Shubigi Rao

One of the first things that struck me when I went through Shubigi’s artworks in her exhibition The Illegitimate Archivist was that it was text-heavy in a way where the artwork didn’t seem burdened by words. In fact, these were works where the words formed an organic unity with the colours and forms that she painted.

The Illegitimate Archivist is divided into two rooms facing each other. One room has her ink and fountain pen artworks and the other has her digital prints and videos. It is a curious arrangement as one has to literally walk across the cobblestoned flooring that separates the two rooms, as though one is physically and temporally bridging the gap between these two disparate art media.

The art that Shubigi made with pen and ink hang precariously against the wall with something as simple and banal as black paper clips. Unframed, they sway and flutter gently under the whirring fan. There is a sense of transience, a feeling of fragility that is evoked with this delicate movement. The space looks like a dark-room studio where freshly processed images are hung carefully and are waiting to be formed. Here, of course, it is the myriad interpretations that will be formed once the artworks come in contact with the viewers.

What really fascinated me were two complimentary artworks, one titled The Growth of Man, and the other, Man Grove. A play on words, The Growth of Man portrays a naked tree with delicate, ashy branches where the concepts are written on the top, that is carelessly bandied in intellectual circles, are broken down into simpler components, often radical and yet relevant to the formation of the cultural sediments that constitute meaning-making. In short, Shubigi is redrawing an alternate narrative that rises from the marginal space, a narrative that challenges and contests the prevalent, unquestioned forms of knowledge production. This is also an oblique critique on the fact that traditionally it is the dead white European men who are the producers of knowledge.

The Man Grove is the mirror opposite of The Growth of Man where a tree has been inverted to resemble roots, hence the title Man Grove. Alternately I see this artwork as a rhizomatic network where there is no entry or exit, no centre, and no border, where meanings interlink and collide alternately. Shubigi is artistically rendering the slippages of meanings of words, the various connotations they carry and how when two words are linked together a completely new meaning emerges which may more often than not indicate the cultural markers used to signify men and women at large. Shubigi very deftly portrays Derridean différance with ocular and visceral qualities. Meanings are no longer stable, they shift and spill, react with each other to create cultural mutants.

Shubigi shows me her books in the next room where her digital archiving is displayed. Each element in the book, from the handwritten notes on the margins, to the lines that underline a chapter title, to the parallel lines that run through the final pages of the book are all carefully considered decisions. The books, devoid of any kind of verbiage but rich in information, exude a strong sense of intent. She says, “For me, the process is extremely important. I need to understand how things are done right from the beginning. I even make my own pen nibs.”

Some of the photos that are on the walls are from royal households and few others of books saved by everyday people demonstrating extraordinary act of courage. She is a driven archivist who documents what she feels is precious to her and to the world. “I travel alone to all these places, I interact with these people personally. It’s a one on one thing. It helps the interviewee open up and divulge information that is normally not easy to know or access. All the videos and photographs that you see, they are all done by me. I must do things all by myself.”

Shubigi does take the process of creation and meaning-making very seriously for she has extensively studied literature, aesthetic theory, ecology, and a wide range of other disciplines in order to create her artworks. The presence of theory and the succinct portrayal of the same is evident in all her artworks. Artistic yet pedantic.

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