Puppets from Gendered Spaces by Sumona Chakravarty and Nilanjan Das (Courtesy Khoj Studios and The Artists)
AS ONE NAVIGATES the narrow streets of Khirkee Extension, making one’s way through humans, animals, vehicles and the detritus of their co-existence, the last thing one expects to find is a brightly painted haven of art. Khoj Studios, a contemporary outpost in this urban village, may have started as a gallery to showcase experimental art by creative practitioners, but in the 25 years since its inception, has become something of an institution in this area. Currently, its entrance is adorned with a vibrant mural made by Bengaluru-based artist Poornima Sukumar and the Aravani Art Project—a trans-women and cis-women led art collective—presenting the daily problems of people from the transgender community to the world.
This stark image is an apt introduction to the exhibition titled, Threading the Horizon: Propositions on Worldmaking Through Socially Engaged Art Practice, on display at Khoj Studios. The exhibition consists of 14 distinctive projects made by collectives around the country, which Khoj Studios has supported in recent years. Through their work, these collectives aim to spread awareness of gender justice and gender related issues, which are often neglected in public discourse. These include subjects like the lack of private spaces for women to congregate, the lack of leisure time between household chores and jobs, the lack of equality in sports at school, and the loss of livelihood when lands are taken away for redevelopment etc.
Manjiri Dube, curator and programmes manager at Khoj Studios, explains the project, “In the past two decades, we have supported and initiated a lot of community art projects in Khirkee Extension to address urban inequality and ecological issues. This began as a hyper local inquiry in the situation specific to our neighbourhood, but over time, we expanded in scope and ambition to explore other parts of India. Our deep interest in socially engaged art practice stems from our belief that it has the ability to pry open spaces of hostility and create dialogue to allay existing tensions.”
To further this aim, Khoj Studios embarked on a project in 2019, Peripheries and Crossovers, through which they lent support to 14 projects working in similar urban spaces. They chose projects dealing with complex issues of gender equality and peri-urbanisation. In its first year, five deserving programmes were picked, then another five in the next year and so on. Threading the Horizon is the culmination of this project as it highlights the work of all 14 by sharing glimpses of their on-ground practice.
The exhibition aims to bring attention to the ‘quotidian experiences’ of violence and injustice on women and other gendered minorities, while also offering solutions. These solutions are presented in artistic formats that are socially driven to achieve the greatest impact. They range from alleviating the aftermath of abuse by lending a sympathetic ear; to acknowledging the existence of nuanced slights and patriarchal constructs, which are hurtful and misogynistic.
One’s journey at Khoj Studios begins in a dark room that houses artist Baaraan Ijlal’s Change Room Archives, which is an ongoing project across different locations in India. She captures whispered conversations of women in changing rooms, traditionally considered safe spaces, where they express their fears, apprehensions and desires. The artist asserts that these women are taking the first step towards change through the acts of speaking out, listening to others and bearing witness to another’s testimony. This open channel consists of stories told anonymously to the artist, and they play out for the audience through headsets as they recline in an intimate baithak-like room. In keeping with the interactive nature of Khoj’s exhibits, the audience can also record their own stories anonymously, which are then added to the audio being played on loop.
Conversations in intimate spaces is also the theme of Fursat ki Fizayen by Divya Chopra and Rwitee Mandal. Based in Madanpur Khadar, Delhi, this project focusses on the lack of leisure spaces for women to unwind and relax. As spatial design practitioners, researchers and educators, they began the project by listening to the stories of the women to understand their lived experiences and spatial realities. Then, through feedback and collaboration, they created spaces for the women to convene and relax. At Khoj, this plays out in the form of a small sit-down café run by Afghan migrant women who live in the area. They sell Afghan teas and cookies, as their patrons chat and play carrom, unafraid of being called away for myriad homely duties.
“Our interest in socially engaged art practice stems from our belief that it has the ability to pry open spaces of hostility and create dialogue” says Manjiri Dube, curator
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Similarly, urban geographer and researcher Saleha Sapra and architect Riddhi Batra, who together founded City Sabha, worked on the reclamation of spaces for working women in their exhibit, Aao, Jagah Banaye! in Raghubir Nagar, Delhi. They aim to empower women vendor groups working within a patriarchal system. The lack of state support for informal vending exposes women to exploitation, so the artists hope to impart skills to make them more confident, while feeling comfortable to practice their livelihood with dignity.
