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‘Violence is no more an aberration or deviancy’

Artist Riyas Komu on his new exhibition, the political nature of his art and why he has faith in the power of public action

Written by Vandana Kalra |
Updated: February 11, 2018 12:00:10 am
Artist Riyas Komu, exhibition, the political nature of art, art and politics, art and politics, Indian express, Indian express Artist Riyas Komu shares insight about his new exhibition. (Source: Express Photo by Amit Kumar)

What prompted you to refer to Austrian ethologist Konrad Lorenz’s book, On Aggression, in your ongoing exhibition “Holy Shiver” at Delhi’s Vadehra Art Gallery? How would you describe what is happening now in the context of the ‘behavioural tendency’ he talks about?

The exhibition refers to ‘the behavioural tendency of (being) willing to kill or be killed in defence of one’s own community’. It captures the public’s capacity for violence at any given time, sometimes emboldened by the ‘power/majority’. Some sections of the society are forced to live in perpetual fear and there is a loss of ‘right to dignified life’ in that. It poses a dilemma — how do we address the degeneration of the people’s (or public’s) use of power to self-organise, that leads to them taking the law into their own hands, to disregard the constitutionally-granted freedom of others, and to use caste-based oppression to bolster state-sanctioned authority? Or, do we not address it at all and blame everything on the state apparatuses? Today, we see a reluctance to acknowledge raw violence against minorities, and, even if acknowledged, its significance is nullified through deception. Violence is no more an aberration or a deviancy, but has become central to maintaining certain ideals in the public conscious.

The works in the exhibition explore fractures in our democratic system. In Salutes you have the Ashoka pillar standing over its many parts. BR Ambedkar appears to be turning his back on himself in Fourth World. Do you hope to initiate a dialogue with these?

India’s power lies in its democratic systems and its diversity. Our constitution allows ideas that make possible the active participation of citizens in politics and public life and create capabilities that enable individuals to pursue the lives they value. Ambedkar insisted on the idea of democracy as a means to not only bring significant change in the living conditions of the marginalised but also give them a space to be heard — equality not just in words, but in practice. In the exhibit, Ambedkar is not turning his back on himself. The sculpture is a mirror image. The idea is to see him as someone who challenged (and still challenges) illusions of power and democracy, capital and aggression, nationalism and justice.

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Together, we can: (L-R) Fourth World; Fourth Lion – II. (Source: Vadehra art gallery)

In another work, Dhamma Swaraj, you have morphed photographs of Mahatma Gandhi and BR Ambedkar. Is that to emphasise their shared struggles?

The overlapping triptych explores the interaction between two apparently disparate ideologies in the scope of a single frame. Gandhi’s idea of ahimsa is not because we had non-violence inherent in our past but because of the central role of violence. In Ambedkar’s discourses and writings, we see an unmasking of the prevailing system of the time. The painting attempts to re-examine a larger debate in the political narrative (of the value of social action) and references the ideological paradoxes in the contemporary moment.

What do you feel about being called a political artist?

To paraphrase (Jean-Luc) Godard, I would say it’s important for artists to make art politically as opposed to making political art. I don’t see myself just as a ‘political artist’, though I do make art that responds to and is true to its times; sometimes, that means to make works on uncomfortable truths. But I also don’t see my art as a means to enter the activist space or as a means of ‘sloganeering’. Art has always responded to its times, I don’t think there’s an inevitability that’s exclusive to the present.

Your father worked closely with the Congress party once. You helped him campaign when he stood for elections as an independent candidate in 1986. Did that experience also impact your work?

My father was an early activist of the Communist party. However, he was disillusioned with the party after the split. He was always attracted by Gandhian ideals and lived a life among people. It was not his party affiliations that influenced me or that defined him. He showed me how to live amongst people, how to live and work in India, where the social space is stacked against some, and how to be part of a politically active space without being isolated from society.

As an artist, do you feel restricted or anxious by current events?

Of course, I am anxious. But that anxiety is not just as an artist, I also feel that as a citizen. More than economic anxiety we are gripped by cultural incoherence. I think this has led to a certain despair. I have come to the realisation that a response to the times is not just about making art but also about building things that can sometimes foresee and (maybe) prevent the onslaught of radical change. That’s why it’s important for us to build institutions, and I am happy to have contributed to the establishment of the Kochi Biennale Foundation — not only as a free space for cultural and intellectual discourses but also as a space of resistance and perseverance. I believe in the power of public action.

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