists a lot of support, and we also need to give back to society. But I differ with protest art. For me, art always comes from within. A painter’s duty is different, he is not a newspaper owner. Many pop artists react to current events – I don’t believe in such art. For me, this easily becomes cheap popularity. You can’t consume a subject overnight. If you look at the old masters’ works, they had techniques such as chiaroscuro, perspective, application of colour, brushwork – the basic criteria of a good painting. If you can give something beyond, it is well-accepted. But without any skill, if you paint something, and try to make it high art, I don’t care.
Waswo X Waswo: Art has a role that needs to go deeper than addressing current political and trending topics. The best art goes for deeper aspects of human nature. I’ve always been sceptical of seeing art as activism, unless it is street art – something that gets in your face. Art in a gallery is not going to have such an immediate impact. Neither will most performance art, as much of it is too abstract and intellectualised for mass understanding. For me, art in galleries work in the long term. Even if it is mostly seen by ‘elites’, it is good at subtly shifting societal attitudes that play out in the long run.
Anila Quayyum Agha: I find thought-provoking art compelling. I want to experience art that is representative of diversity. The most influential artists for me are Mona Hatoum, Ann Hamilton, Shireen Neshat and Chiharu Shiota. Their beautifully crafted art takes us through landscapes fraught with tensions and contradictions. Artists from Pakistan, like Shahzia Sikander, Rashid Raana and Imran Qureshi are also making excellent work.
Is it a good time to be an artist?
Mahbubur Rahman: Art is a part of life. Every single thing is art. We live with art. For me, contemporary art is based on researchbased practice, and has a purpose. Without art, society cannot exist. It is the breathing space of society. Every single day, useful material should have aesthetic value. Without artistic delivery, no product can be useful.
Hur Kyung-Ae: Contemporary art means communication between art and life. Our society is exposed to much anger and aggression. Through art, I hope people find comfort and energy in 2017. Artists have to be aware of the fact of communicating with society and people.
Chittrovanu Mazumdar: Each period has its own artist engaging with situations that are politically driven. It has happened so many times in literature. It’s a part of living in society. Some use it as a tool to protest. Not all artists do it, but it’s a valid form of art. It’s a personal choice. When you join a protest walk, you are a part of driving momentum, and you can’t really quantify whether it will change the world. After Picasso painted Guernica, we didn’t have one hundred years of peace. It doesn’t work that way. I think it is a personal conviction, that you see something wrong in society, you put in a word, or make a stand, or you stand with others and protest – it’s a democratic right. Whether it changes the world is a different call. Maybe over a period of time, with collective protests, it does make change. But it isn’t necessary that art always has to directly respond to a specific political situation. There can also be art outside of this, which can still stand the test of time.
Timothy Hyunsoo Lee: I wouldn’t say it’s a good time in our current global scenario – I mean, when IS it a good time? It is time to contemplate as humans first, to make sense of everything going on. More than ever, I’m interested in investigating the structures of identity, such as race, culture, and gender.
Avinash Veeraraghavan: The changing global-political scenario is exactly that – always changing, always in flux. Therefore, I feel now is as good a time as any to be an artist.
Anila Quayyum Agha: Someone once said, “May you live in interesting times”. We are going through some of the most challenging times in recent world history – filled with multiple wars, refugee crises with resultant chaos, natural disasters, uncertain economies, nationalistic waves sweeping the world. All this is contributing to the tumult and pain of humanity, and the plundering of the earth. This allows for compelling art and literature.
There are many reasons today for angst and outrage. How does it work for an artist to channelise such emotions into a work of art?
Avinash Veeraraghavan: Disenchantment or disillusion with the status quo has always driven a type of artist. Protest art gives voice to what some in the community may feel or experience. Rather than solace or comfort, it gives expression to a form of thought or existence. Every emotion an artist feels, in all likelihood, finds its way into their work. I’m not sure one is even fully aware of it. To be constructive or open up dialogue around negative situations or emotions is a rare and precious privilege.
Hur Kyung-Ae: I believe that art can change our society into a more positive one. Art can become an efficient means to solve psychological problems. Look at the child who makes graffiti freely. He expresses himself and escapes from unconscious problems. That’s why, art therapy is widespread nowadays. In a certain way, art can relieve our worries.
Bandu Manamperi: Some people, when angry, break or destroy something. As an artist, I use that emotion to create. Emotions such as anxiety, fear and anger are energies to create art to deal with issues that allowed those feelings to emerge. You experience a certain transition when doing a performance. Introspection and retrospection of this, can be very revealing.
What according to you makes a powerful work of art?
Timothy Hyunsoo Lee: Art should never be anything other than genuine. There is a growing interest in being more provocative than ever, and not censoring one’s self. Unless there is a genuine intention behind the intensity, a lot of those pieces end up feeling too “trendy” and dwarfed by cliché. The most powerful works are those that stun you to the core – a moment of visceral bliss followed by a cerebral high. It leaves you speechless, but also engages you in a dialogue long after you’ve seen it. Something that feels pure in a world so dirty.
Avinash Veeraraghavan: Art can be powerful in many ways – in thought, formal beauty, scale, and media. It can affect different sensibilities in people. I don’t think it’s necessary to provoke, to make people think. And I don’t think it is necessary that all art has to make you “think”. I feel art is one of few places left where everything doesn’t have to make rational sense, and be meaningful.
India Art Fair 2017 is on until Feb 5th at NSIC grounds, Okhla Industrial Area, New Delhi. Visit indiaartfair.in
— Jaideep Sen