Create, Collaborate, Catalyze

Through this exhibition, curated with Ujen Norbu Gurung of Tulika Kalaa, Kathmandu, we would like to share glimpses of our journey into exploring the structural roots of sexual violence against women in four countries of Southasia – Nepal, India, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh – in the hope of generating new explorations and thought.

Create, Collaborate, Catalyse: Reflections on Sexual Violence in South Asia

An Exhibition by Hri Institute for Southasian Research and Exchange

Two years ago, we at the Hri Institute for Southasian Research and Exchange (a unit of The Southasia Trust) embarked on a unique collaborative adventure to explore the nuances of imagery around sexual violence on women in Southasia. A conference in Kathmandu at the culmination of FSA 2019 brought together filmmakers, researchers, activists, graphic novelists, cartoonists and artists to evolve new thinking around the visual representation of gender-based violence in cinema, the media and popular culture.

Tired of the same stereotyped images of cowering and terrified women with their hair askew, domineering men gloating over their prey and the graphic and two-dimensional representation of actual acts of violence made us collectively ponder: What could be more meaningful ways of depicting violence and trauma? Is the reproduction and visual simulation of gendered violence the only way to communicate its seriousness? How realistic must representation be to convey its urgency? Are powerlessness and hopelessness the main motifs of sexual violence? Can initiatives to pursue dignity and justice emerge only from images that jolt, disgust and disturb?

Even as we were deliberating on these and myriad other questions, the novel coronavirus swept the region, confronting the team with new challenges. Reeling from lockdowns, isolation, and the devastation of death and illness, care-giving and the daily business of survival, we attempted to incorporate learnings from the pandemic into the process of research and making art. The online space, fatiguing though it proved to be, generated new possibilities of collaboration and collective sense-making.

Through this exhibition, curated with Ujen Norbu Gurung of Tulika Kalaa, Kathmandu, we would like to share glimpses of our journey into exploring the structural roots of sexual violence against women in four countries of Southasia – Nepal, India, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh – in the hope of generating new explorations and thought.

We critically examine, through an intersectional lens, prevailing imagery and discourse around gender inequity and challenge the stereotypical depiction of sexual violence on the female and queer body.

Delhi based researcher, performer and activist Jyotsna Siddharth disrupts existing imagery around sexual and caste-based violence through short performative films: Call It What It Is, Sweet Maria and Badaun, the latter two in collaboration with ReFrame Arts. All the videos were filmed and edited by Mir Ijlal Shaani.

Artist, curator, photographer and performer Vidisha Fadescha in Some dance to remember, some dance to forget, presents a powerful critique of India’s Transgender Persons (Protection of Rights) Act 2019 through multiple modes of performance. They produce spaces of embodied thinking to create momentum towards affirmation of trans*, intersex, non-binary, agender and gender-variant bodies.

When technology evolved and the world shifted online, so did abuse. The pandemic forced an examination of the digital commons in unprecedented ways. Kathmandu-based Nikita Tripathi’s installation offers the audience a carefully curated experience of online abuse, encouraging a thinking about how online justice seeking could go forward. 

The transformation forced by the Covid-19 pandemic finds stark reflection in AM Ashfaque’s piece Face Cover, located in the Muslim community in Sri Lanka’s east. The meaning and usage of the face cover drastically changed the world over, and some public spaces were hostile to those attempting to document these changes.

Pushpa Rawat highlights the appropriation of religion, women and the online space by politically motivated groups. Her piece, set in her performance of Ram-Leela in Delhi, exhorts us to examine the manner in which women experience digital India: as an exercise in masculinity and power play, much like the ‘real’ world. 

How does a seemingly innocent comic strip represent a toxic mix of nationalism, religion and misogyny? Guwahati-based writer and graphic novelist Parismita Singh creates her own take on comic character Agent Rana to delve into these questions.

Activist Muktasree Chakma explores how sexual violence against women from minority and indigenous communities is represented by indigenous Bangladeshi artists. Could people’s concern for indigenous people, bordering on fantasy, pose a burden on the indigenous people?

Kathmandu-based filmmaker Barkha Mukhiya invokes the art of seeing, learning and listening to women from the Dalit community in Nepal, whose quiet resistance to their unjust lives is palpable.

Subha Wijersiriwardena and Shermal Wijewardene look into visual strategies used to highlight feminist campaigns in Sri Lanka on sexual and gender-based violence. The audience is invited to see how design choices in creating campaigns reflect ideological, political and strategic objectives.

Femininity, masculinity and the gender binary are unpacked by Bangladeshi filmmaker Rawyan Shayema in her examination of hair – its absence and presence, its length and its care – and all that it signifies for gender coding.

Kathmandu-based Prasuna Dongol traverses time and space to explore and understand multiple identities, marriage and motherhood from the vantage point of a daughter. The intimate space created at the exhibition invites you to enter and reflect on what it means to build your own identity as a woman.

Delhi-based filmmaker Niharika Popli and illustrator Pakhi Sen through an exploration of sound, hearing and visual language including Indian sign language, show how they could help us understand agency, autonomy, and care.

Care and healing, processing difficult emotions and trauma is also the theme of therapist Prathama Raghavan’s work that held space for the researchers and filmmakers of this project through difficult times during the pandemic, where productivity, creativity, and art itself were recalibrated.

These glimpses into disruptive visual imagery are intended to provoke reflection and conversation to upend the patriarchal thinking that lies behind the current regressive depiction of sexual violence against women.  In this reflective and interactive space, we attempt to move toward more empowering visual language that could intervene in the discourse around gender-based violence and gender justice. We hope to collaboratively catalyse fresh ways of representing violence and justice.

Laxmi Murthy
Director, Hri Institute