If art holds up a mirror to the world, then what does art look like in a post-truth world? A possible answer to the question is offered by Babur ki Gai, a group exhibition in Delhi where 19 artists experiment with parafiction, or fiction presented as fact, to provide social commentary.
The show’s idea is perfectly reflected in Priyanka D’Souza’s titular work. A series of three paintings, it builds on an elaborate lie from the 17th century, when a forgery of Mughal emperor Babur’s wasiyat surfaced. The fake will claimed, among other things, that the king had wished to ban cow slaughter. Cut to the present: in July, a legislator resurrected the suspect wish and attributed it to the wrong person.
D’Souza had created this work for a training-cum-open studio in Austria. But when art curator Adwait Singh approached her for a show, with the overarching idea of creating new myths (or mythopoesis) using parafiction, she changed its context. She claimed she had found the lost pages from the Baburnama. Babur ki Gai now represents those lost pages.
“These emperors, these fancy emperors, completely changed history just because they were in power,” said 22-year-old D’Souza, whose tongue-in-cheek portraits show an Austrian cow moving in and out of the frame, oblivious that it is the subject of so much attention. “And that’s what we do too.”
D’Souza’s work at Gallery Latitude 28 and Art District XIIIis deceptively light-hearted, belying the questions it asks. Who writes history? Who alters it, to what end and how? How do you tell fact from fiction? And what about histories that have been lost?
In a 2009 article in October, a peer-reviewed academic journal specialising in contemporary art, art historian Carrie Lambert-Beatty defined parafiction as an untruth that must win the audience’s trust and pass as fact, even if it is for a brief interlude, to achieve its purpose.
“Like a paramedic as opposed to a medical doctor,” Lambert-Beatty wrote, “a parafiction is related to but not quite a member of the category of fiction as established in literary and dramatic art. It remains a bit outside. It does not perform its procedures in the hygienic clinics of literature, but has one foot in the field of the real. Unlike historical fiction’s fact-based but imagined worlds, in parafiction, real and/or imaginary personages and stories intersect with the world as it is being lived. Post-simulacral, parafictional strategies are oriented less toward the disappearance of the real than toward the pragmatics of trust. Simply put, with various degrees of success, for various durations, and for various purposes, these fictions are experienced as fact.”
In Babur ki Gai, work after work uses parafiction for purposes that run the gamut from retelling history to questioning gender politics. For example, Anupama Alias revisits the myth of Adam and Eve from a feminist perspective in a series of portraits of women. Women are relegated to a subordinate role in Christian and Hebrew texts, which say they have been created from a rib taken from Adam. In Alias’ multimedia works, the ribs become agents of tension and torture. They poke out through diaphanous clothes and bodies, and are sometimes tacked painfully to women’s faces and bodies, as if to suggest how the myth impacts women’s lives today.
In his concept note for Babur ki Gai, Singh explained his preoccupation with contemporary histories in the show. The difficulty in the project, he pointed out, was in pinning down the contemporary moment. One solution was to imagine a history of the near future through tricks opened up by parafiction, including mythopoesis. “Of course myths are fiction to some extent,” wrote Singh. “They are also history, because you can read in between the lines, and you could get some factual value through them. But largely, they have a lesson of fiction.”
As such, myths from the Book of Genesis to the Shahnameh, and stories of Indian gods, goddesses and legendary leaders populate several of the creations in this show. A powerful example of a work that connects old myths to present histories is an Afghan rug by Hazara artist Khadim Ali.
While the rug depicts a fantastical creature with horns, reminiscent of a character in the 11th-century epic poem Shahnameh, it is also invested with more recent histories of its country of origin and the artist. The story goes that the rug was partially destroyed when a bomb razed Ali’s home in 2011. When the artist tried to repair the rug, he also implanted in it some of his own experience of making war rug – rugs that capture the history of violence in Afghanistan since the Soviet invasion in 1979.
Of course neither the exhibit note nor Singh confirm or deny the veracity of any of these claims. Was the artist’s home really bombed? Was the rug the only heirloom that survived? Visitors must make of the rug what they will. Whether they want to see it as a piece of history of a war-torn nation, or a fiction that allows that artist to gain a modicum of power and control the narrative, is up to them.
Babur ki Gai is on display at Gallery Latitude 28 and Art District XIII, New Delhi, till November 20.
All photos by Chanpreet Khurana.