Unpresidented Times: Chitra Ganesh


A MASS DEMONSTRATION on September 28, 2014 against India’s current prime minster, Narendra Modi. He represents a right-wing Hindu extremism that emboldens and perpetrates caste-based, xenophobic, sexual, and anti-Muslim violence. There are no shortages of parallels to be made between Trump, Modi, and a growing list of world leaders and policies that seem to be emanating from the same right-wing populist, reactionary sources.

“The truth is that mass demonstrations are rehearsals for revolution: not strategic or even tactical ones, but rehearsals of revolutionary awareness. The delay between the rehearsals and the real performance may be very long: Their quality—the intensity of rehearsed awareness—may, on different occasions, vary considerably: but any demonstration which lacks this element of rehearsal is better described as an officially encouraged public spectacle. A demonstration, however much spontaneity it may contain, is a created event which arbitrarily separates itself from ordinary life. Its value is the result of its artificiality, for therein lies its prophetic, rehearsing possibilities.”
John Berger, “The Nature of Mass Demonstrations.”

our acts of resistance & their global context

For the past couple of years, I’ve been thinking a lot more about the performative nature of protest, from die-ins on hospital floors and protestors standing in saltwater for weeks on end, to the fine choreography behind scaling a flagpole to remove a confederate flag. These signs and gestures form a visual vocabulary of resistance that accrues great beauty and power in our image-dominated age.

As we forge paths of resistance in a post T—— America, let’s keep our eyes on the culture of protest that has already been thriving around us. In our art world(s), we could align more intentionally with those who have had no choice but to stand up against white supremacy and xenophobia, institutional erasures, sexual violence, or strangling economic policies, beyond the United States as well as in our backyards.

If you were to talk about this election with someone from outside the US—someone from the global south, say—chances are you might hear with sympathy and understanding: “This what we’ve been living with for years” or “Welcome to the rest of the world.”

on the pestilence within and next door

Along with the sinking feeling and shame that accompanied me for the days (or weeks) after the election, I kept returning to the same refrain of “Who could they possibly be, those people who voted for…?” (as empty and misguided as it was…)

After all, it was not they, or even over there somewhere, was it? As artists and cultural workers we might stop externalizing this right-wing conservatism and instead observe it with awareness: How is it actually symptomatic of, and more often than not, replicated in the art world(s) we inhabit?

The daily grind of resistance includes a profound and often painful awareness of the deeply contradictory realities we inhabit, of one’s complicity or indirect involvement, in even the smallest of ways, in maintaining the status quo. Chasing consolidated wealth, and sustaining the dominance of market forces, deep segregation, and xenophobia manifests all around us: a lover’s parents, a museum trustee at your job who is interested in safeguarding his assets, an old family friend who urges that we “just give him a chance now.”

What remains to be seen is whether those in the contemporary art world(s) with privilege, visibility, and decision-making power will be able to connect their shock and critique of the current state of affairs, of the prominence of proto-fascist, Islamophobic, and racist ideologies, with an ongoing series of absences and erasures—both discursive and representational—of brown, black, immigrant, disabled, dissenting, and other othered voices—from museum shows, anthologies, symposia, executive staff, boards, and trustees.

For example, next time you encounter an opening/gala/meeting/propaganda-making party/birthday/exhibition/group critique/feminist event, count the number of brown people in the room. Is everyone able-bodied? What about the queers? How did this come to be and why? Were you the only person of color in the room? Or one of three? What could be done to change this?

Chitra Ganesh is a Brooklyn-based artist whose drawing, installation, text-based work, and collaborations suggest and excavate buried narratives typically absent from official canons of history, literature, and art. She is a 2017 Hodder Fellow at the Princeton University's Lewis Center for the Arts.