Book: See/Saw – Looking at Photographs; by Geoff Dyer

    April 16, 2021

    The eye, and the mind, of author Geoff Dyer are easily sparked and perpetually active. That appears as true if he finds himself encountering a billboard shot by Dayanita Singh, at Delhi airport in 2006, or at home poring over Fred Sigman’s book Motel Vegas, or even Googling photos by Luigi Ghirri. All three ‘exhibits’ are greeted with an infectious love of the medium of photography, just as previous books have succeeded through a love of, say, DH Lawrence, or mid-20th-century American Jazz.

    Indeed, Dyer is as comfortable with the complexity of a street photograph by Helen Levitt, as he is with the exhaustive vision of Andreas Gursky, or even the war reportage of Gary Knight. Photography is no monolith, and perhaps that is why contemporary art photographs lend themselves so well to the monkey brain of a polymath such as the author of this book.

    Dyer’s wide learning is apparent throughout See/Saw. He demonstrates a solid grasp of the history of the artform and appears to hold Walker Evans as the touchstone for many of his observations and ideas. And he variously quotes former MoMA curator John Szarkowski, or draws on the grave comedy of novelist Don Delillo in order to spice up his own accounts of the images which are shared here in more than 50 colour plates.

    If anything, the texts collected here are a little too allusive. During a 10-page discussion of Alex Webb’s fractured respresentations of streetlife in Haiti, Dyer conjures with the names of Lévi-Strauss, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Robert Frank, Garry Winogrand, Rebecca Norris Webb, Lee Friedlander, Van Gogh, Gauguin, Max Kozloff, Samuel Johnson, John Donne, de Chirico, Pico Iyer, DH Lawrence, Brett Weston, Aimé Césaire, Ezra Pound, WH Auden, William Blake, Aldous Huxley, Jim Morrison, Ryszard Kapuściński, Martin Parr, David Alan Harvey, Harry Gruyaert, Dorothea Lange, André Kertész, Jane Jacobs and finally, naturally, Walker Evans.

    It is enviable to have such a roster of artists and writers to hand, and it is also true that Dyer has a word pool as richly stocked as his library. Although he is always readable, he is often florid, and is frequently idiomatic. He asks whether, in a confused shot of a Favela, we can see the limb of photographer, Bullit Marquez: ‘Or am I just pulling your leg?’ Or whether, in an image with two dogs, by Philip-Lorca Dicorcia, we are being ‘sold a pup’? At times this reader wondered whether the allusions and the wordplay ever get in the way of the photos. But it remains the case that each of these essays deepens our relationship with the works in question.

    See/Saw is an essay collection given over to 40 photographers, 10 photographs, and three writers. It was not originally conceived as a book. And the author says, in his introduction, that his writing about photography is only a sideline. Having said that, Dyer adds, everything is a sideline as he is completely without a main line. It’s a modest admission, and it accounts for the fact that in terms of these myriad citations and clever puns, Dyer uses every weapon to hand. The result is a series of quite companionable discourses on photos which comprise a selective history. You will learn a lot, but you might lose sight of the originals.

    See/Saw: Looking at Photographs is published by Canongate and available now from wherever you get your books.


    Book: Mimesis: culture – art – society by Gunter Gebauer and Christoph Wulf

    March 29, 2021

    Whereas the word has its ancient Greek roots in ‘mime’ and is related to ‘mimicry’, mimesis is not mere imitation. As this book shows, there is enough meaning in the term to have kept philosophers chewing it over for the last two millennia.

    But the discussion remains vital because the stakes are high. Facts, Gebauer and Wulf recall (via Nelson Goodman and later Mary Douglas,) have no autonomous existence and depend on people for their presentation. And it is the presentation of facts which brings into being the worlds we inhabit. The presentation of this artefactual reality, in which people work, vote, and go to war, cannot be neutral and so, whether they know it or not, all those who make descriptions or representations are working with agendas.

    The authors discuss a range of philosophers –  from the ancient world to the postmodern academy – and mimesis emerges as a confusing word to conjure with. It is perhaps fitting that in one of its recent resting points, within the writings of Jacques Derrida, the term is compared with the hymen, with différence, the supplement, the pharmakon, and all the many slippery quasi concepts which offer a way in to understanding deconstruction.

