Artist Sutapa Biswas: ‘I wanted viewers to work hard and feel uncomfortable’

Ťhe artist Sutapa Biswas’s father was a legendary figure in her family: a Marxist agronomist who stood up to the government in west Bengal over environmental abuses, and smoked joints in a moonlit Taj Mahal (he broke in). Yet it is her mother’s experience that anchors the artist’s new docufiction film Lumen, about a woman who travelled alone with five children, following her husband to England to make a new life.

“She struggled,” Biswas says. “1960s Britain was racist. She really craved climbing trees or swimming in her sari.”

Lumen slips between bittersweet sense memories of her lost home – its unique greens, the scent of frangipani – and an indictment of imperialism’s traumas, from India’s buried history of slavery to the genocide that followed partition. “I wanted viewers to work hard and feel uncomfortable,“ 她说.

Biswas has never shied away from inflicting a little discomfort on her audience, as the travelling exhibition of the same name chronicling a four-decade career dedicated to women’s “unheard, untold narratives” will show. The earliest work, Housewives With Steak Knives, 从 1985, is a huge depiction of a tooled-up Kali, the Hindu goddess, holding a dictator’s severed head and kicking stereotypes of demure Asian homebodies out the window.

Biswas recalls its genesis while studying in Leeds, when she was assigned a tiny attic in a Victorian house to exhibit her work: “The room that would have been occupied by a servant. I was going to build something that wouldn’t fit it.”

She readily challenged the western-centric thinking at university, being tutored by the feminist art historian Griselda Pollock. “I arrived and said: ‘You’ve got to change the course.’ I was lucky because she listened,” says Biswas, although this didn’t stop her putting a sack over Pollock’s head and confining her to a chair for her video work Kali, in which Biswas plays both the titular avenging goddess and a capitalist monster, Raban.

Shortly after graduating, 这 2017 Turner prize winner Lubaina Himid selected Housewives With Steak Knives for her seminal 1985 show of Black women artists, The Thin Black Line, at the ICA in London. Yet Biswas found that interest in her art came with an unnerving focus on her appearance. She responded with works such as Synapse II, huge photographs in which erotic Indian art is projected on to her own nude body: “I felt that it was really important to deal with questions of the body, sexuality and desire.”

Taking the plunge into her mother’s head has, 她说, been “nerve-racking. Because of her journeys, from partition to leaving India, a fear inhabited her psyche. It was hard to allow us to be wild as children.”

Such anxieties sounded like alien territory for Biswas and her siblings, 尽管. “They left with nothing, but we never knew we were poor,“ 她说. “We just had so much attitude – I don’t think I’ve ever lost it!”

Housewives With Steak Knives, 1985

“The background is a homage to Rauschenberg’s white paintings, my metaphor for the white institutional spaces of the university and the gallery system. I allowed a slightly tempered surface, paper painted with house paint to crinkle. Out of the shadows grew Kali.”

Lumen, 2021 (pictured, top)
“In telling my mother’s story, I was trying to understand the taste of what is left in the lives of people who are disenfranchised because of imperial histories. For my mum, to leave the landscape that was home, where everything feels and is experienced differently, was a trauma.”

Mata Ne, 2015

“Drawing on children’s fables designed to control the behaviour of those born female, some of Mata Ne’s visual imagery becomes a metaphor for the simmering desires of women whose own dreams are curtailed by the repressive patriarchal, sexist culture that exists in Japan, as elsewhere across the globe.”

Synapse II, 1987-91

“In these large photographic pieces, the bodies look back at you in a funny sort of way. They have a way of stripping you somehow, of making you very uncomfortable. It makes the viewer confront, to an extent, their own fantasy.”

Sutapa Biswas: Lumen, Kettle’s Yard, 剑桥, 16 October to 30 一月.

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