Of cane armour and disruption
Her cane armours could be an analog to speculation about a radically transformed future where violation and violence could be the continuously variable physical quantities such as spatial position, voltage, etc.
There is a cane skirt inspired by a ghaghra paired with a blouse which could be traced to Victorian sensibilities. A headgear, which could resemble that of an astronaut.
Mumbai-based Shakuntala Kulkarni's cane armours could be traced to that disruption but her narrative holds on its own. While India plays the trump card of Gandhi and the brief given to artists was celebration of Mahatma's 150th birthday for the exhibit, the Venice Biennale curated by UK-based Ralph Rugoff has used a counterfeit curse as the theme for the world's oldest art event. In his statement, Rugoff refers to a speech given in the late 1930s, British MP Sir Austen Chamberlain who invoked an ancient Chinese curse "May you live in interesting times" and observed that we move from one crisis to another.
Of course, there was no such proverb but albeit fictional, the phrase has real rhetorical significance. "May You Live in Interesting Times will no doubt include artworks that reflect upon precarious aspects of existence today, including different threats to key traditions, institutions and relationships of the "post-war order," writes Rugoff.
In such context, the two cane armours along with a set of photographs of the artist wearing these in public places in the city of Mumbai, become exactly the kind of practice which emerges from and engages multiple perspectives.
And in the world of men raging against women where news of rape and acid attacks are not rare, Kulkarni's works are a commentary on these "interesting times" where women are still second class citizens. "The armours resonate with Gandhi's resistance," says Kulkarni.
"My armours are resistance against the atrocities on the female body." India marks its second innings in Venice this year after a hiatus of eight years at the prestigious biennale with a host of artists, including Kulkarni.
Titled Our Time For A Future Caring and curated by the Kiran Nadar Museum of Art in New Delhi, the pavilion will showcase old works of artists as there was a shortage of time to commission new works, says Roobina Karode, the curator.
It was in 2006 when Kulkarni who works with feminist aesthetics started thinking of women in public and private spaces when a blob of tar fell on her in Mumbai. "It could have been acid," she says. "I started to think how does one walk safely."
As a child, she says, she had been fascinated with armours she saw in museums but most had belonged to men. She wanted to subvert the notion of gendered armours and make it a paradoxical case study of protection and imprisonment.
That was the genesis of her long tryst with the making of these armours. Her previous works are part of her navigation of the themes of violation and violence directed at the female body.
In context of the work, she had written that the "bodied self can be insulted, subjugated, incarcerated, curbed by religious decree, dictatorial whim or popular sentiment."
"An armoured body can extend its capabilities through the mailed fist, the spiked helmet, the radiation-proof bodysuit, or heightened fight/ flight reflexes. But the body pays for this protection with its freedom. The armour becomes a cage, protected by, yet trapped within, an exoskeleton," she wrote.