The Universal Visuality of Rohith Vemula and the Aesthetics of Emancipation
By Aatika Singh
“Our love is constructed. Our beliefs colored. Our originality valid through artificial art. It has become truly difficult to love without getting hurt.” — Rohith Vemula, 2016
Who owns the visuality that is produced in the world? The entrapment that this rhetoric creates has been enlivening the debate of artistic inventiveness and resistance vis-à-vis the Art of the Oppressed, since centuries. In the Indian context, the institutionalization of art history and its practice has been serving the continuation of caste since years – a hierarchical anti-thesis of a creative thought process as has been stated previously by various Ambedkarite artists. In a similar vein, the art of the oppressed continues the egalitarian tradition of going against the established as it implores one to view objects and images of arts as products of labour, ideologies and culture of their time and history and not as canons of connoisseurship derived out of power. The realm of cultural production by oppressed caste bodies is an example of art emanating from the principles of collective authorship. In Cultural Labour: Conceptualizing the ‘Folk Performance’ in India, the author Brahma Prakash maps how Dalit and Adivasi Artisanal communities have been creating art as an everyday process and yet it obscures the categorisation of any forms of formal modern artistic venture. The Brahmanical supremacist control of all forms of aesthetic and representation thwarts democratization of artistic creation and collective ownership. The co-option of visuals of marginalized communities disables any humane construction wherein cultural and material possession and agency can be egalitarian.
In current times of neoliberal impoverishment combined with platform capitalism rendering the world hyperaware to image, the art visualized and produced to counter the perversity of caste has steadily seen a rise especially in the digital medium. Artists whose works stem from Ambedkarite Aesthetics are taking on the regime of the Brahmanical image and turning their imagination onto the feudal terrain. They display a rich and a different range of thematic and stylistic preoccupations with a signifier of lived experience denoting the emotionally intimate artwork. This juxtaposition has seen certain peaks in the documentation of the subaltern thought and visuals. Especially at a time when human movement has been reduced to zero and progressive forms of engagement effectively curbed, and only the fissile virus is allowed development and motion, the ongoing pandemic is producing new configurations of movement, assertion, and art. As we eagerly await to regain tactility, it only seems fitting to interrogate the role of art produced by the marginalized by remembering the artistic tributes made to Rohith Vemula.
Artistic and cultural production have been the boundless ground for experimentation of ideologies and also the fortress where utter disregard of subaltern lives is quotidian. Into this disdainful and discriminatory world, it is the voice, visibility and visuality of the oppressed that create a space of equity and solidarity by powerfully creating new social and cultural arbiters that struggle to embed politics into art. Such an intervention succeeds in expanding upon the vagueness and vagrancies of the perceptible while appearing to make the imperceptible real as mentioned by Fusco in Wreaking Havoc on the Signified. Rohith Vemula and his institutional murder are events in subaltern memory that one is compelled to revisit whenever a denial and destruction takes place within a university or a political cultural space. Apart from a strong political uprising by student and activists, after 17 January 2016, the legacy of Rohith’s life, thought and imagination was attempted to be visualised and mapped on paper, canvas and screens by many artists to enable a collective sense of solidarity and resistance. The famous portrayals penned down the dreams of Rohith and his friends into myriad possible hues. The style of the art was informed by political conditions and tailored to expose and challenge power and hierarchy. A serene Blue Rohith with closed eyes, morose expression and a raised fist came to symbolise resistance to caste. The image traveled far and made emancipatory meaning by its sheer act of existence. It went to protests and was staged in cultural productions. It is still the profile picture of many and floats around in abundance every year on Rohith’s birth and death anniversary. Most institutes of higher education like JNU and NUJS have his portraits, busts, and graffiti inscribed in their alleys and classrooms. The elegance and the remorse of the images that were produced post the institutional murder shifted and reshaped our own imagination of life, death and thought by invoking an anti-caste sensibility. We knew we weren’t alone, we have Rohith and Ambedkar on our side!