    More helpful for my research is the discussion of Walter Benjamin. The authors find that his notion of aura is diminished as mimesis gives way to language. The aura of an artwork stems from a magical mimetic relation of image and world, but it is language which slowly petrifies our relation to that real world. In the wake of this theory comes the (I think) connected idea that regression is a universal human goal, as people attempt to reconnect with pre-linguistic images and forms.

    Theodor Adorno also speaks of mimesis in magical terms, but rather than displaying an anti-auratic excess of language, his magicians use reason to control their production of a work of mimetic art. To speak in a schema, mimicry plus reason equals mimesis. And it is this in turn offers the art work’s audience an aesthetic experience, a vital experience whereby a certain passivity allows the viewer makes themselves similar to the artwork. Or, I might add, aesthetic experience allows the viewer to make the artwork similar to themselves.

    By contrast to the artists discussed by these twentieth century Marxists, Gebauer and Wulf draw attention to the seventeenth century Dutch artists who went about capturing reality with minimal interference from reason. Dutch painting of the baroque era is said to be a near transparent medium, bringing an arsenal of optical instruments to bear on imitations of landscapes and still life, perhaps slavishly so. But the characterisation of these descriptive painters from the Lowlands, which holds particular interest for me, is the work of American art historian Svetlana Alpers, and I shall discuss her relevant book on these pages in due course.

    Mimesis: culture – art – society appears in a translation by Don Reneau, and is published by the University of California Press (1992).


    Book: The Aesthetics of Mimesis: Ancient Texts and Modern Problems, by Stephen Halliwell

    March 15, 2021

    In my work in progress on Lascaux, Altamira and Chauvet it has not been easy to find a word with which to talk about the various representations of these painted caves. But, I was recently reminded of the word mimesis since it is one of the earliest art historical terms, and, as I learned from this erudite book, mimesis is best thought of as a familial framework of ideas, through which we might sometimes speak of imitation and copying, sometimes of representation or description, and sometimes of expression and interpretation.

    Plato’s ideas around mimesis, frequently thought of as a monolithic dismissal of poetry, are themselves shown to be complex here, and he allows for a way of rendering the real world, through poetry or painting, that is, in itself, not degenerate at all, but, rather, ethical and good. Later Aristotle took up this term mimesis and gave it a twofold definition: encompassing external reality and internal logic – the Greek tragedy, for instance, should offer a true sense of the world and an audience response governed by the artwork’s structure

    In the first two parts of The Aesthetics of Mimesis, Halliwell explodes this dusty academic term and offers a dazzling array of the varied thinking of the ancient world. From its beginnings, poetry, and by extension painting, was understood to deal in hypothetical yet emotive realities. As long we have recorded notions about art, art could be said to simulate the world, as much as to reflect it. Whereas Plato famously thought of poetry as a potential negative influence, he also looked for correctness, mental benefits and pleasurable qualities in the sphere of art. Plato did not equate mimesis to verisimilitude; instead he looked for the ‘what’, ‘how, and ‘what for’ of form and beauty: these questions remain relevant to any 21st attempt to write art criticism. He wasn’t convinced by visual illusion, so mimesis has in fact never been about simply mirroring external realities; confounding what I had assumed to be the case. Aristotle later saw the work, whether written or painted, as both a performance and an intention. (Mimesis is, of course, applicable to acting, human learning, and music.) He was to argue that likeness need not be literal minded and so I hope to show by these examples, of which there are many in the book, just how complex and lively the debates of Ancient Greece remain today.

    Having said that, mimesis is not what it used to be. Leonardo da Vinci criticises fidelity to appearances. The Romantics gave up all attempts to depict the world out there and made expressive pictures and poems about the inner life, and for the Moderns there was no going back to the aim of mirroring nature. But that had never been the primary aim of mimesis, after all. We now live in what has been called a post-mimetic era. And yet the impact of both romanticism and modernism is show in these pages to have been more gradual and inconsistent than you might imagine. In the third and final part of his book, Professor Halliwell shows that, although Plato and Aristotle had the most to say about mimesis, the idea did not spring up with their arrival, and nor did it vanish with the passing of neo-Platonism.

