Sutapa Biswas

Kali

1984–5

Not on display

Artist
Sutapa Biswas born 1962
Medium
Video, projection, colour and sound (stereo)
Dimensions
Duration: 36min, 19sec
duration: 25min, 28sec
Collection
Tate
Acquisition
Presented by the artist 2012 and 2017, accessioned 2018
Reference
T14278

Summary

Kali 1984–5 is a video that documents a performance by Sutapa Biswas that took place in January 1984. In the performance, Biswas and her fellow student at Leeds University, Isabelle Tracey, both play themselves and also, respectively, the characters Kali and Raban. This doubling of identities is reinforced by the use of puppets of both Kali (a puppet with a black face wearing a paper crown, whose body takes the form of a white pillow with a vivid red almost circular splash painted on its front) and Raban (a small green puppet). Kali is the Hindu goddess of time and change, and her name literally translates as black goddess. Within Hindu mythology she was created to inhabit more than one representation (hence the multiple identities in the performance) in order to rid the world of evil, embodied by Raban. Also appearing as referential props in the video are a tin of Heinz lentil soup that ‘plays’ the American artist Andy Warhol (1928–1987), Alpen muesli that ‘plays’ both a Nazi and itself, and Nescafé instant coffee that ‘plays’ corporate international greed and itself. In addition, another student, Jennifer Comrie, plays herself, as does the art historian Griselda Pollock. Some of the varied soundtrack is composed in part from Biswas’s own written text spoken in Bengali (her mother tongue) and from the South African Bahumutsi Theatre Company, whose performance ‘The Hungry Earth’ Biswas had attended in Leeds.

Biswas enacted the performance twice, filming it only once. The video of Kali – the artist’s first video work – exists, however, in two versions, either of which can be shown. The shorter version (25 minutes and 28 seconds) was first screened publicly at the Institute of Contemporary Arts, London, during the exhibition The Thin Black Line, curated by artist Lubaina Himid in 1985, and was also shown as part of Biswas’s degree show the same year at Leeds University. This version has credits and an explanatory introduction by Biswas in which she talks directly to camera; the narrative of the performance is edited to have a fast pace and directness of address. The other, longer version (36 minutes and 18 seconds) is informally identified by Biswas as Kali / Raw; it has no credits and employs editing techniques and shifts within the recorded soundtrack that communicate a heightened degree of dislocation and confusion to the viewer.

For the introduction to Kali, Biswas sits in front of a painted Union Jack flag and a video editing suite, reading a text that she holds in front of her. She explains how the characters of the performance enact a mythic struggle of good over evil, and that this directly refers to ‘Imperialism, cultural domination and exploitation of the East by the West’ (in this respect Kali embodies the East and Raban the West). She also expresses how the performance and resulting videos were borne from her own ‘marginalisation and tokenisation as a black woman’ within the fine art department at Leeds University. Among the specific set of concerns that Biswas describes in her introduction, she also explains that the performance is ‘about performance itself. Who performs? Who spectates? It questions who is in control and who is not’.

Key to the work is the participation of an invited tutor from Leeds University. A little after the performance starts the tutor is ushered into the space and invited to sit on a chair around which a circle is then painted on the floor to denote a territory; the tutor is also hooded with holes cut for eyes. In the filmed version of the performance the tutor was Griselda Pollock, who ran the ‘Theories and Institutions’ course at Leeds University at the time. As a student Biswas had challenged the basic tenets of this course, which mirrored the political concerns of the entire fine art department, for not engaging meaningfully with issues of race and colonialism when discussing gender and class. Biswas’s critique is addressed in Kali and was represented directly to Pollock. This interchange subsequently led Pollock to radically revise the art history syllabus.

Pollock has described how, in Kali, she was not a witness or spectator but part of its subject and spectacle:

The centre, British imperialism, was to be put on display and made to figure as part of the rituals of a contestation of its hegemony. Obliged to sit in the centre of a circle, hooded, though I could just see through the slits at eye level, I was made to function as an icon of imperialism around which Biswas’s enactments of resistance would be performed. Centred, yet made vulnerable by being deprived of the position of protected observer, I could not distance myself from the mythological representation of a historically conditioned struggle … Participant yet target, forced to hear and struggle to see meanings that silenced me, I was made witness to the making of another set of subjectivities, which exploded the oppositions ‘black/white, Indian/English’ in order to demand mutual recognition based on the mutuality or interdependency of subjectivities and meanings.
(Griselda Pollock, ‘Tracing Figures of Presence: Naming Ciphers of Absence; Feminism, Imperialism and Postmodernity: The Work of Sutapa Biswas’, in Institute of International Visual Arts 2004, p.26.)

The varied use of sound and lighting in Kali illuminates and constructs narratives while also disrupting them and disorienting the viewer, reflecting the destabilisation of Pollock in the film. At times, in the longer video, there are sounds that suggest a railway, a symbolic reference to the Indian railway system and its role within colonial rule. At other moments, in both versions of the film, Biswas speaks Bengali, her mother tongue, in a way that engages with the politics and power of language. As she has explained, ‘the Bengali I speak is practiced and spoken in an English accent – in a disjointed way. Perhaps in the way a child learns to tell a tale in a language that is foreign to them, the act of telling the story reduced and simplified to its very basics, in order to ease / simplify the process of telling.’ (Email correspondence with Tate curator Andrew Wilson, 8 May 2012.) Additionally, in Kali / Raw, for long periods of time the lights are switched off and the screen is in darkness, creating an even greater sense of disorientation but also of anticipation.

Kali was a formative work for Biswas, and the figure of Kali provided a useful subject for the artist at the time, also appearing in the painting Housewives with Steak-Knives 1985 (Bradford Museums and Galleries, Bradford) which, like Kali, was made during her final year as a student at Leeds University. Kali was used by Biswas as a means of exploring the issues of race, gender, class and subjectivity that are outlined in the introductory section of the shorter version of Kali, and that are central to her work.

Further reading
Lubaina Himid, The Thin Black Line, exhibition catalogue, Institute of Contemporary Arts, London 1985.
Transforming the Crown: African, Asian and Caribbean Artists in Britain 1966–1996, exhibition catalogue, Caribbean Cultural Center African Diaspora Institute, New York 1997.
Sutapa Biswas, exhibition catalogue, Institute of International Visual Arts, London 2004.
Eva Bentcheva, ‘Who Belongs in the New Art History? Exploring Cultural Boundaries in Sutapa Biswas’ Performance Artwork Kali (1984)’, SOAS Journal of Postgraduate Research, vol.6, 2014, www.soas.ac.uk/research/rsa/journalofgraduateresearch/edition6/file93898.pdf, accessed 10.5.2019.

Andrew Wilson
May 2012, revised November 2017 and April 2019

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