The Arts

Reimagining ‘Brokenness’ Through the Lens of Possibilities

In his latest exhibition, Anupam Roy uses his artistic practice to interrogate and propagate the ‘truth’.

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In this time and age, it is the rare bird who proclaims to be a Communist and/or a Propagandist; while the former is anathema to the conservatives, the latter stirs misgivings in those on the left of the political spectrum. Yet, artist Anupam Roy proudly claims to be both. A member of the Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist), Roy uses his artistic practice to interrogate and propagate the ‘truth’, and his latest exhibition, ‘Broken Cogs in the Machine’ is an attempt in this direction.

The show is an exercise in memory-making of the contemporary, in which the artist charts the progression of socio-political relations and the human experience of these transformations. Roy reimagines the eponymous human cogs that serve the “machinic Leviathan” of social organisation as agents of disruption, ironically enough, through their breakdown.

These disruptions and their potential for the reconstitution of social order are the central thesis of the show, which is currently on display at the Vadehra Art Gallery in New Delhi till August 5, 2022. Organised by the Foundation of Indian Contemporary Art (FICA) in collaboration with the Swiss Arts Council Pro Helvetia, the exhibition is a culmination of three years’ work which followed after Roy was conferred the FICA Emerging Artist Award in 2018.

Exhaustive in expanse, the show strings together different media such as paintings, personal diaries, books, newsletters and a TV installation to allow visual, textual, tactile and sonic encounters with subjective traces of historical processes.

Speaking with The Wire, Roy explains that following Antonio Gramsci’s prescription, he is interested in compiling stories of our time to create an inventory that is shaped by “an infinity of traces”. To this end, the artist mobilises news reports, social media posts, photographs, poems, testimonies, hyperlinked citations and personal effects to fashion narratives that counter belligerent rhetorics of our times.

“The state and right-wing forces in India are changing the socio-historical narrative, and we seem only to be responding to it. As I see it, we need to pause and capture narratives of the everyday, and accentuate and compile these into an inventory of collective remembering,” says Roy.

Anupam Roy’s work is on display at the Vadehra Art Gallery. Photo: Special arrangement

Spotlighting such stories and events is the mainstay of the exhibition and a number of artworks reflect upon these contestations. In one such work, an anthropomorphic mountain peak dismembers an earth-mover with its large, muscular arms, as human faces in the foreground look on. The facial expressions of all three elemental characters are distorted with an indignant agony that gets mirrored in the work’s stormy atmospherics.

The initial encounter with this, and many other works on display, is shaped by an affective charge inherent to the subject as well as to the form. Roy’s oeuvre is markedly expressionistic, using bold, monochromatic lines to connote, and then dismantle, narratives of “a natural order”. Running wild on canvas and paper, boundless craggy lines are used to illustrate the dialectical tension between what the artist calls “brokenness” and the throbbing impulse nestled within it.

So, even as the aforementioned painting seems to visibilise the violence perpetuated by mega-corporations against mineral-rich ecosystems in states such as Odisha, Jharkhand and Chhattisgarh, it also reimagines a restoration of balance through protesting action.

The centrality of protest manifest in Roy’s work comes from years of engagement in grassroots activism and often gets crystallised in his artworks through tropes of resistance such as hammers and sickles and other agro-industrial implements, books, micro and megaphones, calloused hands and feet, and indignant bodies and visages.

The artist reiterates the parallelity of his studio practice and political activism, but also reflects upon the constant negotiation between their formal as well as philosophical peculiarities. Steeped in the tradition of political/protest art exemplified by artists such as Chittaprosad, Zainul Abedin and Somnath Hore, a significant part of Roy’s corpus can be termed ‘protest site art’.

Having been perfected on sites of street protests and university walls and halls, its expansiveness is central to creating an aesthetic of spectacle that hinges on maximum visibility. In the artist’s opinion, this is in stark contrast to the art world’s understanding of the Debordian ‘Spectacle’, in which mediated culture becomes the key instrument of capitalist domination.

These two iterations of the spectacle couldn’t be further apart, and some of Roy’s large wall art suggest a preoccupation with the dialectical tension between these distinct spatial imaginaries. A particular example is a painting of the Matua people, a predominantly agrarian and fishing community in West Bengal and Bangladesh. Inspired by the Matua movement, through this work the artist posits the history of the struggle for land as intertwined with the history of caste.

