For most of us, the future is where we pin our hopes, and the present exists only in the possibility that our idea of a good and just life may vanish under the weight of violence and inattention. The past, for us, is too often the space of radical nostalgia and the detritus of dreams, so much so that it has coloured the word archive. The word brings to mind something that has been put away safely, something that has retreated into the penumbra of memory. What would it, then, mean to create an archive of and for the present?

With his work, Riyas Komu is building a history of the present, compelling us to think about all its terrors, possibilities and betrayals. His 2009 work Ballad of the Distracted vs Cult of the Dead and Memory Loss presented us with a Hobson’s choice, where neither alternative offered the possibility of redemption. His new work, Fourth World, has been installed at Nirox Sculpture Park, in an area known as Cradle of Humankind, outside Johannesburg, South Africa.

The installation consists of four concrete plinths of differing heights facing the four cardinal points. On two of the plinths facing east and west are the first statues of BR Ambedkar – the legal luminary, historian and indefatigable crusader for the rights of all Indians – on the African continent, while the other two plinths are vacant.

'Fourth World'. Photo credit: Dilip M. Menon.

Fourth World is in a clearing where the grass of the high veldt grades into well-manicured grass. As Wallace Stevens might have written, the wilderness rises to frame the sculptures. Ambedkar is, as ever, immaculately attired in a double-breasted suit, but unlike the iconic statues that are scattered over India, he is neither holding a copy of the Constitution nor is he pointing to some distant future. One hand of the statue looks like he is holding the stand of a microphone, while the other hand is raised and open as if explaining something or inviting an audience’s assent. While he addresses the west and the east, the open plinths suggest there is space for other questions, interlocutors and unimagined futures. The larger landscape is of an unrealised equality that will bring together conversations about race, indigenous people, sexuality and newer generations who will look up from their screens and hear.

Unlike the blue-suited statues of Ambedkar, which proliferate from Uttar Pradesh to Tamil Nadu, this installation inserts him into a transnational space, unmoored from the many local politics for which he has been deployed in India. Its location inspires an intimacy with the viewer who is summoned to a private conversation.

Ambedkar, in a declarative mode, gestures not only to future conversations but histories that have been forgotten. There is the obvious connection of South Africa with colonial India: the return of Mohandas Gandhi to India to forge a new politics of nationalism, after two decades of experimenting with politics and life at the tip of the African continent. To South Africa Gandhi had brought his early engagements with pacifism, animal rights and vegetarianism during his years in England. While constructing a personal ethic of being in the world, he began to address the landscape of race and inequality, hesitantly at first, and later with more confidence.

Blue-suited statues of Ambedkar are proliferating across India. Photo credit: Noah Seelam/AFP

Confluence of thoughts

His lawyerly engagement took the British idea of imperial citizenship seriously and he worked within the legal framework, carving out a space for Indians in Africa, extending the rights promised by the Queen to her Indian subjects. But working within the law meant that he created distinctions between the Indian and the black African, and the larger discourse of equality came to be compromised by considerations of civilizational difference. The Indians, since they were the inheritors of an ancient civilization, were different from the African, who was simple, naïve and radically Other. Gandhi’s ambivalent relation with the African and questions of race were to find some continuities when he moved to India and was confronted by the figure of the Untouchable. Here again was an entity that was separated from, yet was the horizon of, any thinking of a shared humanity.

Ambedkar’s considerations on the Dalit arose from the experience of being a Dalit himself and the many indignities he suffered even after becoming one of the most educated men in India at the time. In his work, he mined Indian classical literature to discover the origins of the system that he memorably described as characterised by a descending scale of contempt and an ascending scale of reverence. Beyond this inward and historical look, Ambedkar considered many experiences and streams of thought: the work of reformer John Dewey, which related equality to the equal opportunity for all to develop; the historical experience of the African American; the Buddha’s imagination of radical equality; and a deep conviction that neither democracy nor socialism was enough.

The work of Dewey, while emphasising equality and liberty, was incapable of realising fraternity within the tainted universe of caste in India. Socialism because of its obliviousness towards caste, was a step behind the reality of India. And, as Ambedkar remarked acerbically of the revolutionary socialist, “He will be compelled to take account of caste after the revolution if he does not take account of it before the revolution.”

Reflections on equality

The spirit of transnational conversation drove Ambedkar’s intellectual enquiry, and it was not an exercise in mere intellectualism but a pressing engagement with the impossibility of maitri or friendship within Hindu caste society. Reflections on equality had to be part of a global conversation in which the Dalit had to be placed alongside other broken people. Komu’s installation of Ambedkar in sambodhana, or exhortatory mode, captures the spirit of this attempt to reach beyond borders and identities.

