Voices Of Resistance 10: Arts and 9/11

You must get close to see it, the weed-like wild plant on the crisp, textured paper,  rough on the edges. And when you do approach, you notice the preciseness of the image, reminiscent of early 20th century botanical illustrations. You encounter the plant as your eyes look for its description. But, below the illustration is an unexpected statement: A message using a racial slur to call for the death of Muslims and African Americans appeared this week on a sign in the window of an Oak Park business. 

In “12 Indigenous Plants of Illinois,” visual artist Hilesh Patel thoughtfully combined pen and ink illustrations of native Illinois plants with news headlines of hate crimes and reports on the 9/11 and the global war on terror. His work, along with the works of thirteen other visual and performing artists, was featured in this year’s “Voices of Resistance 10: Revision” in Chicago.


"12 indigenous plants of Illinois" by Hilesh Patel


As part of national remembrances of the violence of 9/11 and the decade that followed, Voices of Resistance (VOR), an annual, Chicago-based event featuring performance, visual and installation arts work dedicated to social justice issues concerning South Asian and the diaspora, decided to make an its own offering of remembrance and reflection. Coinciding too with its own 10th anniversary, VOR10 featured several works specifically created for the show this past year. The concert reminded the Chicago community of the swell of disappearances that followed 9/11. Other prominent themes were the rise of hate crimes and Islamophobia now seemingly part of American discourse (with Gringrich’s recent remarks on Palestine) and  part of the local fabric as suburban Chicago re-emerges as a site of opposition to a proposed building of a mosque

The visual arts exhibit, which was curated by Sabba Syal Elahi, featured painting/drawing, print-media, sculpture/fibers, installation, and video. Along with a series of performances presenting video works along with dance and vocal performances, VOR reminded us to question the normalcy of seeing “American flags” as armour through its proof of belonging, the acceptance of surveillance for the sake of safety, and the complacency of a global audience witnessing the devastation of the global war on terror. 


VOR has always been a voluntary project of the Chicago-based South Asian Progressive Action Collective (SAPAC). Beginning as a one-evening event that created space for South Asian activist-artists, the  production of the event shifted both in process, from a large, collective-based endeavor to an event largely produced by two or three volunteer individuals in the collective, and from featuring visual arts and performance works that were focused on annual themes of the show, to a one-night event that featured South Asian works that focused much on South Asian identity.

Critiquing the progressive nature of this type of process and the works itself, this year’s 4-woman volunteer production team (Shilpa Bhavikatte, Tina Bhaga, Sabba Syal Elahi and Ahalya Satkunaratnam) decided to restructure the event and its process to bring it back to its political roots. Envisioning the building of a stronger, multidisciplinary progressive arts community, all VOR artists took part in 3-month artist workshop designed to help facilitate reflective arts-making and encourage artists to consider the process of producing works and events collaboratively. In these workshops, artists and producers discussed readings such as Prashad’s “How the Hindus Became Jews: American Racism after 9/11,”  reflected on their own experiences with immigration and growing up in North America, and examined 9/11 and their own perspectives of the event and the past decade. In addition, participants created a collective timeline that marked their paths of immigration, momentous periods in their artistic experiences and their memories around 9/11 and the global war on terror. During the workshops, artists also shared works-in-progress, receiving feedback from a group of diversely trained, multi-disciplinary colleagues.The workshops were in response to artists’ desires for more meaningful interaction. As most arts events are structured around a one-day performance/opening, many artists have little contact with each other before or after the event. The workshop structure was a means to facilitate more community building and shared work among the innovative, progressive South Asian arts scene in Chicago.


