Visual Cultures of Protest: Art and Resistance in South Asia

Anisha Palat, University of Edinburgh,

Silvia Genovese, University of Edinburgh,

From Sheba Chhachhi’s photo-video installation Record/Resist (2012) to the Sahmat collective’s provision of a space for the exchange of ideas against religious intolerance in their community project Slogans for Communal Harmony (1992), visuals and resistance in South Asia appear to be closely intertwined. While these visual reactions may be contemporary examples, the alignment between visual culture and resistance has in fact existed for centuries.

This session focuses on the exchanges between art (paintings, sculptures, photographs, installations, etc.) and resistance in South Asia, exploring the way visual culture is used to put forth alternative understandings of protest and resistance. Through an interdisciplinary approach, building on works in art history and visual anthropology, this session analyses how different visual cultures can be examples of and tools for resistance.

Speakers & Abstracts

Witnessing in Solidarity: Recording the Legacy of Shaheen Bagh through Visual Art 

Dr Fritzi-Marie Titzmann (Humboldt University Berlin) 

After 101 days of peaceful protest, the Shaheen Bagh site in New Delhi was cleared with the start of the first Covid-related nationwide lockdown in March 2020. With that, the numerous protest artworks in the form of murals, graffiti, and posters, as well as performances of street theater pieces, singing of protest songs, and recitation of poetry, disappeared almost overnight. Shaheen Bagh was an extraordinary protest movement against the Citizenship Amendment Act as it was led and dominated by Muslim women. It has since entered a national collective memory of resistance against the ruling BJP government. In this presentation, I would like to explore the possibilities of visual art in recording the legacy of Shaheen Bagh by looking at the artistic recollection of two young women artist, who – among the many who stood in solidarity onsite and online – use their competencies and reach to bear witness to an extraordinary moment in recent Indian history. By analyzing Prarthna Singh’s portrait series “Har Shaam Shaheen Bagh” (2020) and Ita Mehrotra’s graphic novel “Shaheen Bagh: A Graphic Recollection” (2021), this paper investigates practices of mediating the legacy of that movement. It asks questions about the visual motifs found in their narratives, about the spaces opened up by their artistic intervention and about the positionality of the artists. Even though both works were published after the clearance of the site, they can be understood as “self-mediation” in the sense of Cammaert's (2012) concept that the production of protest artefacts by protestors themselves - including the circulation of symbols and discourses - creates a collective memory of protest. 

The Shahnamah & Contemporary Pakistani Artists: Emblems of Defiance or Markers of Endurance & Hope?

Nadhra Khan (LUMS Lahore (Lahore Institute of Management Sciences), Pakistan)

The Persian epic poem, the Shahnama-e Firdausi (The Book of Kings by Firdausi) has lived many lives ever since it came into being in the 10-11 century CE. Where this epic recounts battles and hunting scenes and hails the valiant and the noble, it also enumerates moments of terror and doom and offers an unspoken promise of a savior sent from heavens when all else fails. It has been recited in a variety of styles, translated into many languages and its narrative performed and illustrated by countless artists. Each character in the Shahnama and every scene Firdausi narrates, individually and collectively, has the ability to morph into real people and contemporary situations belonging to the time and space it is called in to take on a new life. Thus the illustrations in the Shahnama commissioned by the Timurid prince Ibrahim Sultan (1394–1435) carries glimpses of his court culture, costumes and architectural details turning it into dynastic propaganda, giving Firdowsi’s mythical, legendary and historical characters new allusions. Likewise, the visual vocabulary of the Shahnama of Shah Tahmasp (1514–1576), completed in 1522, echoes the Safavid court, illustrating both power and resistance from contemporary perspectives. Moving to the 21st century, and from royal patronage to two artists belonging to a community in Pakistan suffering religious and political intimidation for decades, this paper will discuss how their paintings are both palpable and masked reflections of Shahnama allegories. Using the field of this epic poem that is already a site of conflict, resistance and rebellion, I aim to explore the critical role of these modern Pakistani paintings engaging with despair and disillusion on the one hand and offering hope and deliverance on the other. 

Exploring resistance through the material presence of the cow in the work of Kirtika Kain

Anisha Palat (Edinburgh College of Art, University of Edinburgh)

When the Sydney-based artist Kirtika Kain (b.1990) sought access to cow dung from India to use in her artwork, her only option was to connect with a Hindu religious centre in Australia. This singular accessibility to a material like cow dung upheld associations of this material to Hinduism, establishing cow dung as what one could term a religious and ritualistic material. The religious centre that Kain made contact with instructed her on the specificities of using this religious cow dung; however, Kain’s plans for the religious cow dung were quite far removed from what the Hindu religious centre might consider sacred.