    Perhaps most interesting is the encounter between mimesis and a thinker frequently engaged with on this blog. Derrida is oft said to unsettle the foundations of Western civilisation by destabilising, among other of his tenets, Plato’s conception of truth in poetry/painting. But this idea can be destabilised in turn because 1) Western thought is perhaps equally indebted to Aristotle and owes a further debt to an array of philosophers from the ancient world; and 2) Plato himself takes up a number of evolving positions in his writings about mimesis beyond the most familiar passages in The Republic. Perhaps I have got this wrong, and I invite comments which qualify this short review. I have tried to represent The Aesthetics of Mimesis, but I don’t promise to show things as they (really) are.

    This title is from Princeton University Press (2002) and read via Kindle.


    Book: Photography After Capitalism, by Ben Burbridge

    February 18, 2021

    Publisher: Goldsmiths Press // Pages: 240 // Date: Dec 2020

    In 2011, a contemporary artist and a US council of war both made use of a series of photographs taken from satellite imagery. The artist was Mishka Henner; his Libyan Oil Fields appropriated the aerial views of petroleum extraction in that country which are freely available on Google Earth. The facilities appear high res, and, as has been noted, there are less interesting locations in the Libyan desert yet to warrant so much photographic detail. Henner was only the first to make use of these shots. The same year there was a US strike on some of these targets with some 110 Tomahawk missiles.

    The same year, another contemporary artist, Andrew Norman Wilson, got interested in the activities of Google, by filming employees in and around the corporate headquarters in California. One important role was to make digital photographs of books for Google Scholar, but those workers were only given ‘white badge’ status, and hence lost out on some of the privileges (free food, etc) given freely to their colleagues. Though his 11 minute film, Workers Leaving the Googleplex, has a wry connection with early cinema (See Workers Leaving the Lumière Factory, 1895), its more straightforward purpose is to draw attention what happens when photography becomes menial work.

    In Enjoy Poverty: Episode III, a 2008 film by Renzo Martens, we meet a group of Congolese wedding photographers who, instigated by the artist, attempt to boost their income by selling images of conflict to Médecins Sans Frontières. Their considerable efforts are rejected in what makes for a very uncomfortable scene in which the artist acts as broker with the client. And it appears that only Western photojournalists can be permitted to make reportage.

    What these three projects have in common, besides inclusion in the book Photography After Capitalism, is a concern with the more sinister aspects of contemporary imaging. From oil to systemic poverty via the digital academy, photography is everywhere. Artists who churn out examples of so-called poverty porn in order to condemn capitalism are not doing enough. It appears here that artists need to address photography’s role at the heart of capitalism, and Burbridge demonstrates page after page that fortunately many already do.

    But even that might not be enough. Critical art also enables left-leaning fans of critical art to feel that merely by consuming politically engaged art they are doing something. This issue is grappled with by many artists today. Yet even the high earning players in the art market have a critical edge, without which they would lose status and stock. It’s a problem. Burbridge does not call for the storming of the Googleplex, but he does agitate for more incisive photography projects and new social models which photography can facilitate.

    Renzo Martens, for example, has been instrumental in the establishment of a white cube gallery at a former plantation in Lusanga, DRC. Will it change much? The implication of its inclusion within these pages is that, locally, it makes a difference. And indeed once you’ve seen those pictures, and once you’ve read this galvanising book, you need never look at a photography exhibition at your own local white cube in the same way again.

    Photography After Capitalism documents the loss of innocence given rise to by ubiquitous images, the digital era, and mining for the components of smart phones. But the book also points to the experiences of photography, those projects of resistance, which might one day grant us innocence afresh.

    Purchase Photography After Capitalism from The Photographers’ Gallery Bookshop here.


    Who are we to judge?

    October 2, 2020
    “File:John Torode and Gregg Wallace Masterchef Live 2010.jpg” by Richard Gillin from St Albans, UK is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

    I always wanted to be a reviewer, but I don’t really like to sit in judgement. Just consider Gregg Wallace, about whom more later.

    Why do people read reviews? The answer, via Pierre Bourdieu, may be this: so they can gain cultural capital, a form of currency by which the dominant classes manage to confirm and consolidate their class position.

    I had always assumed that galleries were benign places, that free admission levelled the social playing field. But come to think of it, the working classes don’t visit in huge, huge numbers; I haven’t carried out a survey, but I have read up a bit and they don’t, or at least they didn’t.

    Bourdieu did carry out a survey, in the 1960s, in France, for his book The Love of Art (1969). Elsewhere, in Distinction (1984), the sociologist names the revealing quality of ‘habitus’: visible in dress, body language, accent and behaviour. Upbringing and schooling are evident in disposition and deportment.