To further take from Cultural Labour, the question of aesthetics is fundamentally a question of labour. When the consequences of countering caste get inscribed on a labouring body, then artistic production that enables that very body to stand upright becomes necessary. The role of art in inscribing the memory and legacy of Rohith especially in universities where student struggle and movement remained(s) marginal and detested, was paramount as the gaze hammered the narrative of determination, agency and self-respect. Rohith’s last words, “The value of a man was reduced to his immediate identity and nearest possibility. To a vote. To a number. To a thing. Never was a man treated as a mind. As a glorious thing made up of stardust. In very field, in studies, in streets, in politics, and in dying and living” combined with the visuals had multiple layers of meanings with each stroke reflected intentionality, significance and purpose of value of a life that was lynched resisting State-sponsored caste discrimination. The prowess of such protest art lies in trespassing formal affect and aesthetic and condensing symbolism. The common features of most of the images were quietness, and a meditative veneer; in which the fists raised high in rebellion reached far into the azure vastness of the sky – a replenishment of every storm that he carried within battling inequality. Rohith and the visuality centering him as an icon of love and resistance is about realigning the imagination away from the praxis of Brahmanical supremacy and to decrease the force of pollution and purity. The closed Buddha like eyes of Rohith exude compassion and de-alienate subservience. It is at the altar of such transgressive imagination of subaltern lives that we defeat history and conquer memory. Such art takes us on long journeys of healing. It emboldens our traditional self, solidarity, idea and ideologies and enters into the realm of effect – in contrast asking, how much of space can the oppressed and her imagination occupy in this unequal world of ours?
Caste as a generative framework in artistic work and the circulation of aesthetic ideas implores us to challenge the civilizational bias embedded in human history as stated by Tartakov in Dalit Art and Visual Imagery. Any exclusive art practice creates a fundamental human crisis. Brahmanical production, circulation and consumption of protest art demarcate the networks of relationality first expressed by marginalized communities to the backburner. In stark contrast, the art of the oppressed centered on the politics of emancipation decenters the facade of modern art as utopian and casteless. The artistic tributes to Rohith defined the system of self-production of anti-caste images of liberation and the ways in which hierarchy and the art world are closely staged. The imagery defied traditional reinterpretations of pity and apathy, and instead turned the visual around to recheck the mechanisms that exist for appropriating and reinventing iconographic sources of the subalterns. The zenith that the moment of creative activism achieved was an authenticity to understand how artistic forms can serve the ends of activist interventions in a deeply unequal world governed by algorithms and abuse. Hence, in the contemporary visual culture it is the art of the oppressed that forces us to meander back into critical interrogation and philosophical inquiry of aesthetics and visuality. Such expression forces us to take a deeper look into the reality of the image and all its after lives. From ancient times till the hyperaware times of today flooded by multimedia intervention, the art produced at the periphery of non-normative institutions, in workplaces and fields, sites of protest and resistance, completes the complex matrix of the ideological connectivity to Ambedkarite Aesthetic as has been reiterated by Y.S. Alone. The narrative of subaltern living cultures enables a definition of assertive identity and solace in oppressed communities. The universal emancipatory art of the oppressed from the anti-caste protests in India to the Black Lives Matter movement in the US simply tells us who we are. It knows every place and story we imbibed over generations and every struggle fought in the name of dignity, self-respect and love.
