First published in the catalogue 'Beyond the Self', National Portrait Gallery, Canberra, 2011.

A prefix is termed a ‘performative’ because it amends the structure of the word to which it is attached. The prefix best describes Tejal Shah’s practice; consequently, of the lot, the prefix ‘trans’ is its most pithy descriptor. In its capacity as prefix, trans is committed to flux, movement, exchange, hybridity and such like; it is by any measure a queer word. By titling her video work Trans-, 2004-05, the artist invokes the compelling character of words such as transform, transfix, transit, translate, transgender, transfer, transient, transgressive, transvestite, transnational, transliterate.

The performative edge of Tejal’s projects alters, mutates even, original compositions. An early video, I Love My India, 2003, is a hypnotic dissection of religion, nationalism, communalism, where a balloon target shooting stall goes eerie when the balloons are laid out to read ‘I ? India’. Encounters, 2006, in collaboration with Varsha Nair, the performance - where a modified straightjacket connects the two performers as they acclimatise to their surroundings - is an elegant inquiry into the aloneness engendered by the urban hullabaloo. With Trans-, in collaboration with Marco Paulo Rolla, it could be suggested that the prefix is recognised, albeit subliminally, as metaphor and conceptual tool.

Throughout the twelve-minute video, we only get to see the artists’ torsos. It is as though they’re readying for mugshots to be made for the ostensible gender transgressions they’re performing; their uniform attire alerts us to the same. From stern blue-collar shirts to lightly embroidered black shirts and from shaving to makeup; during the course of the video the artists perform rituals associated with both genders. They employ queer performativity to undermine straight performativity ingrained in heteronormative cultures. In the preceding sentence ‘straight’ replaces the more commonly used term ‘gender’ in a bid to put forward a less blinkered understanding of Tejal’s artistic projects thus far.

It would be all too easy, and obvious, to ‘complete’ the title by reading transgender or transvestite into it. It would also be grossly unfair, and perhaps even impossible, to curtail the video strictly to the gender arena. Yes, Tejal delights in smudging gender binaries and vanities but the open-ended and hyphenated title recalls gateways of possibilities that look beyond arterial roads, and instead open onto back alleys, dimly lit foyers, challenging cul-de-sacs and such like. Tejal is cognisant of the politics in which art is anchored in making a case for hybridity, one way or another, she overcomes whatever fatigue might be attached to certain subject matters like gender and portraiture.

Despite its performativity Tejal’s practice is, more often than not, acutely intimate. In fact, we witness this intimacy being performed in her projects. The intimacy is occasioned by an absence of strident agenda making. In a more recent work evocatively titled There is a spider living between us, 2008, she makes a fuckton of desire legible; working with a variety of media from animation to collage to drawing, the artist eventually spins it all together in a six channel video. From questioning desire to exploring networks of Jungian complexes, in the video the seductive and dangerous spider - a metaphor for desire - plays the part of a prefix. Despite all it’s political notations, this writer would like to think that the mugshot format self-portrait was chosen because it also lends itself to a certain intimacy.

In Trans-, the artists as focalisers revel in their transgressions. In the face of the authoritative camera they pull their best subversive faces. A strategy Jean Genet would approve of, no doubt. Be that as it may, the video is antagonistic without being abrasive. Genet’s A Song of Love (Un chant d’amour) 1950, the only film directed by the French writer and provocateur, is set in a prison, where a voyeuristic and jealous prison guard tries to unsuccessfully hinder the attraction between two male prisoners. In our viewing of Trans-, as the two mugshot candidates pass through the blender, we take up a voyeuristic position reminiscent of the guard’s. We are tantalised by artists’ performance. They interrupt us. We want to interrupt them. As I bring this essay to a wrap, 2 years ago on this same day, in a historic judgement, Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code was read down to decriminalise same-sex behaviour among consenting adults. In Tejal’s various bodies of work there are no illusions about harmony; should this have been the case, saturated rainbows would’ve taken over her world. But the necessity and possibility of an antagonism is cherished in order to keep the practice alive.

July 2011, Bombay

First published in the catalogue 'Beyond the Self', National Portrait Gallery, Canberra, 2011.

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