    Though many artists are working class, the wider audience appears to be middle class. Can we say that?

    After visiting my first dozen shows I began to think of myself as a natural art lover. Embarrassing really, because the fact of the matter remains that my parents and teachers first encouraged me to visit exhibitions.

    According to Bourdieu schools are no more innocent than museums and galleries. These institutions are all in service of the system and operate at various levels to consolidate many different class positions.

    Which brings me to Gregg Wallace.

    Wallace is a British television presenter who critiques cookery on a reality television show called Masterchef. Unlike me, he left school at 15 and went to work in a greengrocer’s warehouse. Soon working on a stall, he went into the grocery business , and success led to a presenting gig on Radio 4 show all about vegetables. His Masterchef role as a gastronome has made him a regular fixture on BBC screens since 2005.

    Now I confess to chuckling at Gregg Wallace in my time – at the comic idea he lacked the refinement for his role as gourmet. All taste expresses class, and it appears from Distinction that the taste for various foods is even more fundamental than the taste for paintings. So the flak which Wallace draws from some quarters is an attempt to maintain the status quo: how dare a common grocer from Peckham pronounce on important matters of taste.

    Gregg, if you’re reading, keep up the good work. It can be seen now that one man’s meat is another man’s painting, sculpture, performance piece or film.


    A history of madness

    September 28, 2020
    “UFO” by astraverkhau is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0

    I remember reading Derrida take issue with Foucault. It was about madness, funnily, and the founder of deconstruction asked how it was possible to bear witness to insanity, The essay was ‘Cogito and the history of madness’, and while much flew over my head, I was struck by the humility with which Derrida showed to take on Foucault and critique his former teacher.

    It was a long time ago. I was 28, 29 years old. Derrida was at first utterly incomprehensible to me. Then eventually I got to grips with some of his thinking. It was on an MA course in critical theory at the University of Sussex and it gave me a lot of confidence, to engage with deconstruction.

    My former teacher was Professor Nicholas Royle. It was the first year he led his module on Derrida and much of the course formed the basis for his book on Derrida in the Routledge Critical Thinkers series. My cohort are all there, in the acknowledgements together. It was a very generous act by our former teacher. But if Derrida describes himself as a disciple of Foucault, that is surely what we were in a way and for a while: disciples.

    I should probably keep this quiet and any Derrida expert reading this could probably deconstruct this post in no time; but I’m no longer so convinced about what I learned about my strand of Derrida.

    My dissertation was on madness and much of it revolved around a phrase which appears in an interview from the collection Points; Derrida says “A madness must watch over thinking”. That is to say, we should not allow our decisions to unfold by reason alone because to do so would render our lives too mechanistic. That way danger lies and, yes, we should avoid an excess of reason.

    But to inform a decision with madness? I must now be honest; it seems a bad idea. Madness, to my mind, is choosing cigarette brands according to religion. Or believing you can tune into radio stations on your teeth. That sort of thing. It should not watch over thinking. Emotion should inevitably watch over thinking, but emotion is not madness and I no longer subscribe to the idea that madness and emotion are on a sliding scale.

    Madness is not an absence of reason or an excess of emotion. I think the mad have plenty of reasons for most of what they think or do. And I don’t believe they are any more passionate than those of us above ground. And yes, I do think one can bear witness. You can witness madness by observing the barefoot guy picking through the trash outside the shopping centre. You can observe it by reading Judge Schreber, or even Swedenborg.

    Swedenborg was in contact with aliens, apparently, while remaining one of Earth’s first rank philosophers. Derrida asks, with what I recall seemed like alarm at the time, in his essay Passions: an Oblique Offering, “How is a Swedenborg possible?”.  How indeed? This is a profound question, and it indicates that Derrida’s understanding of madness has its limits. As does mine or yours. But you would not want aliens to watch over thinking.

    contemporary art

    Walter and Zoniel, A Simple Act of Wonder (2020)

    September 3, 2020

    Before I heard about this exhibition and community-based artwork, Moulescoombe was just a destination on the front of the 49 bus, a neighbourhood so different from the middle-class bubbles in which I’ve lived, I had never gone there. And yet go there, properly, we did, myself and co-writer/co-photographer, 9-year-old Aysha, who enjoyed spotting the newly painted murals from the passenger side of a car driven, too slowly, by me, around the unfamiliar suburban streets.