This paper will explore Kain’s use of cow dung and her invocation of the cow through its material presence in her work. In trying to understand this invocation, the paper will examine the way in which Kain resists the larger and more common understanding of the cow in India, placing her work within a visual culture of resistance against upper-caste divine associations of the cow. Using an interdisciplinary lens which considers the intersection of the cow’s material presence and Kain’s aesthetic sensibility with regard to this material presence, as well as her work’s development from an inherited familial and collective history, the paper will offer new modes of conceiving the material presence of the cow in Indian contemporary art.

Display as Resistance in Rummana Hussain’s Home/Nation

Tracy Bonfitto (Harry Ransom Center, University of Texas at Austin)

In 2013, artist and activist Rummana Hussain’s 1996 multi-part installation Home/Nation was included in the group exhibition, The Sahmat Collective: Art and Activism in India since 1989, and traveled to museums throughout North America. A complex work intended for the gallery rather than for circulation in the public sphere, Home/Nation departs from the mobile protest works by other Sahmat-affiliated artists included in the exhibition. It does, however, deliver an equally strong message of resistance against the mechanisms and effects of communal violence in South Asia, specifically in the wake of the 1992 destruction of the Babri Masjid. The work consists of hundreds of individual components, including photocopied images of extant Islamic architecture laminated onto plywood boards, office files and glass jars containing buttons, costume jewelry, the artist’s family photographs, and sewing implements, and scanned text from newspapers. Rummana Hussain (Indian, 1952–1999) left no instructions for the display of the work and it was configured differently at each location it was shown. This paper explores Home/Nation’s illumination of persistence as a viable act of resistance against political subversion, communal violence, and related personal tragedy by examining not only the work’s array of mediums and repeated forms but also the varying ways in which they have been displayed. Reflecting on the 2013 iterations in Chicago (Smart Museum) and Los Angeles (Fowler Museum), I proceed by critically considering the intentional flexibility and mutability of the work’s display configuration. Taking the position that Home/Nation constitutes an unfolding performance in which artist and curator are co-equal players, my paper raises fundamental questions about the productive possibilities of curatorial decisions towards mobilizing artistic acts of protest. I argue that Home/Nation develops a new language of resistance, one that is realized by taking an overarching look at a multi-venue network, rather than a single set, of artistic and curatorial decisions.

Re-writing History on the Streets: Poster Art and Installations in Delhi's 2020 anti-CAA Protests

Dr Ronie Parciack (Dept. of East-Asian Studies, Tel Aviv University)

This presentation addresses the street art, mainly posters and art installations, produced during the widescale protests against the Indian Citizenship Amendment Act (December 2019). This art was documented during fieldwork conducted at 11 protest sites in the Indian capital in February 2020, and disappeared from the streets with the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic and the lockdown imposed on the city.

The protest centers that formed in and outside the Indian capital departed considerably from typical protests since Muslim women gathered non-violently and sat in silence in fenced and often gender-segregated areas. The protest complexes were decorated with poster art, protest art installations and photography exhibitions echoing each other with slight variations. Focusing on three iconic loci: Shaheen Bagh and Jamia Millia areas in the south, central centers (e.g., Nizamuddin and Turkman Gate) and in the working-class neighborhoods in Northeast Delhi (Seelampur, Chandbagh Mustafabad and others), this presentation discusses the ways in which protest sites and art struggled to actively widen the circles of civil engagement, processed the issue of state violence and most importantly, aimed at changing the socio-political order and write a new discourse of citizenry on the streets.

Picturing Resistance in Photography of the 1860s: The Begums of Bhopal in the Waterhouse Collection

Olivia Mitchell (Loughborough University)

This paper intends to address the significance of portrait photographs of the Begums of Bhopal at picturing resistance on the British imperial stage. The Begums of Bhopal were a dynasty of female rulers in nineteenth-century India. As Indian women, they were subject to generalised and stereotyped views regarding both their race and culture and their femininity, including western beliefs about the lives of women living in purdah. Yet, the way they used photography as a medium of representation provides insight into their lives, culture, and gender, illustrating how they used photography as a form of resistance.  

To achieve this, they composed and directed their own portraits which were taken by the British photographer James Waterhouse, who, at the time, was collecting photographs of Indian individuals and groups for compilation in the People of India albums. While portraits of the Begums were included in the albums, the ways the Begums were able to stage-manage their own appearances and identities differed from many of the others included in these albums. Furthermore, these images reflect their authority over the medium and agency as Muslim women in India, demonstrating their resistance to both British and Indian cultural and societal restrictions.  

Addressing debates surrounding both photography in India and the British perception of India, this paper will demonstrate the importance of photography in depicting Indian women specifically, illustrating the ways photographs of the Begums of Bhopal contributed towards dismantling generalised and stereotyped views of the people of India and of Muslim women specifically.   

Broken Foot- Unfolding Inequalities  (10 minute exhibition presentation)

Rumi Samadhan (Dr Bhau Daji Lad Museum, India) 



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