Art as Political Vehicle? Pritika Chowdhry, Marcelo Brodsky, and Rafael Yaluff
Exhibiting in Conflictual Distance at EFA Project Space within the framework of The Immigrant Artist Biennial: 2023 Contact Zone Pritika Chowdhry, Marcelo Brodsky, and Rafael Yaluff explores, in Oraib Toukan’s formulation, ‘cruel images.’ Images that contain evidence of political and bodily violence but are confronted at an extreme political or geographic distance from their events’ site of occurrence. Together with the artists, co-curator Anna Mikaela Ekstrand discusses the politics of art and how the artists approach personal histories and historical and political events before the exhibit.
Art can certainly be political and address political and social issues—Political art is a category. The question of whether art can have an impact on society, however, incorporates broader considerations. Do you perceive art to be a political vehicle, and why, why not?
Marcelo Brodsky: Art is certainly part of the culture, an essential part of society and its development. I believe that my art is a vehicle to participate in the future of Latin America and other public discussions with a voice and involvement in political issues from the free perspective of an artist.
Pritika Chowdhry: I consider art a political vehicle, but art can also be apolitical. There is nothing wrong with pursuing art for aesthetic beauty and pleasure. However, in my particular context, I came to make art seriously as an immigrant and as an adult after I had experienced 9/11 and the 2002 Gujarat Pogrom. I remember watching the American attack on Iraq in March 2003, the “Shock and Awe” made-for-TV attack on Iraq in distress, and then whipping out my paints and a canvas and painting smoking towers and silhouettes of planes and helicopters. So, I realized early on that art would be an important vehicle of political engagement for me. I hope that people who can experience my anti-memorials to the Partition come away with a changed perspective and awaken them to question the mainstream nationalist and patriarchal narrative of these events. If it radicalizes them, even to some extent, I would consider that I have done my job as a political artist.
Rafael Yaluff: Art as a political vehicle is a traditional position, from churches to revolutions. I aspire to do art as something that confuses rather than asserts, a work built on contradictions, not certainties. Rather than creating art that belongs to the choir of voices in the world trying to tell us how things really are, I’m interested in art that helps us live with the contradictions in our reality and politics.
What methodologies do you use to revisit history, legacies of trauma, and family history in your work?
RY: Out of the three, what I engage most with is family: I feel my past, revive it, and engage with its rage, confusion, and love. I like to become a kid again, fragile and scared, so that I can claim revenge through the artistic devices of my adulthood: Revenge from fear itself, abuse, and forced silence.
PC: The history of the partitions of India, the 1947 partition and the 1971 partition, are inextricably linked with my familial account; on both my mother’s and my father’s sides, the legacy of trauma for me has come through silences. Nobody talked about what happened to our families. Because of this silence, I have researched outside of my familial context through feminist historiography, historical fiction, academic textbooks, and news archives. Then, I primarily bring my research to my mother and ask her very searching questions about what happened to our family when these events happened. I would tell her that this is what I found in my research and ask if this happen to us, too. Does that ring true for our families’ experiences? Her answers were sometimes hesitant and sometimes evasive, but I pieced together what had happened in bits and pieces shared over many international calls.
Over the past 15 years, my studio practice has allowed me to investigate and integrate these complex histories into my psyche. I come at them from the location of post-memory, meaning I did not directly experience these partitions and the related trauma. However, I inherited them intergenerationally but in a tranquil and silent form, so making art about them also interrupts that silence, not necessarily with speech or words but with objects and installations and soundscapes.
MB: I determine a concept, then I delve into visual research—to find the most compelling images related to the narrative, I search archives at public institutions, universities, with photographers, and various collections. After seeing the images, I negotiated the reproduction rights with the copyright holders and had them printed high res on autistic cotton paper. Then, I research the moment and context of the images. What was going on in that moment in that place, what were the political circumstances, and what happened on the date of the photograph? Based on this. I introduce my interventions—highlighting the photography, text caption, signature, and edition—painting on the piece with Crayons, gouache, watercolor, and other graphic materials.
Pritika and Marcelo, you both work with educating the public through your work. What else needs to be understood, or is often misunderstood, by the global public relating to the current political situation in Latin America and India?
PC (India): The recent visit by the Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi to the US and the felicitation and grand welcome President Biden received here made me skeptical of the fickle nature of bilateral relations between the US and other countries. Narendra Modi is probably one of the most communal prime ministers that India has ever had. He has rebranded himself as a business-friendly champion of capitalist liberal economic reforms. However, at his core, he is pro-Hindu right and anti-Muslim. His divisive and communal politics are also evidenced by the Citizenship Amendment Act, which provides a fast track to Indian citizenship for non-Muslim migrants from Afghanistan, Bangladesh, and Pakistan and specifically excludes Indian citizenship for Muslim immigrants.
