Spotlight Society

The recent of works of Waswo X Waswo had started a debate on statue-toppling way before it came to pass

Fall collection: ‘Push’   | Photo Credit: Waswo X. Waswo & R. Vijay/ Gallery Espace

Months before the Black Lives Matter protests shook the world, the India-based American photographer, artist and poet, Waswo X Waswo, had held an exhibition of miniatures — a parodic version of traditional Rajasthani miniatures — titled Like a Leaf in Autumn, in October last year, at Gallery Espace in New Delhi. The works on display, created in collaboration with R.Vijay, had started a debate on the toppling of statues way before it came to pass. It would not be wrong to describe Waswo as prescient in appropriating the role of an iconoclast, dislodging certain prevailing notions of whiteness.

But iconoclasm is Waswo’s forte. He emerged on the Indian art scene back in 2002 when he first exhibited his black-and-white studio portraits of ordinary people, which cocked a snook at Rajasthan as it discarded its history of royal machismo and valour to emerge into 21st century rough and tumble.

In his latest works Waswo gives Rajasthani miniatures all sorts of twist — post-postmodernist, postcolonial, anticolonial — with self-deprecating humour. The title of the October exhibition came from Orhan Pamuk’s line: “I was supposed to be part of a story, but I fell from there like a leaf in autumn.” That explains the disjuncture in these works.

Alarm bells

Waswo, who had set up his karkhana in Udaipur in 1999, is willing to stick his neck out to voice his opinion on how postmodernism has equated ‘whiteness’ (as in the Caucasian skin tone) with the Christian notion of original sin, which is without redemption. The miniatures challenge the notion that everything white — white privilege, white fragility, white colonialism — is “original sin”. “If you are born with it you can’t get rid of it,” he says.

He squarely blames postmodernism for this reductionist view: “All white people are racists — it is part of postmodern dogma. If you question that you become a greater sinner.” His works make fun of the easy, indiscriminate labelling.

He says of the recent statue-toppling spree: “Removing the Confederate monuments was understandable, even by the rage of an angry mob. It was long past due. However, the protesters did not stop at that. Angry mobs are consumed by passion and short on reason.

By the time they moved on to topple statues of George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, my alarm bells were going off. Soon statues of even abolitionists like John Greenleaf Whittier and Hans Christian Heg (who gave his life fighting to end slavery), were pulled down or damaged. The movement has become hysterical and ridiculous.”

Alpha male, who?

His own works, with their air of gentle sarcasm, is the opposite of hysterical. The figure representing Western civilisation in his miniatures is a bumbling white man, an intruder, who is frequently caught in awkward situations. Often seen dressed in a linen suit and sporting a fedora, this guy is Waswo’s alter ego.

In ‘Dreams of the Orientalist 15’, Michelangelo’s David, the very ideal of male beauty, seems to look behind his

shoulder in jealousy at the white fedora man lolling next to a naked Indian man. In ‘In the Garden of Archetypes 5’, Cellini’s sculpture of Perseus holding Medusa’s head is relegated to a river bed while elephants (Indian art is unthinkable without them) frolic in the water. The fedora man inspects a giant moon with a telescope as cultures collide.

In ‘In the Garden of Archetypes 3’,Krishna is no toxic male. Instead of hiding the gopis’ clothes, he offers Botticelli’s Venus, standing in a tiny pond, a towel, probably to dry herself with. As a sign of propriety, perhaps, the fedora man shuts his eyes to nudity. In ‘In the Garden of Archetypes 4’, the fedora man sits backwards on an equestrian statue (Waswo doesn’t leave the horse’s maleness to our imagination) holding the American flag in one hand and wilted lotuses like limp wrists in another. So much for the white, alpha male.

Pulled down

In ‘Dreams of the Orientalist 17’, an Indian man in dhoti is about to strike with an open sword the marble bust of a Roman leader on a pedestal as the insouciant fedora man flies two kites.

Waswo says, “In its early days, postmodern theory was a good thing. With its scepticism of ‘grand narratives’ in history and art, its demand that historical views be recentered from the Eurocentric, its deconstruction of common assumptions and deep analysis of language as a base of power, early postmodernism shook academia out of a stagnation and complacency that had become entrenched.” But that iconoclasm did not last. “Intersectionality, which is an outgrowth of postmodernism, has put us back into cages, and human beings are judged according to skin colour, gender, and sexual orientation,” says Waswo, who has come out as gay.

In ‘Push’, a sculpture which Waswo says was central to last October’s show, he metaphorically pulls down certain notions of whiteness validated by postmodernism. Here the dhoti-clad indigene has shoved the white man off the pedestal. The work begs the question: “Who is on top of the pyramid now?”

Hierarchies will always exist, Waswo seems to be emphasising. Is anybody listening?

The writer focuses on Kolkata’s vanishing heritage and culture.

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