The right to livelihood is a theme explored by other projects too. Cotton Stainers by Shweta Bhattad in collaboration with Gram Art Project is based in Paradsinga, Madhya Pradesh. It highlights the importance of cotton for local women. From sowing to spinning, hand-weaving into fabric and stitching into garments, women are involved in every step of the production of cotton. The project draws inspiration from the widely known pest—the Cotton Stainer—the bane of most farmers as it stains the cotton bolls. For these women, however, each stain made by the Cotton Stainer is a story that mirrors their own.
SWATI JANU’S 5 BIGHA Zameen in collaboration with Social Design Collective is based in Yamuna Khadar, Delhi. It highlights the five bighas or one acre, which is the minimum unit of land required by the women of this area for subsistence. The artist writes, “5 Bigha Zameen aims to rethink our collective imaginations of the city and question whose rights are protected in our cities, and whose eroded.”
For their exhibit, Gendered Spaces artists Sumona Chakravarty and Nilanjan Das approach spaces or institutions that are typically considered ‘masculine’, such as gymnasiums and riverside ghats, and question the men occupying these spaces about what constitutes masculinity. The project was initiated in Chitpur, one of the oldest neighbourhoods in Kolkata, known for its urban slums and red-light districts, which exist alongside palatial heritage homes.
The idea of masculinity as a societal construct is also explored in Princess Pea’s Extra Time which examines gender-based inequalities in sports at a systemic level, with the lack of equal opportunities and access beginning at school. The artist held workshops with parents and students at football training sessions in schools in Goa to initiate conversations on the subject. Education as a tool to engender notions of equality is also highlighted in the project titled, Kyun Kyun Ladki by theatre practitioner Sanyukta Saha. She uses drama to highlight the consequences of the high dropout rates of girls after Class 8 from schools in Sawai Madhopur, Rajasthan, as they are deemed to be of marriageable age by their families. She shares, “The project aims to create a space that is safe, that nurtures curiosity for young girls and creates a possibility for them to connect with their dreams.” Saha plans to conduct 8-10 workshops at Khoj with other practitioners to spread her message.
Access to education is a fundamental problem, but over-access to unfiltered digital mediums also presents challenges. This plays out interestingly in artist Padmini Ray Murray’s A Fever Dream of a Feminist Internet, which questions the safety of women and gendered others in digital spaces. She raises concerns around how they use the internet, how invasive it is to their personal lives, and what the implications of data mining might be, in light of the future of digitality and digital worlds. For this, Ray Murray creates an interactive game imagining an alternative, more just and meaningful digital ecosystem.
Otherworlds by Sumedha Garg and Nitin Bathla shines a light on the exploitative labour and class relationships in Kapashera—a tenement town just outside Delhi. A refuge to migrants, the area never achieves the permanence of a home, leaving its occupants pining for their roots. They express their misgivings and nostalgia by using leftover cloth from garment factories to stitch intricate tapestries, which act as repositories of personal memories that explore ideas of identity, belonging, displacement and loss.
The most poignant sense of loss— that of innocence—is felt in Jasmeen Patheja’s Towards Feminist Futures. Patheja spearheads the collective known as Blank Noise, which is a ‘community of action sheroes, heroes, theyroes’ working to inspire humans to create safer spaces. Their first project, I Never Asked for It, aims to end victim blaming by showcasing ghost-like garments worn by women who have suffered violence. Patheja explains, “In the beginning it was about recognising that women remembered the clothes they wore when they experienced violence and also recognising the fact that all women experienced violence. But now we seek to raise larger questions. What does it mean to be in a marriage and be told ‘You made me lose my temper, so I hit you’? What does it mean to be a widow who wants to wear red and be harassed for wearing that colour?”
Patheja asserts that their intention isn’t to shock or spur a knee-jerk reaction. Its sole aim is to ensure that people listen to their message. “Listening is tough work, it encourages action. If we had a community of empathic listeners, that would shift how we responded to the issue,” she adds, echoing the sentiment of this Khoj show as well.
(Threading the Horizon: Propositions on Worldmaking through Socially Engaged Art Practice runs at Khoj Studios, Delhi, till December 30)