An Indian artist who questions borders and the limits on free speech

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An Indian artist who questions borders and the limits on free speech
Shilpa Gupta’s “For, In Your Tongue, I Cannot Fit, ” focusing on poets who have been incarcerated, sometimes even executed, by rulers and governments, in Kochi, India, Dec. 14, 2018. In hauntingly spare artworks, Gupta grapples with questions of censorship, born from her own experiences with authoritarian limits. (Atul Loke/The New York Times)

by Aruna D’Souza

NEW YORK, NY.- In 2013, after years trying to get permission from layer upon layer of authorities in India to put up an outdoor light work, artist Shilpa Gupta finally got the OK — with the caveat that she take down the piece within 24 hours. That would have been impossible, but she signed the papers anyway, knowing that once the piece was up, it would take some time before anyone would come around to make her remove it.

“You just have to do your thing,” Gupta said in a video interview from her home in Bandra, a suburb of Mumbai. “You’re at the mercy of people’s whims and fancies, that’s just how the system is designed.”

Gupta, the subject of two new shows in New York this fall — including her biggest exhibition in the United States — describes this way of working using a common Indian word, “jugaad.” Adopted over the past decade in the West by productivity gurus and business schools, the practice of jugaad means finding innovative solutions with limited resources, bending senseless rules and skirting rigid bureaucracies — getting things done without setting off alarms.

“That famous word, jugaad, it’s really real in India,” she said. “You have to constantly take risks to be able to do anything.”

That deftness, even elusiveness, has allowed her to create sculptures, drawings, installations, interactive videos, public art and books that address the political persecution of writers, the violence at borders, religious nationalism, and the costs of military occupation, among other urgent subjects. These are potentially explosive issues in India, where the government has imposed increasing limits on freedom of speech, including recent charges against prominent writer and political activist Arundhati Roy.

Gupta’s most famous work, “For, In Your Tongue, I Cannot Fit,” was shown at the 2019 Venice Biennale. In a darkened room, 100 microphones, reverse-wired to function as speakers, dangled from the ceiling. They hung above metal spikes impaling papers with the words of poets from the sixth century to today who were imprisoned, and sometimes executed, by rulers.

From one microphone came the voice of Adonis, the Syrian poet jailed in 1955 (“How bitter language has become/and how narrow the door of the alphabet”); from others, the eighth-century poet Abu Nuwas; the Myanmar poet-turned-soldier Maung Saungkha, who was jailed in 2016, and so on.

The piece is about hope, Gupta explained. “Here you are standing in the space — the bodies of the poets were restrained and put away, but still their voices are there.”

Among 13 works on view in her small-scale retrospective opening this weekend at Amant, an art space in Brooklyn, are projects stemming from “For, In Your Tongue, I Cannot Fit.” These include a new installation with 100 books whose covers are inscribed with titles of works by persecuted poets. The books are cast in gunmetal — melted-down scrap metal, once the favored material for making ammunition. Though more widely utilized today, the name still evokes the state’s ability to repress speech.

The central work in her first solo exhibition opening next weekend at Tanya Bonakdar Gallery in Manhattan, will be “Listening Air,” an installation using reverse-wired microphones moving along a ceiling track, playing protest songs that have traveled around the world — “Bella Ciao,” first sung by women in the rice fields of Italy in the 1940s and taken up by farmers protesting in Delhi in 2020, and, more recently, the Ukrainian resistance; “We Shall Overcome,” which journeyed from enslaved tobacco workers in South Carolina to civil rights activists to demonstrators in Tiananmen Square; and “Hum Dekhenge,” based on a 1979 poem by Faiz Ahmad Faiz, which became a rallying cry during demonstrations against Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government in 2019 and 2020.

“They’re songs that are passed on across generations and stay alive,” Gupta said. “And they give hope and a sense of peoples’ resilience” in the face of injustice, she added.

While many works have been made in response to recent events in India, they also speak pointedly to a worldwide context of censorship — PEN’s “Freedom to Write Index” currently lists 311 writers who are incarcerated globally, including the recent winner of the Nobel Prize in literature, Narges Mohammadi, jailed in Iran. The American branch of the organization estimates over 3,000 instances of book banning in the United States in the 12 months ending in June 2023.

Nav Haq, associate director at the Museum of Contemporary Art Antwerp, who curated a major retrospective of Gupta’s art in 2021, said the artist’s work “has this kind of translatability that becomes meaningful in different contexts. And I think that’s an important characteristic of her work that gives it its power afresh every single time it’s presented.”

