A Politics of Appearance
May 15, 2019
By Saikeerthi Rachavelpula
Originally published in the 2019 print edition.
Disquieted by the bulging eyes and gaping mouths of Swaihwe masks, Lévi-Strauss saw mythological representations not as isolated objects, but as aesthetic planes for the axes of life and death, cosmology and humanity, estrangement and belonging.1 A similar sentiment is cast by the masked individuals of rural India in Delhi photographer Gauri Gill’s series “Acts of Appearance,” (2015-, all works Untitled). On turmeric, indigo, and kumkuma-colored walls hang the photographs, resplendent with color. Each image is glossy and reflective, rich and vibrant, resembling the colored clouds at a Holi festival, as if aware of their aromatic atmosphere. The photographed individuals don airy, expressionist masks—evoking the dream-like stage of a Noh Theater.
Gill’s inspiration for “Acts of Appearance” comes from an already existing Adivasi tradition: Once a year, local artists fashion ritualistic papier-mâché masks for the Bahora procession, a public enactment of mythological tales from well-known Hindu epics such as the Ramayana or Mahabharata and local folklore. In her contemporary re-workings, Gill sought two renowned mask-makers from the Adivasi Konkana tribe, and requested they create masks which represent existing contemporary reality rather than the traditional religious themes. Gill wanted them to depict everything from the different rasas—the emotions which are thought to govern life—to those experiences common to all: sickness, aging, and pastime.
Three donkeys sit cross-legged outside their home playing a game of caroms. An elephant-doctor checks on his prostrating patient. A sun and a moon take an afternoon stroll, their heads above the horizon in order to occupy a celestial sphere on their journey home. There is what art critic Thea Ballard calls a “purposeful stillness” in the photographs.2 These theatrical, masked states are lived-in, inhabited. They are between fantasy and reality—unabashedly comical, subversive, and self-aware.
But just as in the Dionysian theater, the masks in the images are not worn by professional actors, but everyday citizens forced to improvise with their surroundings. The punctum of Gill’s photographs is in the peripheries: the donkey-friends sit outside a home which requires slender tree branches to support its ceiling; the elephant-doctor operates in a rudimentary hospital setting, a barely antiseptic and barebones affair; the moon-man is missing his left arm, the victim of an accident all-too-common in rural India.
The Adivasi community in Maharastra’s Jawhar region is uncasted, occupying a space outside of common Indian narratives which have nonetheless politically and economically disturbed it. While India’s new political terrain struggles with the asymmetry caused by colonial interruption, struggling to image an India which is neither colonialist nor indigenist, the non-space occupied by the Adivasis persists as one of the most impoverished regions of Maharastra. Drawn to the distorted representations of everyday life across India’s built environment, Gill travels to the region in hopes of making way for artists “outside of our city bubbles.”3 In this way, Gill actuates the political process of identification—which began for casted Indians in 1857—for the uncasted.
When placed in the larger context of Indian history, the mask and its requisite duplicities become continuations of selfhood, technologies of self which are as much political as they are celebratory. Through masks, Gill is able to instigate this process—outlined in Rancière’s “Politics, Identification, and Subjectivization”—for the Adivasis, while warding off the very dangers of such an instigation.
For Rancière, the process of demonstrating equality and going about “the political” in the early nineteenth-century was the process of subjectivization: the formation of self in relation to an “other.”4 In nineteenth-century France, this meant denying identity to proletarians, labeling them as outcasts without citizenship—as “not.” Indeed, the word proletarii in Latin originally meant “prolific people,” a people who simply create children, who merely live and reproduce without name. And because proletarians were “not-French,” they became nameless. They were not counted in the symbolic order of the city; they were outcasts, not at all belonging to the order of castes. Subjectivization became disidentification, an “othering” that led to declassification.
The problem Rancière identifies with subjectivization as a political process is that the uncasted are in-between, rather than “not.” Subjectivization, writes Ranciere, always involves “an impossible identification.” It is the oxymoronic quality he identifies in those who utter, “We are the wretched of the earth,” or “We are German Jews.” Intrinsically, these statements are impossible because they negate an essential wrong—the equivalent of uttering “we are and are not.”5
In France, the political process of subjectivization was replaced in the late twentieth century by the process of identification—a positive assertion of self, one without prefix. But this too has its misgivings; Rancière attributes to it contemporary French xenophobia.6 The problem is not the perception that the existence of objective societal problems comes from the rise of immigrant populations; rather, it is the collapse of emancipatory politics into a politics of the “other.” When the self steps forward to demonstrate they are not simply a negation of an “other,” when they makes themselves visible and are given their “own name,” the superior group nonetheless sees them as “other.”7
In the same way that a politics of subjectivization holds the problem of collapsing into disidentification, the complete loss of the subordinate group, a politics of identification holds the problem of collapsing into a politics of the “other.” But this politics of the “other” is not equivalent to subjectivization, wherein the other becomes unseen. In this case, the other has already announced himself via identification, so he cannot disappear. Instead, he becomes an intruder exterior to the superior group—an enemy, He is given a face, and that face becomes the object of fear and rejection. Immigrants in France are “othered,” feared, and sometimes attacked.