When you enter Marwen’s Untitled Gallery, the first piece to catch your eye is a glass swing, which appears to have a giant photographic reel emerging out from its seat. The swing has the allure of being a functional object, but, it's clear that it is not accessible.  It is just a tad too high to swing on. And interestingly, there’s a portrait of a women’s belly trapped inside the glass of the swing seat.  This is the belly of artist Niema Qureshi, who sees this photograph as a self-portrait of sorts.  Her photographic and sculptural installation entitled “Rootless,” engaged VOR audiences, who took a Polaroid photograph of themselves near the work of art which represented a definition/representation of themselves at that moment. Attached to the duralar, which is the “reel” that extends to the floor from the glass seat, are photos of people showing something meaningful—their jewelry, a clothing item, a body part, a gesture. Qureshi’s recent works explores family history and personal memory, and she often incorporates family photographs.  Born in Rawalpindi and an immigrant from the U.K., Qureshi’s work speaks to her personal experience as an immigrant.  “Rootless” becomes a metaphor for both dislocation and belonging to a time and place. The swing seems out of context within the gallery walls, yet the photographs of individuals mark a moment of time, a collective portrait of its visitors.


"Rootless" by Niema Qureshi


One of the most subversive works in the exhibition, which like Qureshi’s work isn’t as it appears from afar, is a work by Hilesh Patel, referenced earlier. Patel’s experience is rooted in graffiti—large and bold in presence. He has since shifted to a more intimate scale and often combines drawing, text, and stencils. In his work “12 Indigenous Plants of Illinois” on handmade paper, Patel works with handdrawn botanical imagery and handwritten appropriated media text about hate crimes and violence in Illinois since September 11, 2001.  The combination of the handwritten text and imagery evokes scientific illustration and ethnographic drawings of the 19th century.  Observers are pulled in by the delicateness, crispness, and clarity of the imagery, but upon reading the text, realize that Patel has an agenda.  The text such as “What the Hell is a Muslim?--I never heard of a country called Muslim,” brings to light violence against Muslims, Arabs, and South Asians since 9/11.


"12 indigenous plants of Illinois by Hilesh Patel


Through a local and global lens, Sabba Syal Elahi’s work also explores post 9/11 violence and the war on terror in Pakistan.  In her work, “Undeclared,” Elahi juxtaposes screen-printed imagery from the Pakistan floods with outlines of U.S. Drones.  Elahi was drawn to the moment of the August 2010 floods because it speaks to some of the complexity of the U.S. / Pakistan relationship; while the U.S. was giving aid to flood survivors, they were also droning the very areas that were being flooded.   Across the wall from this large screen-print hang three mixed media diptychs on silver gray fabric, like the color of the drones, which brings to life personal narratives of loss, censorship, and surveillance post 9/11.  The diptychs are filled with symbolism and show Elahi’s hand as they are created from fabric, hand stitched, and embroidered; their tactile quality draws the viewer into each world.  Perhaps the most haunting diptych is one in which Elahi recalls when her father told her to not have political conversations over the phone, juxtaposed by a background of faded names of disappeared and detained Muslims and South Asians.


"Undeclared" by Sabba Syal Elahi


Other exhibiting artists included: Ravi Grover, Savera Iftikhar, Nazafarin Lotfi, and Murassa Qazi.  Some of the artwork in the exhibition was more direct and loudly political, while other works were more subtle and abstract in nature.  There were also a number of tensions at play—relationships of scale, material, and concepts—the personal and the political, memory and movement of time and place.


"Undeclared" by Sabba Syal Elahi



As the ambient sounds, ambiguous noises blared through the rustic, yet loft-style gallery space of the Marwen arts organization, the audience is seated just a few feet away from a central pillar. A young woman in an ash-like grey Salwar Khameez walks through the audience, smiling. She starts looking over her left shoulder as her left hand extends away from her in an open-lotus, alapadma mudra. Her eyes follow her left hand as it traces an arc reaching above and around. Next, there are two hands, tracings arcs similarly, this time in another space. She follows their decent with her eyes as worry takes hold. 