The allegorical notion of Dalit struggle, issues of identity and discrimination remain paramount in all the thoughtful artistic creations created with utmost sensitivity on and for Rohith as a distinct anti-caste flavor is reflected abundantly in them. It is due to this exact precarity that the narrative embedded in the visuals of Rohith renders the process, techniques and the product vulnerable and heartrending at the same time. In the work, outrage is subtle and the expression local. The dimensions of the art foreground dignity and become an expressive act on the human condition. In Kant’s notion of Aesthetic Autonomy, the understanding of aesthetic experience is self-referential, without any value beyond itself. In sharp contrast, the art of the oppressed signify an ethical imperative of struggle, resistance and assertion and makes cultural politics a prerequisite for political struggle. There is never any empty signifier here as the conjectural element goes missing since the narrative foregrounds an affinity with lived experience. The body of Rohith is recognized with dignity and so is his intellectual legacy. The identification to social consciousness is deliberately installed sans any commodification of our marginality. In these images of Rohith the ownership is his and ours and no social chasm exists. Brahmanical cultural practices and art forms have traditionally either negated or appropriated marginalized art forms or worse; the portrayal of a subaltern body has been fetishized or given a negative stereotyping whilst simultaneously concealing caste oppression. Most mainstream narratives even in protest and solidarity art fail to incorporate the subaltern and our narratives. Such violent practices in the field of art inevitably produce ostracization and graded hierarchies that can be indefinitely consumed. Hence making a sanction of daily violence enter normative practices of artistry that completely erases the logocentric nature of cultural aesthetics.
In the Ambedkarite Aesthetics of emancipation, the most sublime powers of visual art emanating from the margins delve into dialectical connections between art, thought, memory and enquiry through a philosophical framework. The universal visuality of Vemula adeptly forges a relationship between truth and method as the aesthetics of emancipation rupture the surface of social artistic normativity. The plethora of art that was created for Rohith by us upended the dominant culture’s hold over identity and experience as it allowed newer terms of expression and assertion to be rehearsed and displayed. Amplification of anti-caste solidarity in a nation of Brahmanical thought, law and terrain combined with the disruptive power of radical transformation enables annihilation of dominance and imposition. The remembrance of Rohith has led to the organization of revolutionary consciousness around a shared understanding of injustice. The specificity of the powerful moment was the acknowledgement that grief can be a creative response to pollution and purity that underwrites mainstream artistry. Similar affective responses like rage and fear flicker provocation, momentum and discontinuity by decentering modern subjectivity, the foundation of which is based on the supposed rationality of the Brahmin and the veneration of his gaze. The critical force that gives the legacy of Rohith its aesthetic value is the continuing rejection of hegemony and the anticipatory solidarity the artwork gives birth to. The art of the oppressed thus creates conditions for the realization of freedom and belonging. A reimagining of art is therefore necessary for the rupture of visuality that demarcates and divides the authority and the authorized. Since the field of imagery and history is always encountered, understood, and regarded as complicit in caste episteme and its assumed civility of the oppressor caste, the aesthetics of universal emancipation query caste because it is the oppressed who own the world and its visuality.
Long Live Rohith Vemula.
Prakash, Brahma. Cultural Labour: Conceptualizing the ‘Folk Performance’ in India. Oxford University Press, 2019
Coco Fusco, https://www.frieze.com/article/wreaking-havoc-signified
Tartakov, Gary Michael (Ed.). Dalit Art and Visual Imagery. Oxford University Press, 2012.
Alone, Y.S. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_UpTLH8o3lg
Misrahi-Barak, Judith, K. Satyanarayana, Nicole Thiara (Ed.). Dalit Text: Aesthetics and politics Re-imagined. Routledge, 2019
Dube, Saurabh. https://www.opendemocracy.net/en/openindia/unsettling-art-caste-gender-and-dalit-expression/
Aatika Singh is a Delhi based artist. She is currently pursuing a master’s degree in Arts and Aesthetics from Jawaharlal Nehru University. Her primary research is about the intersections of art history and the anti-Caste movement. Her previous projects were based on gender, mental health, and marginality. She has been working on a series of protest art at the ongoing farmers protest at Tikri Kalan. She finished her law graduation from National University of Juridical Sciences, Kolkata in 2018 after which she was employed with Navayana Publishing briefly. She is passionate about alternative cinema, resistance visuality and rural activism traditions.
For more stories, read Café Dissensus Everyday, the blog of Café Dissensus Magazine.