For Adivasis in India, Gill’s photographs represent a community dis-identified by the practice of subjectivization. As the caste system is translated into classism, the Adivasis continue to exist outside the societal framework which already made room for “untouchables.” Unsurprisingly, British colonialism worsened the matter. Rural land-grabbing and heavy taxes disrupted Adivasi swidden agriculture, with impacts tearing across the political and social axis. And, in 1857, when the Indian Independence movement is often claimed to have begun, the Adivasis fought alongside the rest of India, assimilating in order to fight a common enemy. The impossible identification: Adivasis against the British.
For an India imaging a cultural identity of its own, the question of how to approach the British intervention has already entered the arts. Salman Rushdie has famously denounced colonist literature as not legitimately Indian, where “Indian literature” is taken to represent India now. But by the same line of thinking, he berates bhasa literatures—early Sanskrit writings including epics and puranas—even though “some of them have longer traditions than what is taken to be mainstream English literature, or Indian writing in English.”8 In Masks of Conquest, Gauri Viswanathan astutely identifies the answer is neither to underplay the asymmetry of colonial intersection nor to adopt cultural amnesia: “The native recipients can neither be wholly conditioned nor devastated by the master culture.”9 The intervention is a palimpsest and it is naïve to think otherwise.
Only a few Adivasi communities have since fought for government assistance to alleviate the damages from colonialism, identifying themselves as both Adivasis and Indians in order to seek cultural reparations from colonialism. But for others, the task remains to emerge from the peripheries, from the negative space, with a culture of their own. Such is the task Gill embarks upon through her photographs.
The masks, while able to assert an image of oneself, preclude the collapse of emancipatory politics into a politics of the other. Gill makes visible the Adivasi culture, highlighting their craftsmanship, their similarities to casted India, and their rural dwellings. There is a certain interiority to masks which thwarts the dangerous practice of seeing the other’s face and projecting onto him fear. In an interview for Artforum, Gill asserts that she did not wish for her “work to be about othering.”10 She is fully aware of the dangers of such a politics, and considers masks as a means of self-assertion: a celebration of Adivasi craftsmanship and culture and a mechanism for self-defense. Masks re-codify the act of re-naming and being named, while defending their bearer.
Acts of Appearance makes visible the craftsmanship, emotions, and backdrops of a community on the peripheries of a nation already struggling to identify itself. The series suggests an ontology of the otherwise that can avoid the xenophobia often stemming from a politics of “otherness.” Gill’s images make room for the multiplicities of being, dispelling the binary of self and other: “We are all heterogeneous beings,” she says.11 The mask’s surrealist comedy and dramaturgy, with its splendid color, all coalesce to form a celebratory shield that, consequently, ignites a political act.
In Black Skin, White Masks, Frantz Fanon writes, “Dignity is not located in seeking equality with the white man and his civilization: it is not about assuming the attitudes of the master who has allowed his slaves to eat at his table. It is about being oneself with all the multiplicities, systems and contradictions of one’s own ways of being, doing and knowing. It is about being true to one’s Self.”12 In such a way, the masks in Gill’s photographs are not just signals, but signifiers—powerful tools for visibility in the Adivasi community—possessing a semiotic function that forms a continuous whole out of what may appear to be contradictory identities. There is a still balance of estrangement and belonging in Gill’s photographs, of Adivasi and Indian: An individual sells Parle-G, the quintessential Indian biscuit, while donning a Cobra mask, a symbol of his Adivasi belief in animism. A woman reads a newspaper in her newly furnished living room, fully aware of the realm she is purportedly “not,” after coming home from the Bahora procession.
1 Claude Lévi-Stauss, The Way of Masks, trans. Sylvia Modelski (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1988).
2 Thea Ballard, “Gauri Gill: Acts of Appearance at MoMA PS1 New York,” ArtReview, Summer 2018, https://artreview.com/reviews/ara_summer_2018_review_gauri_gill/
3 Tausif Noor, “Interviews: Gauri Gill,” Artforum, June 19, 2018, https://www.artforum.com/interviews/gauri-gill-discusses-acts-of-appearance-at-moma-ps1-75794
4 Jacques Rancière, “Politics Identification and Subjectivization,” October, 61, 60-61.
5 Ibid., 61.
6 Ibid., 63.
7 Ibid., 63
8 Satish C. Aikant, “From Colonialism to Indigenism: The Loss and Recovery of Language and Literature,” Ariel, Vol 31, No 1-2, 2000, 347.
9 Ibid., 338.
10 Tausif Noor, “Interviews: Gauri Gill.”
11 “Acts of Appearance Gauri Gill,” Nature Morte, accessed January 12, http://naturemorte.com/exhibitions/actsofappearance/.
12 Frantz Fanon, Black Skin, White Masks, Trans. Richard Philcox, (New York: Grove Press, 2008), vii.