In Delhi, where Aban Raza resides, the sky is often hidden under thick layers of smog. Some seasons are worse than others. Whenever these layers dissipate, faith is renewed that indeed, the sky is still blue. In There is something tremendous about the blue sky, Aban is concerned with the atmospherics of power, that is the black clouds of symbolic and other violence responsible for the curtailment of freedom, the active repression of rights, and the dehumanisation of the lower castes, classes, and minorities. In the exhibition, she offers a constellation of moments—some of more visible acute distress than others—where her uses of colour, elongated human figures and the landscapes they inhabit are only a beginning rather than an end. The eventfulness she depicts—her references to tense political moments and epochal change—is interspersed with calm times of abundance symbolised, for example, by the golden sea of wheat fields ready to be harvested. She is an heiress to the long lineage of artists in India who were influenced by expressionism to convey protest and address tragic events (Dev 2022). Through a multiple approach to perspective, her subjects are projected onto the canvas to engender a complex mix of emotions and feelings ranging from discomfort and desolation to solidarity and promise. Hers is a proposal imbued with the urgency of bringing back (or better, not letting go of) social history while representing the dystopic contemporary. While her subjects are largely constituted by women, it is hard to get a sense of a ‘painting feminine’. Perhaps because Aban’s artistic freedom transcends gender and so should we.
In this exhibition, Aban stays away from any other medium but oil painting. Why is oil painting chosen to approach her subjects? Does oil convey the proximity Aban seems to be searching for with them? The artist seems to be firmly rooted in the analogue: is her use of oil a reaction to the hyper-medialisation of the events she represents, accessed by most via digital media? Does oil preserve personal feelings that other mediums seem to subtract from the mise-en-scène? Is oil intimate after all? What is more, her practice does not fall within the category of the much written about and performed participatory art (Bishop 2012) that is now both part of a tradition and an ongoing fashionable quasi-normative politics in the art world (a practice that clearly needs to be interrogated at each occurrence). The onlookers are not invited to co-create what lies within the frame because poiesis remains firmly under Aban’s purview and so she is free to re-represent the worlds that are most significant to her in the way she wants. Yet her work is participatory in a different way: it invites onlookers to pay attention to those who have not only taken part in political protests but who have also contributed to the transformation of the political itself. There are often calls for action drawing upon something that has already been performed. Her subjects are mainly drawn from the labouring classes but they are not just seen labouring in agricultural or other fields. As part of a long and multi-vocal set of political tradition(s) in India, they are embedded in fields of protest to claim their rights. As ‘unlikely subjects of politics’ (Ciotti 2017: 4), the figures portrayed by Aban have often gone viral on digital platforms, their voices amplified, in ways that the everyday has often turned into the spectacular.
Does oil preserve personal feelings that other mediums seem to subtract from the mise-en-scène?
In a counter-position to the barriers that dot political and aesthetic terrains, Aban’s curatorial persona invites an open mode of participation: Aban curated the Safdar Hashmi Memorial Trust (SAHMAT) exhibition entitled Celebrate, Illuminate, Rejuvenate, Defend the Constitution of India at 70 at the Jawahar Bhawan in New Delhi. For this exhibition that was mounted in late January 2020, a multitude of artists responded to her call. They all explored the very object of democracy, that is the Constitution of India, both in literal and non-literal fashions (SAHMAT 2020). At the time of the exhibition, the battle over the Constitution was being fought undeterred at Shaheen Bagh, and at the many other locations inspired by it that had emerged throughout India. Shaheen Bagh is a working-class Muslim neighbourhood that was the theatre of a non-violent occupation of a highway from December 2019 till March 2020. Ultimately, the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic led to its dismantling. Largely organised by Muslim communities, among whom were a group of grandmothers, Shaheen Bagh stood for the protest against the passage of the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) in December 2019. Thus, the artists’ responses to the crises occurred in real time. I ‘got to know’ Aban by viewing Celebrate, Illuminate, Rejuvenate, Defend the Constitution of India at 70 not long before a lockdown would be suddenly imposed on the country as an anti-contagion measure. In an essay taking its cue from this exhibition, I wrote how the works on display could be seen as becoming alive and ‘storming out of the exhibition venue, taking to the streets and joining human protesters’ (Ciotti 2022: 84). On the occasion of the 75th anniversary of India’s independence, Aban co-curated another and even larger SAHMAT collective show titled Hum Sab Sahmat: Resisting a nation without citizens at the same premises. In line with the SAHMAT exhibitionary tradition, these are inclusive events where the style of art display differs from that in use in a white cube space and shows a palpable pedagogic impetus.
