Artist and writer Shubigi Rao is angry at the state of the world. But there’s no aggression, nor does she use expletives to express her anger. Instead, Shubigi – who is the first female artist to represent Singapore in a solo show at the Venice Biennale – manifests the power of her rage through her art.
“Anger comes out through my work, especially when it’s intellectual, film or creative work – creativity is an expression that comes from a place of motivation. My motivation is anger at injustice. It’s something I can’t stomach,” says Shubigi. Indeed, the 47-year-old has found an outlet in Pulp: A Short Biography of the Banished Book, a five-volume film, book and visual project that’s slated to take her 10 years to complete. Shubigi is only halfway through, even though technically she’s at the seven-and-a-half-year mark – she “lost” two years, she says, because of the pandemic.
The first volume, presented in a book format, was released in January 2016. Pulp essentially tackles literary works that have been destroyed for diverse reasons – including war and censorship – via books, artworks
and videos. It’s also the result of her love for books and their significance as a symbol of resistance against repression.
“For me, the way I dealt with different forms of oppression, harassment, abuse as a child was to be creative. That was my main survival method. Instead of despairing at the state of the world, I write or make more. Anger is not an emotion that remains unchanged when you go through a creative process. It mutates, it motivates the process, and like any motion, it infuses your writing,” she shares.
In Pulp Volume II of V, another book released in 2018, she tackles controversial topics like Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses through the lens of her upbringing in India. It also explores the loss of culture through war. She speaks to survivors of the Bosnian War, and recounts the destruction of books, libraries and other places of culture.
“Books were my third parent [growing up], so Pulp came from that,” she says. “I’ll push back against the injustices and oppression of the world; if you want to oppress people, you deny them their rights to read, write, publish, and be heard. The silencing of people goes hand in hand with oppression and genocide. The protection of a culture’s literature is very important to me.”
The potency of Shubigi’s art is palpable, and like any good artwork, it incites a feeling of discomfiture, and even anxiety, at some points. But at its core, Pulp is a seminal project not just for its impact on the literary
world, but also because it marks the first time ever that a female artist has represented Singapore in a solo exhibition at the Venice Biennale, which ended in July this year. The Pulp III exhibition was also curated by female curator Ute Meta Bauer, who is the founding director of NTU Centre for Contemporary Art (CCA) Singapore.
The accolade is a privilege that the Indian-born Singaporean recognises and acknowledges.
“It meant a great deal to me for a number of reasons: This is my adopted country, it’s my home and, as I often mention, coming to Singapore was life-changing for me. To be the first woman chosen to represent Singapore is a major honour, because there are so many incredible women artists here, and I just hope that I am the first of many, not just a token,” she says.
Sexisim in the art world
Gender has long been a topic that has informed Shubigi’s work. In fact, for 10 years prior to Pulp, she performed under a male pseudonym S Raoul, in an attempt to experience the art world as a man, and to disassociate her gender from her works. In an interview with Indian publication The Week, she said: “As a woman, I would always be that female artist talking about feminism. The content of my work would never be critiqued. I wanted to remove that whole idea. Look only at the work, don’t look at the artist.”
The persona of S Raoul was a case study in the discrepancies experienced by male and female artists. In a way, she sought to dismantle the inbuilt stereotypes that pervade the industry through a satirical performance that ended with the “death” of her male alter-ego where he tripped and “died” at the exhibition itself. Through Raoul, she strove to break down the “patriarchal structures that existed in art and in science, in academia and the literary world, and so on”.
Funnily enough, and perhaps to reinforce her point that sexism is still widespread in the art world, she tells me that some men attempted to mansplain the concept of satire to her during the exercise. She says,
laughingly: “It got to the point where I actually had someone catch on that the work was a hoax and satire, and they actually explained satire to me. I was also accused of plagiarising the persona I invented. That’s because people can’t believe a woman can do so many things. We can do one thing well, but we can’t be problematic. Break those boxes, and we are heavily scrutinised when we do.”