It is significant that Ambedkar is not holding a copy of the Constitution in Komu’s statues. In Independent India, the life of Ambedkar has been folded into the history of legislation and debates about clauses, schedules and principles. If modern India, as Komu’s work wryly points out, had two fathers from Gujarat – Gandhi and Jinnah – who parented a nation each, the discourse on modern India allows for a third: Ambedkar as father of the Constitution. However, we must remember that Ambedkar was keenly conscious that democracy was merely the top-dressing on a soil that was deeply undemocratic. It is one of India’s ironies that Ambedkar had little faith in what the Constitution could do for a hierarchical, inegalitarian and violent society. His book What Gandhi and Congress Have Done to the Untouchables, written in 1946, just prior to his taking over as the Chairman of the Constituent Assembly, has an extensive critique of elections, caste and money power, and the possibility of social transformation through a political document, however radical and comprehensive.

It is worth remembering that six years after the promulgation of the Constitution, Ambedkar converted to Buddhism, and died shortly thereafter, leaving behind a text that looks at the radical notion of equality that Buddhism offers. The Constitution was a compromise at best in the face of the iniquities in India.

‘Making art politically’

In many ways, the installation is a continuation of Komu’s continuing engagement with Gandhi and Ambedkar. His series on Gandhi, big paintings of 6 feet by 4½ feet, shows a gaunt skeleton like Gandhi from 1931, with some of the keywords of Gandhianism painted on: Satya/Perception; Ahimsa/Violence; Antyodaya/Victim; Sarvodaya/Fear; Swaraj/Control. In one sense, this reiteration calls Gandhi to account, asking us to reflect on the limits of a politics that could never engage frontally with the idea of maitri, or friendship, that haunts Ambedkar’s thought. The pairing of Sarvodaya with fear is curious, yet powerful: does the upliftment of all inspire fear, or is it the opposite of fear? Is it upliftment that will remove the fear at the heart of the separation of humans that is caste?

Komu’s Dhamma Swaraj (2018) is a horizontal triptych in which a photo-realist imposition of the images of Gandhi and Ambedkar leads to one morphing into the other. This is less a representation of commensurability and complementarity, but rather an ironic reflection on the conflation of the duelling dyad in the popular imagination. The figure of Ambedkar is usually tamed through perceived affinities with Gandhi, while Gandhi is radicalised through his association with Ambedkar. What is forgotten is Ambedkar’s burning question as to whether Gandhi could be the true friend (kaivari), the one who stands up for the untouchable. Dhamma Swaraj retains the ambiguity of this morphing of one man into the other.

In Nirox Sculpture Park, the empty plinths open the question of the other figures who need to be brought into conversation with Ambedkar. Located in South Africa, there are the obvious interlocutors: Nelson Mandela, who advocated peace, and Steve Biko, who argued for a universal political affinity through the idea of black consciousness. But do the empty plinths signify those to come or those who went before? Has Gandhi been removed from his spot? Do the plinths signify the passage of time and the transience of ideas that are rooted in hierarchy? And what are we to think of the four plinths of different heights – do they signify the four-fold varna system? Ambedkar’s statues stand on the median and the lowest, the highest and the next highest are empty. But the untouchable is outside of and below the varna hierarchy – and yet Ambedkar stands on the plinths without ceremony.

Riyas Komu. Photo courtesy: Kochi-Muziris Biennale/Facebook.

Komu refers to Godard in his observation that the artist has a responsibility to “make art politically”, or one could end up with an aestheticization of politics. This installation, by bringing together the politics of the word, history and symbolism, is a resolute making of art politically as it opens the artwork to the future. The conversation that Ambedkar carries over from India invites others to occupy the pulpit and talk about race, post-coloniality and affinities across space and time. As with the Kochi Biennale, which Komu co-founded, it is the idea of the unexpected, unintended and utopian audience that resonates through this work.

Fourth World is an extension of the idea of the Third World, which indicates those excluded from global society like indigenous people, pastoralists and so on. However, given the current Hindu nationalist politics and the larger politics of the era, which victimise minorities and the marginal, the Fourth World is in a state of expansion. No longer are the imagined affinities of decolonization, the Third World and Afro-Asian solidarity summoned up as they were. In this installation, Komu gestures to the fact that all of us now live in the Fourth World, where Dalit, black, Muslim, gay, lesbian, transgender lives are dispensable and the struggle for recognition of a common humanity continues. The call to conversation that Ambedkar initiates is from the Cradle of Humankind, from where the first humans began their trek across deserts, seas and mountains. It calls out to the anxieties and oppressions of the present and asks us to generate new archives of resistance and of hope.

Dilip M. Menon is the Director of the Centre for Indian Studies in Africa, University of Witwatersrand, Johannesburg. The Centre sponsored Riyas Komu’s trip to Johannesburg and his association with Nirox Foundation as a visiting artist.