Between the Personal and the Political — Two Art Projects by Akshay Sethi
September 29, 2020

Editor's Introduction

In Akshay Sethi’s artistic oeuvre, the artwork can become a site of excavation, revelation and disambiguation, bringing forth visuals of that which otherwise remains undermined, ignored, unnoticed and relegated to a process of continued invisibilization—one that exists at the core of the everyday and the quotidian. Here the Delhi-based emerging artist presents a collection of his own works divided into two projects, with proper introductions and a few summarized commentaries about each set of works as part of Inverse Journal’s initiative to have artists of all generations write for themselves and present their work in their own words.

In these works, Sethi explores the fine line between the personal and the political, one that exists in a material form but that goes unperceived were it not for the creative impetus of the artist to frame a re-envisioning of the personal within the political—and vice versa—situated metaphorically in the object of art. Through the artistic medium, the young artist’s practice invites multiple inquiries into what otherwise would simply pass along as “day-to-day happenings” or a series of events confined to news reports and headlines that trend and subside into a collective oblivion or a collective memory—framed and curated by mainstream and mass mediaonce their trending impact has reached a specific shelf life. It is here that Sethi’s work interjects to excavate for a greater human profundity within the personal and the political to transcend event, subject, group, collective as mere ‘happening on the street’, breaking away from the quotidian limits set upon everyday life by a variety of circumstances and conditions. The result is a poetics that can best be observed in the works themselves as the young artist works to develop and refine his art practice.

To delve deeper into a greater human understanding, Sethi often engages with literature, poetry, news media, contemporary culture and tradition by shaping his works as points of convergence between these while imbuing such works with a spirit of critique where resistance and criticality can take shape in multiple ways. The young artist’s engagement with various forms of literature is essential to the meaning-making that fiction writing offers, in a world where many times sense and sensibility seem lacking or absent.

Artist's Statement

I am a bridge. I am interested in ‘gaps’ and I am scared.

My practice explores the correlation between the personal and political in a way that it contemplates the ordinary, the everyday and the quotidian. I like to delve into the vast reservoir of normally unnoticed, trivial, repetitive actions, the uneventful and the overlooked aspects of everyday life. When I think of representation, I come across questions like “how we can attend to the unnoticed, the casually undermined?” How we can drag the overlooked sequences and narratives of the everyday into view? Where do we locate the subject in terms of (re)presentation within the margins and retrieve the subject from the confines of the unnoticed. I like to engage with them through the metaphors or materials that are embedded in narrative itself. Within narrative, as well as discourse, whatever is absent becomes present through artistic intervention, through a creative mediation of sorts. I experiment with juxtapositions and look for parallels in literature for the ambiguated or obfuscated. In the undertone, the deadening sensitivity, numbness, urban alienation and lack of empathy are some of the concerns in my work.

My work breeds in everyday encounters, in spaces like railway ticket counters, government offices, public libraries, local trains, public parks, public washrooms and streets. Here I will be sharing two of my projects with you.

Project One

Blinders and Apolitical 

Silence is a powerful tool of expression that can also be misread in the matter of politics as consent. It is an active part of communication. An active verbal action or reaction. It is a concept of social interaction that states roughly that people tend to assume lack of response to an action as tacit approval of that action.

The project “Blinders and Apolitical” highlights the role of the big elephant in the room. It enquires into the silent attitude of the privileged citizens in society, who intervene and shape the democratic discourse.  My engagements with stories of Franz Kafka, Manto and poems of a Punjabi poet like Paash guide me in bringing out the nuances between the personal and political in this project.

The following are installation shots for Blinders and Political. Images courstesy of the artist.

The project was displayed at Serendipity Arts Festival 2019, Call to disorder, curated by Vidya Shivadas. It contains a set of four works which are as follows.

What is Dangerous?

8 x 11 inches, Indian ink on paper, Photocopies, 2018

The drawing in this work is repeatedly photocopied to the extent that it becomes dark and gets blurred. The work contains a set of 30 visuals. A zine was also made during the The Storytellers Workshop conducted by FICA (The Foundation for Indian Contemporary Art) and Serendipity Art Trust. The text used in the zine is a Hindi translation of a poem “sab ton khatarnak” by the Punjabi poet Paash.

Stills from the work What is Dangerous? presented here as a slide show.

Installation shots for What is Dangerous? exhibited at the 2019 Serendipity Arts Festival. Images courstesy of the artist.

Bura mat dekho, bura mat suno, bura mat bolo

8.5 x 5 cm (each ticket), Ink on railway tickets, 2018

The railway tickets used in the work were collected for fifteen days of daily travel back and forth from the local railway station to New Delhi. As such, there are two tickets for each date (morning and evening). The portraits drawn on these 30 set of tickets are of fellow passengers working in various departments of the central government. The work engages with the philosophy of ‘the three monkeys’ (see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil) and questions the idea of ignorance.

Stills from the work presented here as a slide show.

Display from the Storytellers Workshop.