Being told what she can or cannot do seems to be a recurring theme in her artistic career. Even for Pulp, she experienced pushback from men in the literary world, with someone even telling her “you’re not [specialised] in history, what gives you the right to write this book?”, says Shubigi. “I replied: ‘So?’ I’m not encroaching on their turf; I’m allowed to write a book about whatever I care about.”
This, perhaps, makes for a disparaging commentary about how the art world still continues to favour men over women, as well as certain classes. Shubigi says: “At one time, 89 per cent of artists represented by galleries in Singapore were male. Art school graduates are mostly women. This is typical, and there is a massive gap that increases based on the level of education. Most pursuing PhDs are men. We are balancing out, but most of the labour is performed by women even now. The lowest paid jobs in the art world are mostly done by women. Then, take a look at auction figures for instance. You’ll see a difference between male and female artists.”
The most expensive artwork by a female artist (Georgia O’Keeffe) sold on auction for US$44.4 million (S$61.6 million). The record for a male artist? Jeff Koons’ Rabbit, which sold for US$91.1 million. A study by the US-based National Endowment for the Arts reveals that women artists, on average, earn 74 cents for every dollar made by a male artist – this is a lot worse than the 93 cents to the dollar that women in the corporate sector make compared to men.
In the family
Shubigi’s fight for justice stems from her voracious appetite for knowledge, but it’s also tinted by her upbringing in India. She’s spoken at length about the oppressive patriarchal system there, adding: “I was made very aware of my gender, not just through harassment, but also by being devalued. As in, it wasn’t possible for me to have achieved something, my opinion wasn’t valid or I couldn’t possibly be knowledgeable, and so on. That kind of diminishment and dismissiveness is very open in a lot of the places I grew up in, especially in boarding school.”
I repeat a quote from a former interview, where she revealed that when she moved here, she felt “human first and female second”. I ask her if moving here finally “liberated” her, and she instantly shuts me down. “I was already liberated [before moving to Singapore],” she replies, not tetchily.
“I had already given up on certain things, so I could do the things I wanted to. There’s always been pushback because I did the things I wanted to do. But I had the support of an incredible mother, so I think that made all the difference. I wasn’t born into a heavily traditional set-up; even my maternal grandmother is an atheist, which is a huge thing in India because they do not support atheists. She was a humanist in every sense of the word, she loved literature and the arts, and she was the kindest person. She believed human kindness was more important than being right.” These values clearly exist in Shubigi as well, and are reflected in the themes she chooses to tackle, whether it’s dismantling gender stereotypes, or giving a voice to the voiceless.
The next phase
In the process of her research, Shubigi is constantly reading, and can sense where the world is moving towards, a trait that informs her work with Pulp.
“If you ask me what’s next, I cannot say, because it depends on what I feel is the most urgent thing that we need to talk about at that time. I will say, however, that I will be discussing the virtual realities of our world much more. And I will also be discussing non-human forms of knowledge, which means knowledge that exists in another species. So these are things that I will talk about in future editions of Pulp,” she says.
The first book was about the populist movement; the second book about the Balkans. When is Asia – and Singapore – going to be in the spotlight for Pulp? Shubigi plans to feature Singapore and South-east Asia
at the end of the project.
“[This is because] when we talk about what’s in our backyard, our lenses are skewed. We are too close to the subject, and I need to have enough time, at least eight years of studying the world, before I come back home.”
What ist the Kochi-Muziris Biennale
As curator for the Kochi-Muziris Biennale, Shubigi tells us what to expect from the fair held in the city of Kochi in Kerala, India, from Dec 12, 2022 to April 10, 2023:
“The Kochi biennale was started by an artist, so it’s a space that recognises the importance of the artist-curator, rather than the curator having a distinct practice. I was interested in artists who were looking at precolonial ideas in South America, Africa and South-east Asia, and I wanted to see how artistic practices reach each other.
In my curator’s note, I also speak about joy, anger and satire, which are my personal positions. These are positions that were formed by years of writing and creative work. Artists and writers who have operated under repressive conditions knew that these were also ways of survival. Storytelling is strategic, so this biennale is very much of its moment; it speaks about these ideas, issues and concerns that artists have been talking about, but are only now getting heard because of Covid.”