Thursday, November 08, 2012

An intense quest for the truth

Film artist Amar Kanwar talks about the many films in which he has documented political and sexual violence

Photos: Amar Kanwar (left) with Bose Krishnamachari, artistic director of the Kochi-Muziris Biennale; Bangladesh women who were victims of sexual violence by Pakistan soldiers during the 1971 war

By Shevlin Sebastian 

The Kochi-Muziris  Biennale is a mammoth event,” says Amar Kanwar, a film artist with an international reputation. “I don’t think people have understood the scale of the work the organisers are doing. Setting up the art work of the 80 plus artists from all over the world is an enormously difficult task. It takes months of work. In my experience, when I do a show abroad, it can take a year or two of preparatory e-mail exchanges.”

In other countries, such a big event is usually done by corporations, state governments and big foundations. “That is how it is in places like Berlin, Venice and Sao Paulo,” he says.

But the Kochi-Muziris  Biennale is different. “Don’t forget that Bose  [Krishnamachari] and Riyas [Komu] are artists and not professional managers,” says Amar. “Most of the people who are working with them are artists and young people. Anybody, anywhere in the art world, would be envious and excited of what is happening here.”

Indeed, the international community is quite excited. “I have received many e-mails from senior artists, curators, museum directors, and critics asking me whether they should come,” he says. “People are curious to see what a Biennale will look like in India. Secondly, it is an artist,  and not a corporation-led show. So, people think it could be something special and interesting.”

Amar is also an interesting person. A film artist he has been focusing on trying to understand physical and sexual violence, as well as the politics of power all over the world.

One of his films is called ‘The Torn Front Pages’. For the past several decades there is a law in Burma which stated that every published item, be it a newspaper or a magazine or a story book or a collection of poems, must have, on its first page, a set of propaganda statements by the Burmese military. “If these statements are not printed, then the work is banned, and the publisher is arrested,” says Amar.

In Mandalay, there was a book shop owner by the name of Ko Than Htay. In the early nineties, whenever he would sell a book, he would tear off the first page as an act of rebellion. “When I learnt about this, I found it amazing,” says Amar. “I also felt it was an extremely courageous act. If caught, Htay would get several years in jail, and face torture. It was not an act of rebellion by a political figure but an ordinary man.” Eventually, Htay was arrested in 1994, by the military police, tortured, and jailed for three years.

Another film called ‘The Lightning Testimonies’ looks at rape during conflicts. “Whether it is the 2002 communal riots in Gujarat, or during the Partition of India in 1947, people resort to sexual violence, as a way of getting back at the other community. Apart from conquering armies, it is also defeated soldiers who have used this as a weapon.”

The Pakistan Army, after losing the Bangladesh War in 1971, raped more than 75,000 women during their retreat. “But this has also happened in Yugoslavia, Sudan and Rwanda,” says Amar. “There have been reports that the Soviet Army in 1945 used sexual violence against the Germans following their victory in the Second World War.”

Amar asks a lot of questions in his work. For instance, on July 15, 2004, 12 old women disrobed and stood naked in front of the gates of the Assam Rifles in Imphal, Manipur, protesting the suspected rape and murder in custody of 32-year-old Thangjam Manorama. 

“What forced them to take such a strong step, and that too, in front of the press and the whole world?” he says. “And when they did it, what did they feel? Why did the soldiers get scared and lock the gates and run inside? If there are any conclusions, it is for the viewer to do so.”

Not surprisingly, Amar’s films have fetched him numerous international awards. He is the recipient of the 1st Edvard Munch Award for Contemporary Art from Norway, as well as the Golden Gate Award (San Francisco International Film Festival) and the The First Prize (Torino International Film Festival, Italy), among many others. He has also enjoyed the rare honour of being selected thrice for the highly regarded Documenta exhibition at Kassel, Germany: in 2002, 2007 and 2012.

Amar Kanwar: an artist with an intense quest for the truth!

(The New Indian Express, Kochi and Thiruvananthapuram) 

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