    I can only say we did experience a simple act of wonder to find bright geometric painting on the side of characteristically grey council housing. We found five such interventions, each resonating with the others, and each one a testament to the occupants, brave enough to foray into exhibiting contemporary art on the side of their traditional housing.

    By this wondrous act, artists Walter and Zoniel have brought Moulescoombe and adjacent neighbourhood Bevendean into dialogue with city centre gallery Fabrica; in this central hub, the murals now relate to an immersive installation, all bright carpets and stretched plastic tape, which echo the loud colours and geometric forms deployed around the two estates on the edge of town. It was hoped that many Brighton residents, especially those who are often excluded from contemporary art spaces, might come and explore this show. But a global pandemic has meant that the gallery is closed to the general public.

    Our family got access (a blogging perk) and we got to enjoy the space as light streamed into the colours here, on one of the last days of summer 2020. Liz Whitehead from Fabrica recounted the genesis of the project: the time the artists had spent on the two estates, the fact that a few of the houses will retain their new appearance, and also the origins of the show title; ‘A Simple Act of Wonder’ emerged from a conversation between the artists and a resident who apparently exclaimed “That’s it! That should be the title!”

    Simple art, perhaps, but for people who are clearly never simple. A good few from these neighbourhoods have got to grips with a disruptive new artwork. And as for me, I got to navigate a new local environment, quite different to my usual haunts. And I got to share the wonder of Aysha; my daughter wrote, unaided, a review of the show at Fabrica. (She also took the photos for this post.)

    “Me, Mark and Mummy went to this really amazing art exhibition. There were so many colours there. Later in this review I will show you some pictures of it. It was so colourful it made me want to run and jump around. We were told to take our shoes off before we went in, because there were so many different kinds of textures on the floor that they wanted us to feel them and it was really fun. The artists’ names were Walter and Zoniel. It was in town in Brighton. Some of the colours were red, orange, yellow, green, blue purple pink and grey.

    Here are some photos:

    “In the picture you can see at the end there are some photos of stuff like cats, dogs and people doing stuff.”

    “There you can see that there were little things like toys.”

    A Simple Act of Wonder runs until, at least, the 10 September 2020 in various sites in Moulescoombe and Bevendean. A map trail can be found on the Fabrica website where you can also explore the gallery show, virtually,

    tourism, Uncategorized

    Be a rambler

    July 31, 2020

    In the late 90s, Diesel ran an ad campaign promoting tourism. It was the age of cultural missions in advertising, and the fashion brand encouraged you to “Be a tourist”. Diesel’s target audience were taking gap years and backpacking in the Far East with a dog eared copy of Alex Garland’s 1996 novel The Beach. They were self-avowed travellers not just sight seers. But hey, the ads were too funny.

    20 years later, we are still falling over ourselves to eschew tourism. But why? For my PhD I’ve been reading a bit about tourism and discovered the theory that tourism is the quintessential human condition, for post-industrial westerners. Dean MacCannell, who founded the discipline of tourism studies, has argued that we assert our modernity by gazing on evidence of the past. We do this because we cannot allow ourselves to identify with our oft tyrannical ancestors.

    Ironically, travel (not tourism) is one aspect of our premodern past. Tourism evolved from travel, and not vice versa. With roots in the 16th century notion one could complete one’s classical education with a Grand Tour of classical Europe. The world’s first travel package, from Thomas Cook as it happens, was a chartered train to a rally in support of temperance. Why would you want to go back to either of those travel propositions.

    So I was stopped in my tracks, in my hometown, on the beach, where I was neither tourist nor traveller by the exhortation on the side of BTN Bike Share hire bikes. You can read it in the photograph above. Unlike the most iconic Diesel campaigns from the nineties, it was not clear to me who was being addressed here. Surely no one living in Brighton. Day trippers are most likely, but it’s incredibly pretentious to consider yourself a traveller in a town set up to cater for hedonistic Londoners.

    Of course, Brighton does have its fair share of travellers. But most of those are parked up on the edge of Preston Park in converted horse trucks. I’m not sure they’re the corporate, app-driven, bike hire types.

    art activism

    Interview: Sofia Karim

    July 13, 2020
    FreeShahidul protest at Tate Modern, Turbine Hall, October 2018.
    Photo by José Carlos Mariategui

    In my last post, I detoured away from art to ask why the Indian Government was locking up students. Since then I’ve spoken to Sofia Karim, a Bangladeshi artist who has a few answers.

