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Wearable Anger (soap)
I have been in the most creative phase of my life since 2021. The artistic tools of my choice may seem baffling, but scent, soap, incense, and flavours have been perfect mediums through which I excavate art history as it allows me to keep the focus on pleasure for myself and for those experiencing my work.
Over a year, I have explored creative ways to translate a series of Mughal and Rajput paintings showing fireworks, into soap for an exhibition I curated with my colleague Nicolas Roth, for the Institute for Art and Olfaction (Los Angeles). It was fun to replicate the scene of pyrotechnics from a painting to the surface of a soap. Not only did this object visually illustrate a burst of firecrackers, it also smelled of 18th century gunpowder! For those of us in the subcontinent who cannot travel to different cities or overseas to access our art history through well curated exhibitions, it was meaningful for me to create pleasurable synesthesia translations that make possible for an audience in India to hold and enjoy. My expansive open-access project and exhibition “Bagh-e Hind” felt like reparations, for the public and for myself.
“A Splendid Cloud: Soap translations of Royal Udaipur Paintings”
One such well curated exhibition opened at the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C. recently. “A Splendid Land: Paintings from Royal Udaipur” is curated by NYU professor Dr. Dipti Khera with the institution curator, Dr. Debra Diamond.
A Splendid Land, ten years in the making, was built chiefly on Dr. Khera’s scholarship that pushes back against established colonial narratives on Rajput kingdoms as the East India Company gained more ground on the subcontinent. In her newly published book, The Place of Many Moods: Udaipur’s Painted Lands and India’s eighteenth century, she speaks in depth of the immersive emotional narratives that artists of this period intentionally constructed for their viewer. To not just look at a painted monsoon cloud, but to feel wholly surrounded and drenched in its ozone scent was a sensorial experience I felt, I could brilliantly synthesise as a critic-perfumer.
I translated this book, her scholarship, into a monsoon thunder-cloud soap that smelled of rain. The sharpness of galbanum in combination with the smoothness of vetiver, patchouli smoked over cedarwood and calone (aroma compound) mimicked the nuances of algae, salt-ozone and petrichor.
The soap, pictured above, also looks incontestably like a cloud trapped in solid form, mine to hold and enjoy — and mine to engage the broader public with, safely inviting them into this discourse through the sensuality of perfume, instead of alienating them with obfuscating academic jargon.
Knowledge Theirs, Pleasure Ours
As I drafted questions that would no doubt challenge both curators, I thought about what it means (for us) when an exhibition of Rajput art of this substance and magnitude, drawn from international public and private collections, goes on view for the first time, for an audience in…America.
The catalogue priced at at $60 or INR 5,396, was out of my budget, so as usual, my access to art history remains virtual. I searched the Smithsonian website to see what was available for this impoverished subaltern to enjoy. Well, nothing of meaning or value. Neither the panels they held in December 2022, nor the symposium they held in February 2023 were made available as recordings. No matter how much a museum especially in the Global North hawks the statistics of its “diverse” public, art and its discourse continue to remain the domain of the elite. The sparse reviews of this exhibition, published in lifestyle and fashion magazines, were just regurgitations of PR talking points. The only independent review published in the Washington Post was insipid, orientalist and read like a tourism brochure. By the end, I wanted to book plane-tickets to this exotic land with palaces, peacocks and elephants!
Tax payer funded institutions and their salaried public servant-curators should be asked unflinching questions, but there are no independent art critics who possess the wherewithal to discuss this specific subject matter coherently. There is a reason I was the only individual to publish a criticism of Pakistani-American, first-female-of-the-moment, Shahzia Sikander’s recent vapid goddess sculpture that stands atop a courthouse in New York, while mini versions went up for sale at a commercial art fair in Europe. Academics and curators don’t write criticism because their careers are entirely dependant on good relations with their peers and seniors. They have to play the role of the acolyte or perish. As a critic with neither career nor friendships to lose, I cannot be punished.
So, It was time to ask — what value does this American museum generate for us in the subcontinent if only our material culture was welcome but our eyes and minds were not?
While awaiting the curators response to my questions via email, I spent time going over hi-res images of each painting (cleared for press and publicity) that are on public view in this exhibition.
Dear reader, once you have laid your eyes on these paintings, even just online on a small screen, you cannot unsee the high level of skill and craft, the precision of intricately painted details. The bhava! You cannot remain unmoved and you cannot unknow the truth that is deliberately being made invisible. What comes into stark view, is the inequity with which expertise and knowledge are being cultivated and hoarded by institutions in consortium with private collectors in India and abroad.
Yet, so inspired I was by these delicate 18th century gold leaf-lined clouds, the rising grey-gold plumes of firecrackers, the cobalt blue night-sky visible through painted archways and windows, that I decided to make soap-translations once more. We, in India, could not have these paintings, fine, but we were going to hold-hoard their essence in our hands. Like Bagh-e Hind, this was reparations — absurd and silly, but fair. At no point was this a cynical “commercial” exercise, but clearly an artistic exploration that tested the tolerance-levels of these capitalist gatekeepers.
On the day I was expecting to receive the curators’ responses, I instead received a curt email from the Smithsonian’s Public Relations personnel. The curators’ had initially agreed to be interviewed by me, however, since I had made soaps based on their exhibition images and shared them on social media, I had violated their copyrights. So now they decline any further engagement with me. Their PR person also made it a point to let me know they found my questions to be “provocative”. Very well, let’s drop this and be compliant.
The institution has decided that I cannot be creative and interrogative at the same time by drawing up a boundary to protect their property. Despite my credentials, I cannot be an artist and an art critic at the same time. But the point here is less about the museum showing me my place, and more about an institution demonstrating its dominance, power and control in order to protect itself from being held accountable. In their view, these paintings — of elite kings indulging in elite luxuries — are not meant for your eyes, or your emotional and intellectual engagement, not even virtually.
Our ignorance in South Asia about our own history, our lack of means to an education on art, our lack of command over the art-language, access to and therefore awareness of our heritage; the questions surrounding our caste, class and credentials, all of this covert and overt suppression only benefits the elite whether in India or elsewhere.
The fact that I, an Indian living in India, was sharing information and broadening the discourse on Indian paintings through the informal medium of Instagram, giving this American museum free publicity while drawing in the Indian public, making them see, know and care, was viewed as provocation.
Tangential to this discussion, the British Museum is trolled on a daily basis by the seeing, knowing, caring public on social media. In this era of massive wealth transfer, from the worker to the elite, museums increasingly wish to avoid questions of funding, provenance, reparations and repatriations, that only the public can force them into — and this is why it is in their interest to cut the public out of this public asset. The Sackler name may be physically scrubbed, but institution-veins all over the world are still flooded with Oxycontin.
Vivek Chibber on the Future of Marxist Thought: Interview by Daniel Steinmetz-Jenkins, May 23, 2022
I am reading NYU professor, Dr. Vivek Chibber’s new book, The Class Matrix, to get a sense of how the working class are blocked by the elite from advancing their social, material and political gains and this is a great interview. His other texts clap back at Gayatri Spivak, and I am here for this hi-brow academic drama!
I transformed my recent perfume titled “Wearable Anger” into a solid gold ingot that smells of burnt tuberoses to hurl at knowledge-hoarders. (Relax, it’s just soap. Hit reply to this email to enquire about the perfumes in stock). There is also going to be plenty vengeance-soap-making this year!