Within seconds, the solo dancer is weaving familiar images from the global war on terror: prisoners of war, refugees behind chicken wire fences, the searching of the body, the physical maneuvers of soldiers. As the dancer and choreographer, Ahalya Satkunaratnam, trained in Bharata Natyam,  cycles between these images from the global war on terror, she also advances throughout the audience roping off individuals with a red ribbon she holds. 

A reflection on cycles of conflict, the piece, “Consequential,” was a  tribute to to Lasantha Wickrematunge, editor of the progressive Sri Lankan newspaper, The Sunday Leader, who was assassinated on January 8, 2009, before his final editorial published January 11, 2009. The piece evoked the constant back and forth play between victim and perpetrator, mirroring Wickermatunge’s words from his final editorial:  For truth be told, we both know who will be behind my death, but dare not call his name. Not just my life, but yours too, depends on it. Using Bharata Natyam style movements to create a danced narrative that combined both Bharata Natyam vocabulary and style along with contemporary dance modes of choreography, Satkunaratnam, like other artists in VOR, engaged in re-imagining their relationship to the the traditional arts.


"Con-Sequential" by Ahalya Satkunaratnam


Similarly, Namratha Rajagopal re-envisioned the presentation of Carnatic vocal performance. “Me, Myself and Bharati,” an accoustic performance by Rajagopal, featured a personal rendition of “Manathil Uruthi Vendum (A Strong Promise),” a work by Tamil poet, revolutionary and social reformer, Mahakavi Bharatiyar. Pairing each stanza with a Carnatic raga of her own choosing, Rajagopal provided her own sonic interpretation of the Bharatiyar’s verses that described the characteristics needed for liberation, including: kindness when speaking to each other;  thoughts and actions that benefit the earth; and women’s liberation. Singing the several Tamil language stanzas, single, English-word translations unraveled behind her. Through her rendition, Rajagopal aimed to convey through sound the imagined world of Bharatiyar’s desires.


"Me, Myself and Bharati" by Namratha Rajagopal


Providing a thoughtful and thought-provoking finale to the event, MC Chee Malabar, accompanied by DJ Ali, shared new songs from his latest album, “Burning Tire Artisan,” including “New Yorkstani,” “Harsh Truth” and “After the Dust Settles.” Performing works touching on themes of communalism and the perseverance and perpetuation of injustice, he concluded with  “Postcards from Paradise” a sobering homage to India and America’s consumption of India:

It's steeped deep in what the British did before they flee 

Left more than just English literature, cricket, whiskey and tea 

Psychological damage, famines, but we managed 

Cause even a rose grows through cracks of concrete 

And a lotus floats hope in the stream of the Ganges 

There's love here, but hate too, for that you can blame karma 

And nah, we just ain't Deepak Chopra and our famed martyr 

So why would you wanna travel any place farther 

You can come-leave-reassured, your world's a safe harbor 

So here it is, the picturesque postcard you chase after 

Complete with Taj Mahals, camels and snake charmers

Malabar closed the night leaving the diverse audience of South Asians and non-South Asians, grandparents, parents, students and artists, reflective and appreciative of political arts work. Other works featured in VOR10 included performance artist Kareem Khubchandani’s video piece, “Diamonds,” which examined the circulation of blood diamonds, immigration and his mother’s and family’s relationship to jewels and money. Dancer and choreographer, Anjal Chande presented “She Cannot,” a piece that considers the resistance required to assert the possibilities of oneself.


MC Chee Malabar



VOR was an interesting and thought provoking process on creating multi-media performance work and engaging in a reflective process of production and curation. The producers of the event included a vocalist, radio and multi-media artist, dancer, and visual artist. The process of creating and transforming a beautiful spaced used solely for exhibits into an engaging performance space for an evening was a challenge. However, the process of truly working with artists, listening to their vision and having a production team that was equally invested in the process of creating and showing art was fruitful. Many presenting artists are committed to solidifying a progressive arts community and collaboratively expanding on their recent works.





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