This is apparent in her exploration of borders, which she found to be more porous than one might think, and how people are able to live their lives across and in spite of them. In 1999, she initiated what curator Alexandra Munroe characterizes as one of South Asia’s first cross-border artistic projects, “Aar Paar,” in collaboration with Pakistani artist Huma Mulji.

Despite travel restrictions that prevented artists from entering each other’s country, and amid the escalating possibility of outright war between India and Pakistan at the time, Gupta and Mulji arranged for 10 Pakistani artists to send work to India, and 10 Indian artists to send work to Pakistan for a series of exhibitions. The submissions were often emailed, printed and posted in public spaces — in tea stalls and pawnshops, and on open walls.

When the police showed up at Gupta’s door to say that she couldn’t hang posters made by a participating artist because they looked seditious, she told me, she simply went two neighborhoods over to continue her work — jugaad in action. But another work had to be taken down because, despite its message of unity, it relied on a map of South Asia disputed by the Indian government.

The exhibition at Amant will include “1:7690” (2023), from a series over the past decade dealing with contested borders. Focusing on the erratic boundary between India and Bangladesh, and the smuggling of goods, including cheaply made clothing, from Bangladesh, the piece consists of a garment that has been torn into a continuous strip of fabric and wound into a ball. Multiply the length of the strip by the number in the title and you will get the exact length of the barbed-wire fence India has been building for decades between the nations. At approximately 2,500 miles, it is one of the world’s longest separation barriers.

Gupta seems to always be searching for ways to make the experiences of a nation’s edges palpable for audiences whether they are comfortably ensconced in Mumbai or Delhi, or halfway around the world. “Speaking Wall” (2009-10) is an interactive audio piece consisting of a small LED screen and a strip of bricks on the floor. Visitors to Amant — one at a time — will don headphones as Gupta’s voice, seductively, empathetically, authoritatively directs them across an invisible and shifting border. “Step a bit closer. A bit closer …”

Ruth Estévez, until lately Amant’s director and chief curator, finds Gupta’s work with national symbols, including borders and flags, relevant no matter where you are: “She’s really focused more on the political mechanisms that shape a country — who is deciding the borders, who is deciding how you can move, how you can behave,” Estévez said. “She’s always trying to let us know there’s a mechanism behind everything that makes us believe that the other is an enemy.”

Gupta asked if she should adapt her projects to the United States — doing a piece related to the border with Mexico, maybe? “But I didn’t think she needed to change anything.” Estévez cited one piece at Amant, “Altered Inheritances — 100 (Last Name) Stories” (2012-2014), composed of narratives of people from different backgrounds who changed their surnames — to avoid prejudicial treatment, to escape caste oppression, to make their way in Hollywood, to assimilate to a new culture, and so on. “It’s something so familiar in the Latino community,” Estévez said, “because they want to belong, even if that has the price of losing their own identity.”

Gupta grew up in a large extended family where she was one of the first women to pursue a career instead of “getting married and having babies by the time you were 24.” In 1992, she enrolled in the Sir J.J. School of Art, part of the University of Mumbai, whose prominent alumni include V.S. Gaitonde and M.F. Husain. It was a moment of sea change in India — economic reform in 1991 meant, Gupta recalled, “that we suddenly went from black and white TV and movies on VHS to having 30 television channels all at once.” But this new openness was countered by the closing of possibilities, she explained, as sectarian tensions grew.

When she graduated, there were almost none of the trappings of a contemporary art scene in Mumbai, so she went DIY: making photocopied zines, becoming a global pioneer of internet art, and finding ways to exhibit her work outside the usual channels of galleries and museums. Once she even gave away vials of simulated blood labeled “Blame” on commuter trains — a comment on the way Indian and Pakistani governments were mobilizing hatred of the other, even though we all have red running through our veins.

In the years since, she has become a well-known figure in many exhibitions and biennials in Europe and Asia, but only occasionally in the U.S. until now.

Part of the global appeal of Gupta’s work is its quiet beauty, said Justine Ludwig, executive director of Creative Time, who curated Gupta’s first exhibition in the United States, in 2010, at the Contemporary Arts Center in Cincinnati. “Shilpa uses art as a kind of seductive strategy,” Ludwig said. “She creates objects and moments that are transcendently beautiful and that pull people in aesthetically before they realize they’re contending with larger social and political realities that they wouldn’t be comfortable thinking about in any other context.”

That doesn’t mean what Gupta offers up is easy. “It’s work that you want to get closer to because it’s beautiful,” Estévez said. “And when you are really close, it’s like a slap in your face.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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