Abhishek Chaudhary aka Rangeen Makhee is a young artist based in Delhi who explores themes of gender and queer realities through his work. We conducted an email interview with him. The images included here are from his latest series. See more of his work here & here.
Q. Tell us a bit about yourself and the themes you have explored in your initial work?
I identify myself as a visual artist, an image maker for which I have largely worked with photography, collage and GIF/video art. While I practice visual art, my writing and also the literature I am influenced by, informs most of the output. I initially started out solely as a writer and only drawing or photographing visuals that would accompany the piece in a publication or just visualizing the written word. I was always writing, always composing visuals but never really identified as a ‘visual artist’ until a few years ago when I suddenly felt limited by the written word. I was going through a rough time with my family because of my repeated coming-outs and yet, got a mute treatment of it, a series of personal crises ensued. Identity became an important issue to talk about, it wasn’t kind of an express-or-perish situation, so the visual became more important to me.
I am a self-taught artist and I started my journey with collating my poetry with images I found of popular culture, largely of gender bending and queer expression, to make them my own. I was firstly toying with (both manual and digital) collage but soon, photography became a part of that too. The stories to be ‘enacted’ for the photographs were again narratives I had written earlier or were fantasies or characters or roles I grew up hearing as ‘forbidden’ for me. I think that’s what most of us as artists or writers try to do, right? Producing material that validates our childhood yearnings to some extent or creating an alternate version of what’s already available to us. The images as a mother, a seductress or stories about a mid-day romp in a hotel, are all a part of a character I intend to play through these photographs where body, identity and desire take the centre stage. Sometimes it’s just me going crazy alone in my room and photographing my own cheap thrills but even that is a choice in representation. Some of the images were shot deliberately on a webcam to relay the story about someone alone in their room, playing dress-up because they often cannot do that outside and then they became peopled with characters, the camera angles become more ‘professional’ and images became visual collages, GIFs and also, videos. I grew up hearing that my stories or struggle was dispensable or the person I was becoming (both as a queer and an artist) was ‘wrong’, ‘filthy’ and ‘dangerous’. Through my work I want to be able to deliver another side to our lived realities and undo a bandage we (and I) never needed to begin with.
Q. Would you be comfortable with the title ‘queer artist’? What is your opinion of the depiction of sexuality and gender through visual art in India?
At a point where I am presently, I don’t think I have any issues with the label of a ‘queer’ artist as long as it’s also assumed that I can traverse further and explore ‘un-queer’ issues too. What I do is deeply personal and of course, queerness is a part of that, but at the same time, there are many other factors that influence the same identity. I cannot talk about being queer without talking about my faith in the idea of queer-feminism, about my own family’s story, about culture that cultivates us, the digital/Web world that permeates it or our national history which is so unilateral in its narrative. I have issues with the idea that queer art is always represented as something sordid and it’s queries into body or sexual identity deemed as ‘vulgar’ or ‘grotesque’. This is repeated minimising of queer realities in the popular discourse and that’s what needs to be challenged. I believe that sexuality and gender representation has come a long way in India and there are many strong voices on the front. It’s good to see the emergence of a more organised, a more collective union of queer artists but we need more. A more seriously driven art body (bodies) that addresses the expressions of various identities of LGBT spectrum and also, the art experiments they undertake.
Q. Give us a brief description about the Delhi exhibition you organised in Ambedkar College.
The collective called ‘Dead Old Man’s New Kitty Cat’ was a love child of mine and my co-curator and close friend, Pavel Sagolsem. The idea was pretty impulsive but the reason behind it was chronic, deeply felt and seeking a release. Both of us wanted to do something with queer stories and art, to gather a collective around conversations about gender and also, the experiences around that which entailed- woman, man, femininity, masculinity, gay, lesbian, transgender, gender queer, whatever occurred to our artists as their personal stories and we built a two day festival around it in Ambedkar University’s Kashmere Gate Campus. We received an overwhelming support from the University team and also from our artists who were our mutual friends or people we had discovered online or through our other chain of networks. We received a great deal of questions and also, support for the kind of work we were undertaking.
Q. You have spoken about the difficulty of publishing work that is explicit in nature even on a platform as ‘liberal’ as social media. Can you elaborate a bit on this?
Few months ago, I had published some of my work on my Facebook page that included a few naked photographs of a female subject. While the album was being received well by the expected quarters, I received a notification few days later that my entire album was reported by somebody on Facebook and the work was taken off. The notice also asked if I was considering deleting my material that was under question or else anything that I post in future would be liable to be surveyed for ‘content check’. I was shocked but more pissed off at the activity. I lashed out on my page with bitchy status messages hoping that the self- appointed moral police got the message but this is of course, only a small extension of what the issue of artistic representation and censorship is in a bigger picture. The thought that confuses me is how and where can one really find a space for expression? I sense there is already a wide spread paranoia amongst the artist communities in India and specifically stemming from queer-feminist and/or secular sensibilities under the kind of political climate we are in. I am afraid that this atmosphere is cultivating self-censorship in younger artists and we are ready to hold back. How would this affect a young student in art school who is also planning to sustain her/himself through art? Do you speak what is, how it is in bold words or do you settle for the tamed subjects and add on to an already existing cesspool of it? I think this is where art bodies, galleries and artists are trying to work together to find independent spaces for experimentation. This is precisely why we need more and more alternative cultural forums where art, expression and also, it’s subject can be freely studied and crafted.
Q. Have you collaborated with other artists before? What has that experience been like? Who would you like to work with?
Yes, I am very fond of collaborations and I am looking out to materialise more of those. My first ‘serious’ collaboration has to be again, the exhibition I co-curated and which also showed my work at Ambedkar University. The experience was extremely enriching. I learned so much more about the experiences artists are trying to represent and also, it introduced me better to what I intended to create. Apart from that, I have previously collaborated online with Juan Carlos, the mastermind behind a popular Tumblr experimental art blog and I have also been a part of The Wrong Art Biennale 2013, where my work was juxtaposed with other daring voices that facilitated an interesting collaborative project. I want to work more with photographers and experimental video artists who have also previously explored the questions of history (for instance, re-writing footage of historical events), body, lived realities and unafraid to confront these questions. I would love to collaborate with video and GIF artist Bill Domonkos. It would be interesting to convert my GIF/video works into his style of classical, historical footage to enable fiction, imagination about other lives in those times. I am also extremely taken by Ren Hang and I would love to work with him!
Q. What’s next in the project pipeline?
I have been ideating over few proposals for a possible project that I will be seeking collaborations and will be travelling for. To craft it better, I am undertaking an artist residency program late this year. I have received a positive response from a few places in Berlin and it will be the defining time for the work I intend to create. Apart from that, I am also working with someone on a possible compilation of queer art representations in India and seeking more collaboration on the same. I am learning and that’s most important.