    “When I speak to people in the UK most people don’t even know what’s happening in India,” she says, “and they can’t even compute such a thing as fundamentalist Hinduism exists”.

    An architect by training, Karim became an artist activist by necessity. In August 2018, the Bangladesh government arrested her uncle, prominent photojournalist Shahidul Alam, and he spent 102 days in prison for drawing the world’s attention to the repressive violence of India’s neighbour. Tate Modern was instrumental in his release; when a friend contacted Tania Bruguera, the Cuban artist agreed to accommodate a Free Shahidul protest within the wider performance piece taking place in the Turbine Hall (her response to the 2018 Hyundai Commission).

    Karim talks with evident gratitude about the hands-off support an international museum such as Tate could offer. “Those institutions weren’t places that were for us, until then. I grew up in an Asian household where there was really nothing for me in those institutions but that experience changed my whole relationship with Tate and I love the way that they didn’t interfere as well.” She now speaks with a mixture of authority and urgency about the plight of dissenters in India. She is tireless in her activities on social media and fearless in opposition to the systemic racism of the Citizen’s Amendment Act (CAA).

    Karim finds it ludicrous that the young female students accused of inciting a riot could have done so. And is clear what the state calls a riot, was in fact a pogrom which targeted Delhi’s muslims. Perhaps more likely to blame were inflammatory political rallies, hate speeches, and terrifying racist lynch mobs.

    “What once was ostensibly the world’s largest democracy has steadily turned into a Brahminical Hindu-suprematist fascist state, with relative ease,” Karim points out. “The West,” she says, “is generally okay with Hindu fundamentalism because they have a common enemy, which is Islam”. Thought experiment: imagine if the nascent superpower in South Asia was Islamic.

    The artworld has nothing to say about caste oppression or the blood on the streets of Delhi, because thanks to sky high profits and culture washing, “they are part of the system of power”. But a more radical form of art – art as activism – could be found on the streets of Delhi, as part of a women’s occupy movement in the southern neighbourhood of Shaheen Bagh.

    Shaheen Bagh should by now be shorthand for the largest political women’s movement of our time. It especially interests Karim because most of the protestors are muslim women. In the West, few would expect to find this demographic on the cutting edge of art and activism. You know the stereotype, Karim tells me: “muslim women just sit in the hijab at home cooking for their husbands”. So another compelling facet to events in Shaheen Bagh is the creation of libraries, painting areas for children, and reading spaces for children. Karim: “They’ve created this safe zone for themselves in a very, very dangerous climate and it was just completely revolutionary, the kind of art that was being produced there. “

    Forgive the confusion around grammatical tenses: the movement from Shaheen Bagh is alive, but, thanks to Covid-19 and lockdown, the occupation has melted away; Karim’s plans for an art event in solidarity with Shaheen Bagh are also very much alive, but thanks to the virus, she is waiting for Tate Modern to reopen and the time to ripen. Her return to the fray and to the Turbine Hall is imminent as a result, as Karim plans to stage Turbine Bagh, a collective artwork and performance piece designed to highlight the growing fascist element in Indian politics and the violence suffered by dalits, dissenters and muslims alike.

    The Turbine Hall may be imposing and vast but Karim plans to make the message immediate and even festive. Her intervention will include choral music, dance, and a decorative ring of rice on the concrete floor. She explains: “There’s this very traditional form of South Asian art called the Rangoli or the Alpona.”  The circular designs are made in the morning and swept away in the evening, according to ritual, and usually by women. In Chennai, the making of a recent rice paste Rangoli, together with a few slogans opposing the CAA, occasioned eight arrests. She will also be printing work by a network of activist artists onto samosa bags, the type that are very commonly made out of newspaper or magazines throughout South Asia. The idea came to her when she found herself eating out of a list of court cases pertaining to unfortunate individuals against the Bangladeshi state.

    Supporting her in the Turbine Hall will be members of South Asia Solidarity Group UK, South Asia Students Against Fascism UK, and SOAS India group. The diaspora members, including Karim, are determined to use their privilege of safety to speak out for their homelands.