I wrote how the works on display could be seen as becoming alive and ‘storming out of the exhibition venue, taking to the streets and joining human protesters’.
In There is something tremendous about the blue sky, Aban’s subjects defy a potent interpretative frame for colonial societies that is mimicry (Bhabha 2004), one that has continued to shape life also within postcolonial spaces. Interestingly, nobody within her frames acts mimetically, nobody wants to become someone else. Even if mimicry in its original formulation might contain the seeds of a threat for those in power, Aban’s subjects actually want to play themselves in the present, seeking a better version of their reality. Nothing is hybrid, nothing is global, nothing stands for radical difference in the figures that appear within her work. Yet we know that all those global socio-economic and political processes are at play there because nothing exists in isolation. At the same time, Aban’s subjects are not part of an idealised ‘real’ labouring class: to put it ‘simply’, these are subjects that are represented in a semi-realistic fashion in concrete historical circumstances. As these subjects are made to enter the magical world of aesthetics, what we presume to know about them is returned to us in ways that is imagined anew by the artist. These subjects are made to belong to the ‘un-divine everyday’. If, however, they operate outside mimicry, in which other way do they subvert the status quo?
Aban’s subjects are not part of an idealised ‘real’ labouring class: to put it ‘simply’, these are subjects that are represented in a semi-realistic fashion in concrete historical circumstances.
Aban’s previous show at the Galerie Mirchandani + Steinruecke serves as prolegomena to the present one and sets the tone for it. In this show, Aban recast the tragic social history of the present through sapient ‘therapies of colour’: once we familiarise ourselves with them, we can delve into the works in the present exhibition in a deeper way. In Luggage, people and a little space (September/October 2020), most of the works predates the ‘long 2020’ while the impossibility of forgetting the very intense period that followed lingers over There is something tremendous about the blue sky (November 2022). In the latter, there isn’t only a pandemic in the background and the terrible second wave that created a massive rupture within Indian society to make the difference. There are also fundamental questions about the life of ‘large minorities’ (think of the Muslim population in India) and other sections of the population such as farmers in the country and the right to protest for one’s existence. What happens to the human condition in these fraught circumstances? What happens across the gender spectrum? What takes place in those spaces of socio-economic, political, and cultural life, that is the rural and the urban, always in an osmotic relation but often standing firmly as ontologically different in our imagination?
What takes place in those spaces of socio-economic, political and cultural life, that is the rural and the urban, always in an osmotic relation but often standing firmly as ontologically different in our imagination?
