Longing we say, because desire is full of endless distances
– Robert Hass
In March 2015, Chumani Maxwele grabbed a bucket of human feces and hurled it at the bronze statue of Cecil Rhodes at the University of Cape Town. Maxwele’s bold statement of decolonization resonated across the world and inspired the Rhodes Must Fall movement. In January 2017, London’s National Gallery exhibited, for the first time, proposals for contemporary art commissions for Trafalgar Square’s Fourth Plinth. One proposal, by Raqs Media Collective, is titled The Emperor’s Old Clothes. Made of ghostly white fiberglass and resin, the work depicts a bodiless sovereign, evoking the trappings of historical colonial power that have since been lost. Located thousands of miles apart and addressing distinct historical contexts, Maxwele’s dramatic gesture and Raqs’s proposed sculpture nevertheless both interrogate how the legacy of colonialism ought to be dealt with. Raqs Media, however, is in an increasingly common double-bind of generating institutional critique while engaging institutions through an intellectually rich, but often oblique artistic approach.
At its heart, the practice of decolonization is less about the representation of subaltern voices than a call for shifts in thinking. Typically, Raqs’s epistemic approach to postcolonial art connects a fraught past to the contemporary moment, without relying too heavily on historical didacticism. By refusing to limit themselves to rigid, univocal messaging and instead producing a body of work that both attracts and challenges institutions, the collective holds a position of power, simultaneously within and outside of the fixed structures of the artworld.
Raqs’s multidisciplinary treatments of social and political issues have often courted critical success. Formed in 1992 by Jeebesh Bagchi, Monica Narula, and Shuddhabrata Sengupta, the group functions as a trio of artists, curators, editors, and self-described “philosophical agent provocateurs,” and, though based in New Delhi, its reach is international (Raqs recently curated the 11th Shanghai Biennale, and participated in Art Basel and the 56th Venice Biennale, among others). By positioning itself within a range of disciplines (collaborating with architects, directors, and computer programmers), Raqs weaves its critique across various institutional structures.
This semi-embedded practice reminds us of the vexing duality of postcolonial critique: a desire to shift the way institutions operate, and the practical necessity to operate within them. Placing the work in these staid, exclusive settings, in front of more skeptical audiences, Raqs gives the work more urgency: it forces the artists to reconcile a private economic language with public political critique.
At times, however, the group’s expansive research interests appears daunting to an uninitiated audience, spanning topics as dense and complex as the impact of digital technology on property rights, a linguistic analysis of Hindu mythology, and various formations of postmodern cultural theory. A benefit of Raqs’s esoteric interests is one often doesn’t know what to expect from its next project other than a thoroughly considered and complex subject matter. However, consistent abstraction can be alienating given the various modes of representation Raqs deploys.
In England, the collective’s work shines a spotlight on both the advantages and limitations of engaging the legacy of colonialism. As part of the Victoria and Albert Museum’s recent exhibition Collecting Europe, artists were asked to imagine Europe two thousand years into the future. Raqs’s commission, The Return of Tipu’s Tiger, takes as its subject a famous model tiger devouring an English soldier, made for the 18th-century ruler of Mysore, Tipu Sultan, who resisted British rule during the expansion of the British East India Company. Raqs’s intervention (as both film and performative lecture) casts Tipu’s tiger as a modern-day meme rather than a remnant of the past. In light of contemporary debates about whether colonial spoils should be returned to their nations of origin, The Return of Tipu’s Tiger demonstrates that this is more than a matter of cultural diplomacy. Raqs asks us to consider what the relic has seen in its years at the V&A: to what extent can it be rightfully deemed an “Indian” artifact today – to say nothing of two millennia hence? In their interpretation, the tiger is not an index of history, but a spur for where the future of display culture and collecting might lead. Though colonialism’s impacts were devastating to India both politically and economically, British imperialism was also cultural, and determined how Indians thought about their history and traditions. Raqs’s project reformulates the relationship to symbolic objects through contemporary art, in the context of an institution with a deep colonial legacy; it gives the tiger a new set of teeth.
Much of this work bears the limits of the imagination. This was most pronounced in Raqs’s curatorial direction for the 2016 Shanghai Biennale, titled Why Not Ask Again: Arguments, Counter-Arguments, and Stories. For the event, 92 artists from 40 countries were given the opportunity to propose their visions for the future within the confines of Shanghai’s Power Station of Art. Rather than revisiting the oft-repeated trope of physical borders, which restrains itself to questions of geopolitics, the Biennale focused on temporal borders and dystopian fiction. It’s a promising angle in its refusal to appease those who fixate on neoliberal ideas of globalism.
The biennale format often replicates the limitations of the artworld – its exclusivity, its extravagance – in a way that puts the curatorial theme into question. Raqs’s agenda in Shanghai was to develop stories and narratives Socratically, through an assumed dialogue between the disparate works. But, who’s doing the asking, and what’s being asked? The question at hand is, why live in these sets of worlds, when there could be so many others? Or, why does art occupy a separate world at all? Again we’re led back to the philosophical cul-de-sac of institutional critique: to the extent that it is possible at all, critique of a system is often coupled with a necessary degree of participation. Raqs’s challenge then, resembles the one facing the students in Cape Town: how to simultaneously justify and rail against its presence in institutions that, historically, would rather they not be there?
In 1858, a Bengali peasant named Raj Konai was asked to stamp his hand on a piece of paper by a British official as a means of identification – part of a plan instituted by Sir William Herschel for colonial officials to manage and control their subjects. Thirty years later, the Victorian eugenicist Francis Galton would classify fingerprints according to racial types; his taxonomy and scientific papers would inform British court policy to use such prints as evidence. Digging through these histories in the UCL archives, Raqs interrogated the history of these inhuman classifications in the Untold Intimacy of Digits (2011), a digital work that animates Konai’s handprint, causing it to clasp and unfold. Like their proposal to show a disembodied emperor atop the Fourth Plinth, The Untold Intimacy of Digits suggests that both colonialism and the critique of colonialism are fueled by desire: in both cases, the impulse to know, to fix, to categorize.
Through their multidisciplinary practice, Raqs fights this indexing urge by speculating intensely on what the future might hold, should it hold any promise it all. Yet, through its body of critical and curatorial work, Raqs’s project is still haunted by the desire to rectify colonial history. Even as they draw lines to critically engage the next iterations of art, these are weighted with abstract, dense examinations of contemporary practice. The singular fixation on questions of what could be and what could have been generate excitement and perhaps hope, but the breadth of Raqs’s practice and critical lexicon often leaves visitors distanced by their works, placed at arm’s length by cerebral concerns. It’s a generative discomfort, spurring this practice: the open hand of the past grasping at something unreachable, in a place it will never quite belong.