Anupam Roy’s depiction of the Matua people. Photo: Special arrangement

Bent over in work amidst dense stalky vegetation of the Bengali wetlands, these figures meld into their busy surroundings. The sense of disorientation one feels when faced with this work is made even more emphatic due to the limited space in which one can physically track back to get a comprehensive view of the work.

The distance that this viewing experience demands and its lack in the gallery space also crosses over into the conceptual preoccupations of the artist. Through his works, Roy hopes to minimise the distance between his subjects and his own location as an artist. “I am not a part of this community, I have no direct connection with them. But art has the potential to blur this distance and illuminate their historical subjectivity.”

This impulse to ‘mend the gap’ is perhaps most visible in the artist’s more intimate works, specifically his diaries, which are in themselves palimpsestic layerings of image, text, history and ‘truth’. Roy uses a variety of artefacts to narrate personal histories, which may sometimes be distant from this own location, but by virtue of being imbricated in wider social histories, find salience in his work.

Anupam Roy’s depiction of the Rana Plaza tragedy. Photo: Special arrangement

One such artefact is a moving testimony of Adivasi leader Sini Soy, who recounts the events leading up to the murder of her 24-year-old son Bhagwan, who died while protesting the unlawful acquisition and allocation of their land to Tata Steel in Kalinga Nagar, Odisha in January 2006. Another, a miniature work made in the aftermath of the Rana Plaza tragedy that killed 1,132 garment factory workers in Dhaka in April 2013, deploys a multi-layering of image, icons, text and metaphor to indict neo/colonial-capitalist networks responsible for the maiming and death of thousands.

While such fragments of collective memory, along with hundreds of personal effects, allow Roy to engage with a range of conceptual complexities, by his own admission they also enfold within themselves a precarity that presupposes inarticulation. A work that exemplifies this contradiction is a painting in a series that is centred on mob lynchings and communal violence in India, including the Delhi riots of 2020.

Roy showed this writer a heavily-circulated, low-resolution photograph of Mohammad Akhlaq taken immediately after his lynching at the hands of Hindu mobs in Dadri, Uttar Pradesh in 2015. Using this as a referent, the artist attempts to replicate in oil-and-canvas the blurred visual impression of the victim’s lifeless body.

“Each image has its own specificity and produces a certain sensation. But today we’re surrounded by such images and have become inured to them. If I don’t reveal that this is Akhlaq, the viewer may fail to see it at all. It could be anyone – Naeem, Anis Khan, Junaid. We have seen this image many times but we don’t remember,” he asserts.

Anupam Roy’s depiction of Akhlaq’s killing. Photo: Special arrangement

The riot series. Photo: Special arrangement

While for a viewer phantoms of the photograph waft into the painting, for Roy this image, along with his other works, is reined in by what he calls the “impossibility of representation”. He explains, “Representation is a multilayered discourse which is intrinsic to artistic expression. But it is impossible for the artist to stand in the subjects’ place and speak on their behalf. This gap is difficult to overcome.”

This inarticulateness spills over into the sonic register, most notably in a particular section of the show’s sole TV installation. This work, made in collaboration with Sudip Chakraborty, has been designed as a newscast combined with the artist’s visual works. In one segment of this newscast, Roy informs us in a staccato monotone of the gunning down of 23-year-old Guinean student Amadou Diallo by four New York City police officers, who fired 41 shots at the victim in February 1999. The artist intersperses this information with choral lines (41 shots, 41 shots…) from Bruce Springsteen’s song American Skin (41 Shots), counting up to the number in the video and hammering home the point in the audio track.

The incomprehensibility of the event and the inability to fully articulate its tragedy sums up, in one sense, the conceptual thrust of the show. But as suggested earlier, the subjectivisation of broken cogs and the willingness to engage with the inarticulable in itself opens up possibilities for reimagining social realities and artistic practices.

Roy’s individual works and their overall collective display evidence a solid conceptual and creative grounding; one hopes these works travel back to the streets and protest sites, university walls and halls to reanimate encounters between art and the people.

Pawanpreet Kaur is an independent journalist.