Pushpamala’s works never cease to surprise the viewer with their spectacular juxtaposition of iconoclasm and spectacle. In her current show titled Body Politic being held at gallery Nature Morte, she brings together these two ends of visual representation with characteristic panache. Photo-performance, a genre that she introduced in contemporary Indian art since the 1990s, continues to provide a productive trajectory and centrally informs this show. At the same time, it is equally apparent from that the artist does not wish to restrict her practice to only photo-performance and has included video works and even sculpture, a genre with which she had begun her career in late 1980s. While the video works resonate with wry humour and a biting critique of the institutional control of human bodies, the sprawling sculpture in the form of simulated copper plates scattered in heaps, as if at an archeologist’s site harks back to a past and yet slips out from the overall framing of the exhibition.
Primarily a figurative artist, it is in photo-performance that the political of the ‘body politic’ takes centre stage and the nation state emerges as a focal point. Ironically, in the critical discourse of art writing, the term ‘post national’ has been doing the rounds for more than a decade and has shed light on the practice of many a contemporary artists and collectives like Shilpa Gupta, Nataraj Sharma, Tejal Shal, Raqs Media Collective, Camp, among others. But of late, it is apparent that no amount of criticality can wish away nationalism which once again raises its ugly head.
As pointed out by the journalist Chidanand Rajaghatta, the Merriam- Webster dictionary has shown that nationalism has been the most looked for word of 2018, just as the Oxford dictionary has announced “toxic” as a similarly sought after word in the same year! The toxicity of nationalism appears to be a global phenomenon stretching across the US, Europe and India, raging around debates about borders, migration, racism, ecology, etc. Equally wide spread has been the feminist response to the pervasive patriarchy in form of the # Me Too movement which is rocking the art world.
Long known for taking a stance on politics of representation, Pushpamala’s disconcerting stare back at the spectator as a Toda tribal from the Native Women of South India series is hard to forget. It makes one wonder about what new visual strategies she will now orchestrate to take on this current challenge posed by an oppressive nationalism? Pushpamala proposes confronting it head on by once again turning to the genre of photo-performance. I understand this genre as a strategic and simultaneous interplay of mimesis and mimicry. If mimesis is more a question of photographic representation that she avidly adopts, mimicry involves a performative act before the camera in a re-play of a past event or an icon. Armed with both, she turns her gaze at one of the most revered icons from art history, Bharat Mata, and Swadeshi nationalism of the first decade of 20th century, as if to set up a dialogue between that moment and its current toxic regurgitation. If in the Native Women series she had revisited the colonial photographic archive to fashion an image of a subaltern woman, in the Body Politic exhibition, she again glances backwards and makes a foray into the visual archive of early 20th century. What captures her imagination is a print of a menacing Kali produced by the famous Calcutta Art Studio in 1908 to advertise the East India Cigarette Manufacturing Company! This print is simulated performatively when she takes the place of Kali and adopts a posture of trampling on the prostrate body of Umesh Maddanahalli, a fellow artist who takes the place of Shiva. Here, mimicry alone cannot suffice but has to be offset by its other; resemblance and dissemblance intertwine as a foil for each other when Pushpamala replaces the backdrop with a transcultural allusion to Michelangelo’s Last Judgement. As if provincializing the much-celebrated European subject to work as a background for Kali, she takes a further dig against colonial power: the dark subaltern body of the fierce Kali is contrasted with the fair skinned Shiva that alludes to the Swadeshi desire to crush the might of the Raj, going by the subtext of the 1908 cigarette advertisement.
However, the question that readily comes to mind is : what resonance does this Kali print have for us today, both in the wake of noxious nationalism and Me Too feminism ? Despite its apparent visual accessibility, being inscribed in the language of the photographic real, the work is highly complex, consisting both of ‘world simulating’ and ‘world reflecting’ features, as Stephen Halliwell would say. From a feminist perspective, the choice of Kali trampling Shiva might appear as an act of transgression of patriarchal order but mythology has it otherwise. Shiva was implored by the male pantheon of gods to stop Kali’s dance of death, to become a road block and bring his fierce consort to her senses. Of course, for Pushpamala, both images and meanings are to be deployed as cultural givens, as ready-mades and so what the myths say is beside the point.
Taking on the establishment, one would expect some sparks to fly, ruffling the status quo but instead these questions get engulfed in the aesthetics of her photo performance which has by now become her established practice and a celebrated signature style.
The iconoclasm of Native Woman who had glared back disturbingly at the spectator in the 1990s now settles down into a narrative order (mark how Pushpamala as Kali looks fiercely but sideways and so does the remake of Abanindranath Tagore’s Bharat Mata which perhaps closely follows the original in this respect). It is only when she impersonates the contemporary nationalist Bharat Mata which is used by political parties in their propaganda posters that she stares back directly outwards but with none of the ferocity of the Toda woman. It is a mellowed, gracious looking back, perhaps mimicking the model of these posters far too closely. It at once raises the question: can an aesthetic act be a "truth act", in Alain Badiou’s terms ? The truth act is, in the fullest sense, a political act, “an act which negates the given political order and moves toward a new order”. At what point, does mimicry become a subversive act and deliver a ‘punctum’ (in puncturing the dominant discourse, after Barthes)? Likewise, under what conditions would the act run the risk of reconfirming the norm? The line dividing these two questions of subversion and acquiescence is very fuzzy and the work Body Politic strides precariously on this thin rope.
So, it is with relief that one notes the way the artist equally plays with dissimulation. This is most apparent in her re-enactment of Abanindranath Tagore’s BharatMata.The artist keeps the tension alive between the features that conform to the original as in “world reflecting” and the details that depart just a little bit, as in “world simulating.” Despite the mimetic regime under which the works unfold, it is precisely in the subtle orchestration of differences that opens up space for political satire. In other words, the lack of a fit between Tagore’s Bharat Mata and Pushpamala’s performative mimesis of this icon is telling: in place of a frail, ethereal Bharat Mata who appears to float in midair¾a figment of the Swadeshi imagination¾we witness a full bodied Mother India in the artist’s contemporary remake, proclaiming the satirical politics of a ‘meaty body’ and challenging the dictates of a Swasth and Ayushman Bharat that the videos seem to gesture towards!
Do we witness a shift in iconography of this contemporary artist from her former role of a disruptive bahurupia to a funambulist performer? Or is the very uncertainty of our times mimicked by the precariousness of the practice as another form of body politic?