An art project that aims to change the conversation around rape is noble in intention, but no armour of pieties can shield it from its aesthetic failings (Published in the Hindu Blink supplement, 13 June, 2015)
The celebrity Chinese artist Ai Weiwei once said that “any artist who is not an activist is a dead artist.” This is a familiar demand, the hope that art not seal itself from the world but instead grapple with its turmoil and absurdity. But is the reverse true? Can art make the work of activists more meaningful, more alive?
Ram Devineni was in Delhi in the aftermath of the barbaric 2012 gang-rape that brought sexual and gender-based violence to the fore in India. Enraged by the apathy and casual misogyny he saw around him, he joined in the immense struggle of promoting awareness and changing attitudes about rape. Priya’s Shakti is at once a comic book, a public art installation, an exercise in social media marketing replete with Twitter hashtags, and an ‘augmented reality’ digital experience. Launched at the end of 2014, it is now ensconced for a few months in the tiny City Lore gallery on the Lower East Side of New York City.
Most of the international media attention lavished on the project has focused on its very worthy moral impetus and ambitions. It goes without saying that Priya’s Shakti is urgent, necessary, and hugely noble. But as an artistic (and not just political) endeavour, it remains open to criticism. No armour of pieties can shield it from its aesthetic failings.
At the heart of Priya’s Shakti is a short and rather flimsy comic book. Each page is blown up and displayed in sequence along the walls of the gallery (also available online via a free download). In her divine refuge up on Mount Kailash, Parvati hears the prayers of a village woman, Priya, who has been raped. The goddess reveals Priya’s abuse to the god Shiva, who with typical absolutism decides that all human beings will no longer be able to have children, thereby unleashing a period of desperation and chaos on Earth. Parvati is annoyed at her husband (“He doesn’t realise that rape is an act of violence and domination… it cannot truly be opposed with more of the same!”) and forces him to relent. Eventually, she reveals herself to Priya, whom she inspires to become a campaigner around the issue of rape and gender-based violence. Parvati’s mantra allows Priya to “find her shakti”, which manifests in the form of a tiger that she rides from village to village like a roving, pedagogical Durga.
The message is simple and entirely just: victims of rape should feel no shame and should be allowed to find the strength within themselves (their shakti) to protest their abuse. Devineni and his collaborators describe Priya as a ‘superhero’, but her superpower is a moral one. The comic earnestly reminds readers that the courage to do what’s right lies within us, that we can all be agents of change even if we don’t have a friendly tiger to take us from place to place. Nevertheless, the vehicle of this message remains a limp, undeveloped story that gestures at the conventions of superhero comic books without fulfilling any of them. Though supposedly the core of the project, the comic narrative is threadbare and tacky, a gauzy veil drawn over the idealistic mission.
It doesn’t help that the great selling point of Priya’s Shakti — its use of ‘augmented reality’ technology — is more a clunky distraction than a boon. Visitors to the gallery are invited to use an app on their smartphones to unlock hidden multimedia treats in each page of the comic book. Hold up a smartphone’s camera to a given page and you’ll see an army of white dots busy themselves about the image before revealing something additional: an animation of the image, a link to an educational video, audio files of testimony from rape survivors, an overlay about Hindu cosmology (Priya’s Shakti seems as committed to educating non-Indians about Hinduism as it is interested in advocating women’s rights), and so forth. There is some charm and resource in many of these revelations (Parvati assumes the form of Kali and her eyes flash a menacing purple), but their novelty wears away quickly. A fickle interface, interminable buffering, and deathly black screens hobble the visual experience more than they augment it.
Priya’s Shakti ends with small histories from rape victims about their lives. Their narratives are by far the most heartbreaking and powerful part of the comic sequence, but they have you wonder whether they deserve the indignity of sitting alongside all the ‘superhero’ guff.
To their credit, Devineni and his team are not restricting the project to a niche exhibition in a New York gallery. They want to take Priya and the augmented reality experience across India and into many languages apart from English. Most compellingly, they have painted public murals in Delhi and Mumbai and plan to have hundreds more around India, all boasting a resolute Priya and her tiger.
Passersby can raise their smartphones at these murals and delve into graphical and informational overlays about rape, women’s rights, and helpful NGOs. Many people, however, will not have the right equipment or network connection to access the ‘augmented reality’ of this public art. One can only hope that the unaugmented reality is enough and that, as a symbol of the struggle against sexual violence, Priya transcends her comic origins.
(‘Priya’s Shakti Augmented Reality Art Exhibition’ runs till July 31, 2015 at City Lore, New York)