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The Power of Telling Stories

Updated: Feb 19, 2023

by Satarupa Bhattacharya



There is immense power in ‘telling’ stories: something that is more evident in the act of ‘listening’. Also, there is an absolute kind of power that surges in the act of ‘showing’: something that is particularly evident in the act of ‘looking’. The arts have always found a special kind of power that is not exclusive, which is, probably, why it's easier to assume that all these roles have very little value when placed next to the artist who is endowed with the powers of creation.


Art curator and founder/director of Engendered Myna Mukherjee has engaged with each of these acts and also placed the artist in the midst of her engagement at her recent curatorial venture One Story is Not Enough. Her loud declaration that knowledge too has the qualities of change and that this knowledge cannot be achieved via the singular medium leads us to look at the role of the arts more closely. It leads us to ask if we hold the power to voice, to hear, to show, and to look.


The exhibit corroborates the idea that every individual has the ability to tell a story and that the story can be presented in different ways. Placing artforms distinct from one another at the same display helped the idea brew in one place – almost suggesting that every artform responds to an event or a thought or possesses a narrative.


While there were artists from Iran and UK, there were artists from India exploring the possibilities of the new digital world. To expound on my observations, it is worth looking at Indian artist Harshit Agrawal's phygital artworks that were staged on the voice of time where he elaborates on the complex political engagements of religiosity and nation building. Also, using imageries referring to the current subcultural trends, Agrawal insinuates that there is a special world of labour that goes unnoticed in this fast paced world of digitisation and archiving.


Art work by Harshit Agarwal


G(u)arden of Digital Delights 3 by Harshit Agarwal


To compliment this digital renaissance, Indian senior artist Ranbir Kaleka, for the first time, presented an NFT artwork – titled Sweet Unease – that displayed two masculine bodies in the act of wrestling.


Enchanted Strife (extract from Sweet Unease) by Ranbir Kaleka


Again, Iranian artist Babak Haghi's artwork adds to the display in essence as his photographs from his series – Red Fish – are placed at the same site making it relevant to look at the progression of digital history and archiving through photography and movement in images. The selected images engaged the flowing quality of the human body and the rhetoric on presentation as a means to look at the changing mediums of narrations. These images were particularly sensational as they utilised the three distinct movements that are captured in still pictures: the movements are suspended, motion blur, and visual flow.


Red Fish by Babak Haghi


The Wedding by Babak Haghi


Interestingly, London based artist Anna Ridler's NFT art engaged with the idea of information and unusual narratives that go undocumented or subside in the background of prioritised information. Cypress Trees, A Beginning is an aesthetic engagement with the act of branching out while echoing the French philosopher Gilles Deleuze's reading of how dialogues and information are interlinked somehow in order to grow or reach out.


Cypress Trees, A Beginning by Anna Ridler


Similarly, Iranian artist Maryum Firuzi portrays powerful impressions of the immediate political scenarios of Iran where she revisits her country in the hope of restoring peace. In one picture, a woman is staged in the seated position in the streets of Tehran and capturedj in the act of reading a book while a flowy blue scarf hangs from her head. There were a few other pictures portraying the liberation movement amongst women against the tyranny of patriarchy in their country.


Reading for Tehran Streets, Digital Photograph by Maryam Firuzi


To connect the above artworks, Mukherjee places another strong Iranian artist Soheila Esmaeili. Her photograph of a woman seated on a chair portraying her resistance coins the current political climate in Iran. The chopped hair lying on the ground while she sits with a slightly raised chin demonstrates the pride, the defiance against tyranny, and her desire to be looked at.


Immortality by Soheila Esmaeili


Iran's artist Nazli Abbaspour contributes her visual vocabulary in her abstract photographs where she displays burning photographs of a married couple and a woman dressed in her wedding gown. There were other photographs, such as that of a blurring face of a woman behind black lace. Given the unrest that has been witnessed by the world through various media, these photographs visit the Iranian women in resistance and stitch the fabric of the show into one whole visual currency of presentation.


Burned Memories 06 by Nazli Abbaspour


Several canvas artworks were also present at the show that helped create a more versatile engagement with the arts. India's young artist Nur Muhammad showcased an abstract triptych while another senior Indian artist and curator Puneet Kaushik presented several works engaging with the cause of environment and textile arts.


A Land of Longings by Nur Muhammad


Untitled by Puneet Kaushik


This also included another Indian abstractionist Satyakam Saha whose large works absorbed the core relevance of dialogues on presentation in its style, colours, and the undefined forms through which art is more lucid for its viewers. Also, Indian artist Mandakini Devi explores the various accounts of female sexuality found and preserved through art in her digital works.


LONC (Line Of No Control) by Satyakam Saha


The Womb by Mandakini Devi


All these artists and artworks were intertwined on the very first day of the show when Mukherjee's curation included dance performances to bring out the discourse to reach questions of traditions and representations. Sri Lanka's Chitrasena Dance Company (that specialises on the Kandyan dance form) and India's The Nrityagram Dance Ensemble (that specialises in the Odissi dance form) were placed together to perform mythological and classical narratives. Both the dance companies presented an interesting interlinking of the traditional with the contemporary movements and were able to situate the performative traditions of narrations in the show. The lead dancers of the two troops occupied the stage in narrating the ethereal renditions of the Hindu icons placed in the Gods. Their physical renditions even in their moments of solo performances elaborated on the powers that were established through stories in figures of Krishna and Shiva. This was to the extent that when Thaji Dias - the lead dancer of Chitrasena Dance Company - performed a solo to showcase the mythological narratives of Shiva, her dainty physicality occupied half the stage of the amphitheatre through her performance. The power that was displayed was unshakeable and it reminded their viewers to look at the transition of time more closely.


Nrityagram Dance Ensemble in collaboration with The Chitrasena Dance Company

(Photos courtesy of Ravi Shankar)


To add to all the above mentioned artworks and performance, Mukherjee invited several thinkers and practitioners to engage with the exhibit and the art of narrativity. Each discussion shed light on the role of the artworks and artists and how pluralism can be obtained in order to claim a sense of balance. The many mediums that were placed in one site to explore the power of ‘telling’ and ‘showing’ is relevant to the telling of our times, where each act of effort and expertise is a platform for listeners and onlookers. Thereby, in each artform, a different narration takes place and different meanings can be obtained which need to be heard and voiced.




Image 1: L to R

Nur Mahammad, Visual Artist

Harshit Agrawal, AI Artist

Puneet Kaushik, Visual Artist

Asad Lalljee, CEO, Avid Learning

Myna Mukherjee, Curator/Cultural Producer

Christina Maxwell, Director, High Line Nine Galleries, New York

Amitabh Kant, G-20 Sherpa,

Lisa Ray, actor, author, co-founder The Upside Space

Carly Van Orman, American Center


Image 2: L to R

Christina Maxwell, Director, High Line Nine Galleries, New York

Lisa Ray, actor, author, co-founder The Upside Space

Myna Mukherjee, Curator/Cultural Producer

Surupa Sen, Artistic Director, Nrityagram

Ranbir Kaleka, Multi-media Artist

Asad Lalljee, CEO, Avid Learning


(The images of the works are courtesy of the respective artists and Engendered gallery, unless mentioned otherwise.)


 

Satarupa Bhattacharya is an independent researcher and cultural practitioner/worker. She received her PhD in 2014. She's interested in visual culture, cultural studies, performance studies, violence studies, and art history. Earlier, she worked as a journalist and taught at institutions.

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