Another example is the Abrogation of Article 370 in Kashmir as a tool of systemic oppression of Kashmiri Muslims, which is being contested in the Supreme Court of India as we speak. He is India’s Trump in many ways, but I don’t think the American public is wise to his entire history; Modi was the chief minister of Gujarat from 2001 to 2014, and the Gujarat Pogrom happened in 2002 with his full knowledge and possibly connivance. Let us not forget that Modi was banned from entering the US in 2005 because he “was responsible for or directly carried out, particularly severe violations of religious freedom.”
Bringing Modi to the U.S. with all this fanfare erases what he is responsible for in India; the victims of the Gujarat Pogrom are still seeking justice in special tribunals and courts. I can only imagine what they go through when they see this man welcomed by America.
MB (Latin America): The current political situation in Latin America, as in many other political spaces, is the crisis of democracy, and there is a lack of representation within the existing political structure of political leadership. More participation of the people is necessary in decisions and the definition of possible political futures. The economic dependency of Latin America on external institutions such as the IMF is a heavy burden on our development. IMF conditions our policies, that is a negative influence on our development. New economic and political rules, even between different countries, are necessary to develop our economies and improve our societies’ evolution in Latin America.
Rafael, please step in here also.
RY (Latin America): If someone cares to know more about Latin America or Chile, my home country, I would not advise them to hear me. However, I can speak to my position in the art world; if it were up to me, I would lose my ‘Latin X’ descriptor. The term Latin X is another way of colonialism; it’s a way to give Latin artists a visible brand and more opportunities, but only through the lens of our specificity: Folk from the south, and I think artists born in Latin America participate in a global stage and are up for bigger things than just fulfilling this quota.
What political events or societal phenomena need more highlighting through art?
PC: The most important, in the American context, meaning from the perspective of American or, more broadly, First World audiences, I think it’s essential to center stage or to present geopolitical events from other parts of the world. I was amazed to see how little, if anything, the average American knew about the Partition of 1947, let alone the Partition of 1971 in the Indian subcontinent. These events are called the Holocaust of South Asia and don’t even register as anything of note to the average American.
The second most important thing to highlight through art and other vehicles is America’s political engineering in other countries. When I got my Green Card, I decided that as soon as I became eligible, I would apply for U.S. citizenship. The reason is that I wanted to vote in American elections because what happens in America—the party that comes to power or the president that gets elected to office—has a significant impact on the rest of the world. While I lost my Indian citizenship and the right to vote there, I felt I could help India, South Asia, and the rest of the world better by having a vote in American politics.
RY: Money is God in New York City. When it comes to art, I perceive that a significant part of the stimulus for artists is to brand themselves in a style and resist money storms until success. If you want to live in this town, you either get a job or sell. Therefore, much of the art that meets the eye in the city is formatted by the shape of money. For a change, It would be nice to highlight art that can show that there is danger, fun, and poetry outside the spiral of money.
MB: All social issues that are debated within society are relevant for my work, from resistance to oppression to the destruction of nature, gender issues, the fight against fascism, as well as the beauty of nature, music, and love.
About the Writer: Anna Mikaela Ekstrand is a Swedish/Guyanese writer, researcher, and curator interested in feminism, social practice, decolonization, and the founding editor-in-chief of Cultbytes. Anna Mikaela holds dual master’s degrees in art and design history from Stockholm University and Bard Graduate Center. Her latest books are “Assuming Asymmetries. Conversations on Curating Public Art Projects in the 1980s and 1990s” and “Curating Beyond the Mainstream,” published by Sternberg Press in 2022. She is co-curator of The Immigrant Artist Biennial 2023: Contact Zone and the organization’s Associate Director.
Pritika Chowdhry, Marcelo Brodsky, and Rafael Yaluff are part of The Immigrant Artist Biennial 2023: Contact Zone held across venues in New York and New Jersey from September 2023 to January 2024. Curated by Bianca Abdi-Boragi, Katherine Adams, and Anna Mikaela Ekstrand. Find the complete programming here.
Art Spiel and Cultbytes are, for the second time, proud media sponsors of the biennial, and this interview is part of an interview and review series that will be published throughout its programming.
- U.S. Department of States indicates that Mr. Modi’s existing tourist/business visa was revoked under section 212 (a) (2) (g) of the Immigration and Nationality Act. Section 212 (a) (2) (g) states that a foreign government official who is “responsible for or directly carried out, at any time, particularly severe violations of religious freedom” is ineligible for a visa to the United States. ↑