10 Sep 2022  |   06:56am IST

Afrah Shafiq’s alternate reality

Afrah Shafiq’s alternate reality

Vivek Menezes

If you have not visited, do not miss the last week of Afrah Shafiq’s engrossing multimedia masterpiece Sultana’s Reality at the increasingly invaluable Sunaparanta Goa Centre for the Arts on the crest of Altinho in Panjim. One of the best and most compelling recent artworks from India – afterstar turns at the 2019 Kochi Muziris Biennale and the 2020 Lahore Biennial – this interactive browser-based installation delights, awes and educates in equal measure. Considering the artist has been happily based in Goa for years, it’s surprising it took so long to

be exhibited in what is now her home state.

Better late than never, because Sultana’s Reality is an extraordinarily rich engagement with archival materials, that is both rooted and liberated by visual culture. Also available online at entersultanasreality.com, this surprise-filled “history of women and books in India”, is inspired by the pioneering 1905 short story Sultana’s Dream by Rokeya Sakhawat Hossain, where women have all the power while the men are isolated in purdah. These two questions are in the concept note: “If it’s said that well-behaved women seldom make history, why is it that our history textbooks rarely have women behaving ‘badly’? Are the readers forgetting certain kinds of books or are the writers forgetting certain kinds of stories?”

Shafiq is 33, grew up in Bangalore, and earned degrees from Christ University (BA in media studies, literature and psychology) and Symbiosis in Pune (MA, media and communication in audio-visual production). In an essay entitled Animating the Archive, she explains how “working with archives can sometimes feel like swimming in the deep dark ocean or navigating an endless sea of new window tabs on a computer browser. The more I read the more lost I become until I completely forget how I got where I am and what I came looking for in the first place.” In addition, “much has been said about the “archival impulse” and its associated fevers in both the art and academic spaces and it isn’t really a novel practice anymore to breathe new meanings into old materials.”

Nonetheless, “I repeatedly find myself drawn to the archive, finding that the depth of the ocean where the sun never reaches can be a pretty magical place of discovery. The archival burden begins to lighten as I look at the act of research as play, navigating through hidden “treasures” lucidly, almost as one would solve a detective case. I often enter archives with a hunch, a premonition, a gut instinct of what I am interested in and begin looking for clues, allowing for accidental stumbling and playful remixing outside the logical categories of form, collections, period, and data. And the discoveries, they abound!”

That is putting it mildly, because Sultana’s Realityis a profoundly rewarding artwork that satisfies at many levels simultaneously. As described by the artist herself, “the story is told through animated video, graphics, gif’s, comics, collages and other digital art forms made by collating, re-mixing, re-interpreting and re-imagining traditional visual imaginations of the female form. It tries to explore the multiplicity of women’s history and also image making – the ways in which it is told and remembered. Sultana’s Reality is perhaps an exercise in questioning history. Not the history of the image, but a history that is constructed with the image. Women gazing out of windows are perhaps not romantic pictures connoting sensuality, luxury and the feminine form in all its glory. They may rather be images of women who are bored, who are imprisoned (sometimes within their own minds), who are uninspired.”

One thrill in viewing Sultana’s Reality in Panjim is the reminder that some of the best artists anywhere are actually right here, and some of their works are best understood in the context of this unique cultural strand, with its “different ways of belonging” (in the poet Eunice de Souza’s trenchant phrasing) to “the mainstream.” This is 100% Shafiq, who produced the very Goan 2021 masterwork A Tale of Two Sisters – it was also displayed at Sunaparanta, in collaboration with Goa Open Arts Festival –which “used the form of the grinding stone to churn together religious iconography, the syncretic nature of worship in Goa and the connections between two of its most prominent female deities, Mother Mary and Shantadurga.” She has also been building Our Lady of I Can Be Anything You Want Me To (https://ourladyoficanbeanythingyouwant meto.com) which will debut at Museum of Christian Art (MoCA), Old Goa in January.

When I asked Shafiq about making art in Goa, she joked that,”I really want to make a quick fun video game where we can mow down tourists who block the Parra “coconut tree selfie road.” More seriously, “what has felt very conducive to making art in Goa (and I guess just mentally thriving here) is the rhythm of the place. The day is made up of a lot of space, and yet has anchors. In the morning the poder and the fish seller will come. You know all the waddo dogs and their individual politics. In your lane everyone knows each other, they talk to one another, there is a coming and going. This is a daily rhythm. Then there is a seasonal rhythm. Perhaps the additional Goa factor would also be the freedom and space to “be”. There isn’t a violent or judgemental atmosphere - I feel very comfortable being myself without having any fear or discomfort - not something one can say easily about many parts of the country now.”

Of course, more and better art demand spaces to view it, and curatorial wherewithal to match. Unfortunately, this is where Goa lags badly, with an effectively absent state, and zero critical culture. This is why private institutions like Fundação Oriente (and its stunning Trindade collection), Xavier Centre of Historical Research (with its priceless trove from Angelo da Fonseca), MoCA and Sunaparanta are so important, and it is to be truly celebrated that the latter is finally living up to its full potential.

“2020 put a great strain on the cultural ecosystem worldwide,” says Leandre D’Souza, the curator and programme director at Sunaparanta. “In spite of this, we found new ways to adapt and respond to our present environment. We developed new tools to communicate and to stay connected with our audiences and community. As our world shrunk to the virtual screen, we kept our institution running with online initiatives that included artistic projects, online talk shows and a virtual art & theatre programme for children. We learnt a new language to cope with the virtual space as a site for reflection and discussion.”

D’Souza says “working under the direction and patronage of Isheta Salgaocar, and with an all-women team, our foundation has thrust forward with a particular emphasis on pedagogy and knowledge creation. Today, our programmes include the Sunaparanta Art Initiator Lab (now in its second edition, a mentorship programme that is practice-based, open to creative professionals from various streams and offers them the opportunity to refine their practices through innovative learning (and un-learning) methodologies); Artist-in-Residence Lab (research-based and offers a space for artists to critically examine existing practices through exchange and dialogue); Fellowship Grants (for cultural operators producing scholarly work in various creative fields); Emerging Artist Grants (contributes to the advancement of research, practice and production); Art & Theatre School (places children at the forefront of learning and thinking where they become the protagonists in open and process-based art and theatre practices).”


Iddhar Udhar