    “It’s very important to us; It’s life or death,” Karim says. “Our spaces for dissent have shrunk there. We’re at huge risk. So international solidarity is crucial for us.”

    I asked Karim who she’d most like to design a samosa packet for the project. “When my uncle was in jail,” she tells me, “I was just desperate to get a letter from him. I just used to imagine that world he was in. In my other work, I built architectural models based on my imagination and his memory. I used to imagine myself in that prison and seeing the lives of all those people. So I think I’d love to see a samosa packet with drawings of what life is like in that prison and what they’re are all going through.”

    The Indian government may be locking up students, but the guilt is squarely with those who would persecute muslims and oppressed classes: the writing is on the FB wall, the Insta feed, and a consignment of samosa bags soon to be found at Tate.

    For updates on Turbine Bagh and events in India, you can follow Sofia Karim on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

    India, Uncategorized

    Why is the Indian government locking up students?

    June 22, 2020
    Scene from Shaheen Bagh; photo Deepta Chopra

    For the last two and a half years I’ve been pursuing a PhD in Art History at the University of Sussex. In the last month, the fate of another Sussex alumni, Devangana Kalita, and several other students in India, has come to my notice, hence this blog post.

    Student protest: it’s a welcome phenomena. Students bring idealism and courage to politics, the world over. We all have a friend, a cousin, a child who has marched and shown up in the support of black lives, or Extinction Rebellion. Maybe simply a protest against fees.

    In India, for the last few months, most student protests have centred around an unjust law which, when taken alongside the National Register of Citizens (NRC), disenfranchises the country’s vast muslim population. It’s been called the Citizen’s Amendment Act (CAA).

    Unfortunately, for many of the poor and for the muslim population, who were dispossessed around the time of partition, and for whom droughts, floods, and fires have caused constant displacement, citizenship papers simply do not exist.

    The situation is especially dire for women – with patriarchal norms in the country making it impossible to trace back names and lineage, let alone papers. As a result, these groups face deportation and internment. The climate, since the rise of hindu fundamentalism under strongman PM Modi, is such that muslims throughout India are facing a rising tide of racism and prejudice.

    Devangana is one of the many students who form the conscience of the nation. Alongside Natasha Narwal, Ishrat Jahan, Safoora Zargar (who is 20 weeks pregnant and whose bail applications have been denied so far) and many, many colleagues, she took time out from her studies, to organise and to demonstrate, against the pernicious CAA, and for the rights of women in general. Tonight, these idealistic and peaceable young women are in prison, framed for charges including murder, sedition, and now, specifically terrorism. They face detainment for months and years under another draconian law, the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA).

    Along with many other students, all four are now stuck in jail. Their only ‘crime’ has been to rise up, against the CAA, to stand in solidarity with muslim women and participate in anti-CAA demonstrations. One shudders to think of the conditions in which these student-activists are being kept and the treatment they are receiving while on remand.

    Some in India will say it served these young upstarts right. But I disagree. Political activism should never be an offence in a democratic state – especially not in a state which in its very inception had student uprisings as its basis. Recent developments in India, such as the CAA, have brought students, women and humanitarians from all walks of life onto the streets of the capital. None of those are a danger; yet for the Delhi police, the very students who complained about beatings and intimidation were booked for these wrongs.

    Devananga and her peers, like countless others, have done nothing wrong. They saw no alternative but to organise in protest against the daily atrocities committed by the state and police in the past 12 months or so. Hired goons invaded the campus of JNU and Jamia Milia University in Delhi, and dragged students away from desks to administer indiscriminate beatings with clubs and sticks. Riots were stirred up in Delhi, leaving muslim homes and livelihoods in ashes. There have been politically-connected perpetrators of lynchings and rapes, who roam free, with many sectarian murders, often with child victims, taking place under cover of mob rule.

    The UAPA is draconian beyond measure. Anyone can be picked up by the police under this law at any time, and then have to prove their innocence. Students are a soft target. Female students on a demo are simply not a threat to national security, and I have no doubt they are being framed for wrongs committed by thugs who are being protected by the state.

    I therefore call for their immediate release. I call for Western journalists to report on this injustice. I call on the Foreign Office to apply political pressure to the government of India. Any interested journalists reading, please message me and I can connect you to a few better sources for more details on the story.

    UPDATE: I’ve just found out that Safoora Zargar was granted bail today. Some grounds for hope.