Aban strongly believes that everybody is equal under the blue sky and her work speaks of the fight for social justice enlivening much of the history and present of Indian society. The exhibition explores how this fight unfolds through the different times and spaces that are created in the process. There is a time for grand protests at the edge of a metropolis interspersed with the quotidian, and an auspicious time for the harvest in agricultural fields. Some of the events depicted by the artists occurred over a protracted period of time: think of the incredibly long vigils at Shaheen Bagh for example. At this site (Shaheen Bagh), the many cold nights which marked people’s presence and the occupation of the road are a reminder of the nitty-gritty behind citizens’ resistance—especially women who began the very protest at this site. Shaheen Bagh is rendered as full of ‘inscriptions’, a forum for the display, circulation, and production of rebellious knowledge. This was also a place for reshuffling pantheons from many political traditions: Ambedkar could be seen together with Gandhi outside the palaces of power, a library could be built to foster protest knowledge, a myriad of performances was organised, utopia could be co-created. Among others, we notice a small sign with the title of Faiz Ahmad Faiz’s poem Hum dekhenge (We shall see) raising the question of the future. Interestingly, at the time of the protest the poem Sab yaad rakha jayega (Everything will be remembered) was enunciated by the young poet Aamir Aziz (2020). Both utterances pointing to the acts of bearing witness to and preserving the memory of these events are indeed a promise for something that needs to linger on for longer than just the present moment. One might also think of bearing witness and preserving memory vis-à-vis the wait for truth around the dead and the displaced of Partition or in never-ending trials after communal violence or caste atrocities that relentlessly renew intergenerational trauma.
At this site (Shaheen Bagh, Delhi), the many cold nights, people’s shifts, and the occupation of the road are a reminder of the nitty-gritty behind citizen’s resistance — especially women who began the very protest at this site.
As for Shaheen Bagh, long periods of waiting also featured in the farmers’ movement and their ‘siege’ of the national capital. At the Delhi borders, the wait to be heard by powers that be was long enough to erect parallel satellite make-shift cities and a complex human flow ensured that both faraway homes and protest sites were attended to. At the protest sites on the borders of the city of Delhi, not only did people protest but they also prayed, cooked, ate, and slept together: an elderly person sleeps on the floor, wrapped in blankets while clothes hang from a string in what resembles a sparsely or not furnished poor household setting (Singhu Border, Delhi-Haryana). In another work, women dance atop a truck as they would in their village homes (Tikri Border, Delhi-Haryana). Let us not forget that protesters also braved the pandemic. Manderson and Levine (2020) have observed that this pandemic cannot be considered ‘outside of culture’. Born in the context of a public health emergency, the farmers’ protest indeed needs to be read along the lines of political culture. Began after the passing of the three Farm Bills in September 2020, it lasted for over a year until the bills that would liberalise the market for agricultural produce, reducing guarantees from the state and paving the way for more private investors, were finally repealed by the government the following year. In and around the above parallel cities and protests, hundreds of people died due to various causes. How could an event of such significance and magnitude not become etched in the mind of an artist? But then, which language does one require for this? The colours of democracy or the palette of disaster? How to represent the contradictions that the heroic farmers’ movement contains? What to make of the faith in the nation renewed on the occasion of the celebration of Republic Day (Republic Day, Tikri Border, Delhi-Haryana) even in the face of duress? What makes citizens still believe in the idea of India as a Republic, the Constitution, and the efficacy of the democratic process? And yet they do, and these are the memorable times that are re-imagined on Aban’s canvases.
How could an event of such significance and magnitude not become etched in the mind of an artist?
In addition to grand protests and slow, long waiting across many sites, Aban also offers us shorter and ‘minor’ time spans. Take for example train journeys: in a much demotic scene (Sleeper train, Jharkhand), passengers are depicted in close proximity with each other, sharing the intimacy of sleep while the loved blue colour wraps together clothes, the carriage and the sky outside. As it is the case of her several portraits of the Delhi borders, here Aban places attention on togetherness, on the clothes used by women and men to fend themselves from cold nights and days, and human warmth. Ultimately, her focus in this exhibition is on collectives rather than individuals. One wonders whether individuals have a space in her artistic imagination, or they can only exist when seen through these collective acts of resistance? This togetherness can also be seen in the brighter landscapes featuring agricultural fields. However, for some reason, Aban’s palette exudes darkness even when she employs brilliant colours.
One wonders whether individuals have a space in her artistic imagination, or they can only exist when seen through these collective acts of resistance?
