Over the past decade, Delhi-based self-taught artist Baaraan Ijlal has been collecting oral testimonies and unacknowledged histories from around the country—of nomads ousted from forests, people turned out of neighbourhoods for their sexual orientation, those facing caste and communal violence, and climate and war refugees. Some of these formed part of her sound installation Change Room (2018), presented by Shrine Empire at the India Art Fair in 2019.
In Silent Minarets Whispering Winds (2015-16), installed at the Mumbai International Airport, she presented letters written anonymously by 43 women embroiderers from an Uttar Pradesh village to themselves, expressing their innermost feelings.
Her new show, Hostile Witness, presented by Shrine Empire at Bikaner House, Delhi, is about silenced narratives, expressed in acrylic, archival ink and wooden frames, conceptual structures and sculptures created by Moonis, her brother, a historian and an artist. The structures provide vantage points, allowing one to witness the painted conversations through arched windows, colonnades and binoculars. Also on the view are his sculptures of the archetypes that the two artists have collaboratively developed.
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“It [Hostile Witness] explores the lasting phenomenon of mute spectatorship and its normalisation at the expense of extreme violence. It is informed by a list of historic, fragile architectural structures that are not officially listed as monuments, and often have active communities living in and around them and lived histories,” states the gallery note.
Research for Hostile Witness started in 2014 and Ijlal feels all her other works are an extension of this series. “In many ways, Change Room is an offshoot of Hostile Witness—the only difference being in the medium. Hostile Witness is a moment of pausing, listening and witnessing the ever-evolving site and the testimonies of loss and desire that emerge from them. There’s an urgency to archive the site, and the people associated with it, before they vanish,” says Ijlal.
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Memory of lived spaces has always played an important role in her practice, starting with her ancestral home in Bhopal that was partly demolished in 2018. When she saw a portion of the house going down, it felt like she was “inside and outside” of that space at the same time.
After archiving her home city, she moved on to cities such as Mumbai, Lucknow, Kolkata and Varanasi, approaching sites undergoing a similar fate. She didn’t go in with preconceived notions, just listening to the place and the people. It made her realise that spaces don’t, and shouldn’t, have singular identities.
Ijlal feels we are living in an extraordinary moment when the planet’s architecture is reconfiguring. “Where do our unarchived bodies and their acknowledged stories go? Hence there is an urgency to witness them. For this series, the sites were carefully chosen because of their fragility, because they face erasure just like the women, the people who live in and around these sites,” she says.
There is an otherworldly quality to her images—as if her own dreams and thoughts have coincided with those of the inhabitants. Ijlal believes it couldn’t have been any other way. “As I stand witness to the stories of the inhabitants, they too stand witness to my story. In that brief encounter, we both witnessed each other’s accounts of loss. In this sharing of stories, we delay the process of erasure, as it were,” she says.
The artist siblings depict binoculars as witnessing devices, both in the paintings and in wooden structures and sculptures. In Arcadia/ Nagpada/ Mumbai/ Bombay (2014–20), the binoculars are used as a surveillance device by the antagonists, the mohtasib, who are moral recruits; in one of the Calcutta canvases, they are used by the protagonists, the women, as a device to watch their exploiters, or view the complicity of people in daily acts of violence as they close their eyes. In sculptures, they are used by the ‘crow woman’, zaagh-e-zaman, the symbol of the upholder of planetary order. Binoculars are also used as structures to hold the paintings.In Arcadia, the debris offers up symbols of conflicted times in the form of buried flags, books, even a tongue. Arcadia was once inhabited by writers and when they left, those conversations were replaced, people who had once been participants no longer being acknowledged.
“I remember meeting three women who were an integral part of a site. But now, with a new structure coming up on the prime property, they were being pushed to the back of beyond in a city, and would no longer be part of the narrative around the space,” says Ijlal.
She imagined all sorts of things coming up during a dig; the tongue, she believes, would not have decayed. “That tongue stands for the women, who can still articulate themselves and share their stories, even when they face everyday erasure. I wanted to acknowledge that. By highlighting those stories, somehow we are delaying this erasure,” she adds.
In fact, most of the stories over the years have been shared by women, possibly because Ijlal would knock on doors in the mornings or early afternoons. With no men around, they were able to share their stories freely, without censure.
In an essay about the show, historian Salima Hashmi writes about how Ijlal’s work was informed by Moonis: “Ostensibly about the past, these collaborative works assemble archetypes which persist and reappear in our times—Jehel the tyrant, Mohtasib the prosecutor and Peshrau, the symbol of noble hope. While Jehel thrives on the mute, the spectators who concede to compromise, zaagh-e-zaman, the crow woman of the world, does not succumb and persistently resurrects discourse. Manifold and profoundly intriguing, the associations carefully deny complacency to the viewer in the perpetual search for equilibrium. These works, like life itself, are ongoing.”
Hostile Witness can be viewed at Bikaner House, Delhi, till 5 December.