They ask me to tell them what Shahid means-
Listen: It means “The Beloved” in Persian, “Witness” in Arabic - Agha Shahid Ali, from In Arabic, 2003
Ali Shariati, the Iranian revolutionary and socialist died mysteriously in 1977. Shariati, also a sociologist, wrote ‘Shahadat’ a rendering of the historico-mythical battle of Karbala, retelling it as the first red revolution. Composed as a testimonial for the dead, Shariati’s worked the female protagonist, Zainab, as the last witness to this bloody battle of loss, death and mourning. Unfortunately at the peak of cold war politics, the coming of Khomeini in Iran, Shariati was found dead under mysterious circumstances. Shariati’s own death went without witnesses or testimonials or the image and space of mourning it demanded. Forty years later, Azdeh Akhlagi, photographer, provided a testimonial to Shariati’s death, in her experimental series ‘By an Eye-witness’. Akhlagi worked with 17 renditions of witnessing to deaths and events that had slid under the archives or had not been allowed to have one. She provided in the hyper-image-fetishizing code of contemporary photography, an original injunction. Akhlagi’s exhibit held in Delhi at the Shridharani Gallery, Triveni Kala, worked with actors and staged sets to produce events that had missed photographic documentation, and presence the archive of a nation state. Pouring over newspaper reports, records, interviews, she bit by bit pieced back together scenes of assassinations, accidents, political deaths, funerals, working in her final treatise with 17 events. Using seamlessly, brilliantly and self consciously the original role of photography, she staged seventeen unaccounted for deaths of Iranian history. From Farough Farokhzaad to the 5th December student protests of 1957, to hidden assassinations of Shariati, Jazani, Yazdi, all were accounted for in her work. She bore witness to that which had not been looked at or had been erased. Cleverly breaking the asymmetry of the photographer and the photograph, Azadeh also places herself in these staged photographs, providing us another interesting rupture in photographic interventions of our century, where the photographer is always albeit outside the photograph, as an objective note taker. The viewer of the event is part of the event and the photograph, providing us new locations of viewing and a new ethical form for the photograph in relation to the photographer. In high surveillance states, the archive are made by the surveyor, erasing much of that it does not wish to see or hear repeated for its own history. Azadeh’s work was seminal for letting history bear witness again. Her photographs working both as events and evidence, provide an injunction of bearing witness, of providing evidence and of a claim to truth, that had not been spoken for.
Gauri Gill’s project titled 1984 A Bibliography, marks a different kind of intervention into an archive. Gill, a photographer, who had earlier worked with photographs and texts to archive the memory or the Sikh riots and its legislative inquires chose a different medium in this artifact for the archive. Here she decided to mark an interruption, not through the photographic format, but by putting together a bibliography. Gill tediously collects a bibliography from art, photography, academics and legislative inquires to settle an archive that has not been assembled. The Sikh riots of Delhi took place in 1984, after the assassination of the then prime minister of India, Indira Gandhi. Here state sponsored teams of men, attacked Sikh households and Sikh settlements in Delhi, rioting, killing and burning Sikh men and their households. More than 3000 people were killed, about 400 cases filed of which the police closed 241 cases dues to lack of evidence. The event not only has been systematically removed from legislative archives, but also from public memory, with neither school text-books mentioning it, nor any commemorations held in the public sphere of the city. Here Gill, diligently puts together a list on all the works of art, literature, academia, photography that have written, painted, spoken about the 1984 riots. Her earlier intervention had been a monograph produced with photographs and texts of Sikh riot survivors, in this intervention though, Gill decided to betray the photographic form and choose a different kind of testimonial format this time. This time her choice was not to work with images, as photographs she had taken of riot victims/survivors, could be implicated using her images, into a messy legislative and surveillance based trail on 1984 by the government. To work away from the danger, images could provide, her Bibliography of 1984, offered a differential testimonial not only of keeping public memory on the event but also presenting them. Her annotation was her intervention and her politics. Fantastic how she made a taxonomical exercise work here as a work of political art. Gill, discovered early that her wishing to bear witness to the riot victims of the Sikh riots of 1984, was implicative, and yet she needed to do something, provide voice, when there was none being put forth. She set for the event of the riots an infinite archive by starting the work on this bibliography.
For both photographers, the work of art was to provide the location of ‘bearing witness’. Much like Agamben’s reading of Primo Levi’s literature on Auschwitz, where he explains, that bearing witness involves a difficult task, much more tougher for the survivor than the martyred. It functions as an attempt to provide a motley of words sometimes coherent, sometimes nonsensical, sometimes whispered, or hidden, or as murmur of meanings, sometimes visions, sometimes marks of bodies without words, or even words without bodies, sometimes taxonomies and sometimes fabrications. The survivor not only bears witness and gives testimony for those who can no longer speak, but in getting heard, the survivor is borne witness to by the world. Azadeh and Gill, come to bear witness on behalf of those who have then receded into the murmur and memory, by providing new archives for their survival.
By An Eye Witness is part of Art Heritage’s show ‘“Staging the Past”- An Exhibition of Photographs by Azadeh Akhlaghi and Babak Kazemi’, October 12 - November 14, at the Shridharani Gallery, Triveni Kala Sangam, New Delhi.
Gauri Gill’s work was part of INSERT 2014, and is a work in progress. They were first set out publicly by RAQS Media Collective's curated show at the IGNCA, Delhi.