Especially since the 1990s, many artistic interventions in India have documented and produced commentaries on urban transformation as well as remaking cities through a plurality of mediums: when artists exit cities, it is most always to chart how the urban’s pervasive power has gone to affect environments, taken over them, or suffocate them with high-rise apartment buildings. In Aban’s work, the rural holds its own dignity, it is firmly tied to the ground by a strange force of gravity that leaves no room for the aggressive metropolitan. In the harvest scenes one notes the recalcitrance of the agricultural worker and a land that does not cease to be important. To those who know and care, there will be reminders of poor wages, footloose migrant workers, landlessness, and farmers’ suicides. Agricultural fields are simply not a happy place to be. A work on the Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan (MKSS) (MKSS Yatra, Rajasthan) speaks of those who still want to fight, with much to lose. In this work, women belonging to this organisation are seen mobilising villagers so that they cast their vote in local elections. A puppet placed on a truck towering over the scene is used as a device to spread the message about the importance of democracy and voting. Some women in this painting hold documents obtained through the Right to Information (RTI) Act which citizens can avail themselves also to claim their wages. Still, these papers appear as frail legal records in inhospitable spaces.
To those who know and care, there will be reminders of poor wages, footloose migrant workers, landlessness, and farmers’ suicides.
The search for the dignity of life, labour and protest pervades Aban’s work: a painting in the exhibition, Delhi Road (2022) says it all. Here, she strips the scene of the human figure. Delhi Road is an elegiac portrait of what remains after the euphoria around a marriage or a similar celebration has passed, the resounding emptiness after the labour has been performed, and the matter which remains after the show is over. The scene looks orderly and shambolic at the same time. Too many times, one has encountered workers returning home after their night shifts, or exhausted by the roadside, lying as discarded objects as much as those festive parasols which can be seen scattered on the ground in this painting. The marriage economy does not spare animals either. The lone white horse adorned for the ceremony appears as guarding those tools. For those who know the city of Delhi, this desolation of labour and sleep—one might well imagine the workers lying down on the footpath nearby—is staged along the interminable (ring) roads often bordering a nature that is impossible to contain, from organised parks to disorganised green. The typical curb stripes signal streets that are homes to many. I cannot stop thinking of the widespread contempt vis-à-vis the poor—the domestic labouring classes among many—whose basic needs are contingent on the slightest change within a large informal economy. Their lives embody a paradox: they do not matter but they are indispensable at the same time.
Delhi Road is an elegiac portrait of what remains after the euphoria around a marriage or a similar celebration has passed, the resounding emptiness after the labour has been performed, and the matter which remains after the show is over.
There is something tremendous about the blue sky almost feels like a gallery of intractable issues: it would be hard to envision a common table with representatives of the political, the corporate, the religious to discuss them—although Stengers (2005) would suggest us to do so in her cosmopolitical proposal. One needs to insurge to be heard. The result is bittersweet: there are some grand victories (the farmers’ movement, this time around) though most labourers’ everyday lives have possibly remained unchanged. The portrait of construction workers on Rajpath (Rajpath, Delhi) suggests an even greater paradox. And we can already imagine their makeshift dwellings next to the infrastructure or building they are working on. These portable lives and hearths can be spotted next to any construction site all over the country. Yet, Aban does not submit to the catastrophic pulses of these times and remains hopeful. When thinking of There is something tremendous about the blue sky, blue as a ‘Bahujan colour’ comes to mind. Bahujan, I will argue, is a hopeful construct, an aspiration, a horizon of possibilities and coexistence with many internal fault-lines.
Aban’s work raises important questions about both this coexistence and that between ‘lower and upper’ echelons within Indian society. We never really get to see the latter, but we know they are present. They actually turn Aban’s subjects into who they are. As much as we would not like to reason around these simplified categories—the lower and the upper, also because graded inequality is after all one of the most potent elements within Indian society—they are a short-hand for something highly recognisable. Aban’s figures are metaphors for the passages across differences of caste, class, religion, gender, and age. Sometimes these passages are successful. Some other times they will have to wait for another historical era to be realised.