A recent visit to Bhupen Khakhar’s exhibition at Tate Modern was quite inspiring and thought provoking. I was thinking about it ever since, specially in light of the intense development debates I was part of, a week back. But I was quite unaware of the ripples it created until I read Thomas’s post.
I totally understand Thomas’s point/desire of “reading of the work itself”, but as the mania came after the Tate exhibition, I was wondering how come no one wrote about the way it was curated. Johny ML puts things in perspective, and writes by situating himself in the contemporary right-wing political popularity (read fiasco) in India. I very explicitly remember the painting titled “You Can’t Please All”, which was the title of the exhibition too. It was Johny ML who explained to me on how Khakhar being gay, need to be understood to read the painting. He did explain the “work itself”, but what stuck with me was the artist’s story. (so does many stories which Johny ML used to tell)
As I went through the exhibition thinking, may be the curator took Khakhar’s narrative style and made their own emotional narrative. The exhibition is more or less in a chronological order and the highlight can be seen as three points in Khakhar’s life. First is when Khakhar visited UK and realized that it is much more acceptable to talk about ones sexual orientation. Second was during cataract. And finally the days when he was struggling with cancer.
The first point of departure of he being gay is portrayed with respect to the oppression of such choices in India. The explicit quote by Khakhar stating that the British spoiled the open sexual approach of India (during colonization) and India still suffers from it, making the point that it is extremely difficult to be gay in India. It is difficult to be gay anywhere, just that in some cultures to be able to talk about it openly makes in even more difficult to see, as it covers the power relations (taking from Zizek). So it felt like a move to say that Khakhar’s work is important because of the oppressive context. Taking from earlier Zizek example it is much easier to take a political position in direct oppressive societies like in India, than in indirect oppressive societies like UK. In this manner one can understand why Jonathan Jones would dislike this exhibition. This is the same when it comes to the development discourse, as I often say, ‘we’ need to take the slum dwellers dying out of tuberculosis and place them in a social order where they will die of heart-attack; for heart-attack is more developed than poor tuberculosis. Concentration of the debates on explicit oppression and completely ignoring the hidden oppression was also part of this exhibition.
The point here is to highlight the discourse, which cross cuts all the fields. It is of course difficult to critique indirect oppression and Khakhar does it wonderfully. His only loss is that he is part of the society where the oppression is direct. When one looks at ‘you can’t please all’, it is set on the old donkey story, the life on the scene goes on and Khakhar stands on his balcony naked. It is suppose to symbolize that he is gay. His nakedness is not visible to the world (read India) he is looking at, but to the viewers of the painting. That is the point which interests me, the critique embedded in the fact that Khakhar is not showing his sexual orientation to the society he lives in, but to the society which appreciates him. In other words, for the world which doesn’t accepts him (as gay), he is a mere artist, and for world which accepts him (as artist) he is gay. This is precisely the critique of the hidden oppression which the Tate misses to materialize, or chose not to materialize to cater to the voyeuristic nature of looking from the developed world to the developing world.