Silence is Because of Violence, Violence is Because of Silence

8 x 11 inches, Clerical papers (used in government offices) Graphite pencil, 2019

The work reflects on the relationship between silence and violence. The text is written on the back side of paper used by clerks in government offices for official documents. I deliberately put myself into a routine of repeatedly writing similar texts to explore monotony and numbness. It is an ongoing work from the project.

The Man and the Rattrap

 25 wooden rattraps, laser cutting, LED lights, Charcoal on parchment paper (zine), 2018

The short story “Before the law” by Franz Kafka translated in English by Ian Johnston is displayed in parts inside each rattrap linearly. The story is about the gap between the citizen and the law through a conversation between the man and the gatekeeper of the gate of law. In the story, the man peeks through the closed gate of law as he is denied entry. The work deliberately puts the viewer in a similar situation of peeking into small wooden rattraps to read parts of Kafka's story.

The pages from zines based on the same story.

Installation shots of the work, courtesy of the artist.

Project Two:

The Situational Irony of a Stick

“When aimed at someone, it cuts through the air, makes a thwacking sound, peels off a thin layer of skin and sends waves of pain through the body. One hard blow from it is numbing and a few hard hits can cripple a man for life. It's a Lathi (stick).”

During my 2020 residency at 1 ShanthiRoad Studio/Gallery, Bangalore, I initiated a project The Situational Irony of a Stick that looks into the history and multiple uses of the Lathi or a cane stick. Seen in indigenous martial arts and as a weapon police uses for crowd control even today, it has recurrently been a symbol of power and authority. Traditionally, in India, police use lathi to disperse an unlawful assembly, to control unruly mobs—a practice that the British widely used as a tool to suppress the protests. The legacy of the lathi charge comes with the enactment of Indian Police Act of 1861 implemented during British period. The project aims at bringing together multiple narratives and anecdotes around lathi (stick) in today’s India.

The Situational Irony of a Stick (work)

11”X 8”, water colour on paper, 2020

Traditionally, in India, police use lathi to disperse an unlawful assembly, to control unruly mobs—a practice that the British Raj widely used as a tool to suppress the satyagrahis who challenged their regime. In 1928, Lala Lajpat Rai, a renowned Indian freedom fighter died during a protest because of lathi charge by the British. Ironically, the legacy of lathi charge comes with the enactment of Indian Police Act 1861 implemented during British period. The small stickers of the drawing were reproduced for the display.

Sound of a Weapon

 14 A4 size papers, charcoal on parchment paper, 2020

In May 2019, Chandrakant Hutgi, the 52-year-old head constable of Hubli rural police station, Karnataka (India), went viral on social media for whittling a flute out of his police lathi or cane. Using local tools, Hutgi skillfully drilled eight holes into the lathi, including one for blowing air, six for playing his fingers and another smaller outlet to let out the air. Hutgi's skill and artistic talent earned him recognition from the state police department and a special cash award (inaam) from the Additional Director General of Police (ADGP) in Bengaluru.

I have juxtaposed the original process of making lathi (used by Indian police) in text with the visuals of how Chandrakant Hutgi made a flute out of the same material.

The work is displayed in accordion format made out of official folders used to keep records in government offices and police stations.

Installation shots of the work Sound of a Weapon

She and the Lathi

 18 x 48 inches, water colour on paper, 2020

On December 16th, 2019, Delhi Police lathi charged the students of Jamia Milia Islamia University, Delhi. The students were peacefully protesting against the draconian Citizenship Amendment Act enacted by the current Indian government recently. Cops on that evening were armed with lathis and batons that they hurled at anyone they could see. A video went viral after a few hours of one such incident in which one can see how a group of brave women were protecting their fellow male friends from lathi charge. They had made a protective shield around them. The girls bravely confronted the cops and shouted slogans demanding that they leave and to go back to their stations.

In this work I have juxtaposed images from that video with a woman practicing an indigenous martial art called Silambam practiced in South India by women in Sarees. The commonly used weapon in this form of martial art is a lathi (stick).

From a History Book

2020

The text displayed in the center with the lathi carefully placed on it, meditates upon an incident from the Indian freedom struggle. Interestingly, it is very similar to what happened in December 2019 at Jamia Milia Islamia University in Delhi, when a group of policemen invaded the university library and lathi charged students studying within its premises.

Still courtesy of the artist

An installation shot of From a History Book, courtesy of the artist

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About the Contributor

Akshay Sethi’s practice explores the complex relationship between the personal and political, contemplated through everyday experience, within the domain of the ordinary and the quotidian. He delves into the vast reservoir of normally unnoticed, trivial, repetitive actions, the uneventful and the overlooked aspects of the everyday through his drawings, zines, comics and installations. A post-graduate in Painting from the College of Art (New Delhi), his works have been shown at the Serendipity Arts Festival 2019, the Clark House Initiative, Mumbai and 1 Shanthiroad Studio Gallery, Bangalore. His comic pieces were exhibited in Fumetto—Internationales Comix—Festival Luzern, Switzerland in collaboration with Blue Jackal. He published his pieces with Blue jackal (OCTA Series 2018, Situation Comics 1 & 2) and with STRAPZIN, a Swiss comic magazine, Indie Comic Non-fiction Anthology 2017. He lives and works in Delhi.

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