Shubigi Rao’s unclassifiable writing and visual art wryly unpack the disappearances of Empire. By Neha Kale.

Author and artist Shubigi Rao

Multidisciplinary artist Shubigi Rao.
Multidisciplinary artist Shubigi Rao.
Credit: Samir Sahay

Shubigi Rao was destined to become a bibliophile. Before Rao was born, her parents lived in Calcutta – a city known for an obsession with reading and writing – where they made regular visits to book auctions, buying volumes on everything from art and natural history to mythology and religion. Rao found her earliest sense of the world in their sprawling library. It formed the artist she grew up to be.

“In Calcutta they would sell books by the kilo,” she says. “Sometimes when people die, the heirs don’t want their books, they don’t see the value of them. Entire cartloads would end up at the auctions and my parents used to buy them really cheap. They couldn’t bear them being destroyed through termites or neglect.” Contemplating this for a second, an expression of horror crosses her face.

“I was always absorbing,” she says. “Having your nose in a book, you are always in the heads of other people. It’s also why my entire personal philosophy and ethics are shaped by humanity, rather than one philosophy or a singular way of thinking.”

Books are more than repositories for story. They can be portals to new kinds of knowledge, keepers of repressed histories. They can give rise to intimate encounters with another consciousness. Rao’s been thinking for decades about what it means when books are lost.

In the southern Indian state of Kerala, for instance, 228 libraries, each home to between 12,000 and 15,000 books, were a casualty of catastrophic floods, according to a November 2018 report in The New Indian Express. For the Kochi-Muziris Biennale, which unfolded in the port city of Kochi in December that year, Rao spent time with the local community, talking to librarians, paper pulpers and boatyard workers.

Aspinwall House, a historic building by the sea, played host to The Pelagic Tracts, an exquisite short film that showed alongside an installation and series of photographs. Shot in a dreamlike palette of greens and blues, it weaves a fictional narrative about the book-smugglers of an imaginary island called “Pelagos” with references to the colonial destruction of texts and languages such as Cochin Creole Portuguese, a local dialect whose last speaker, William Rozario, died in 2010. A giclée print of damaged books imagines the waterlogged covers as luminous. They gleam, as precious as jewels.

To spend time with Rao, who wears cat’s-eye glasses and illustrates her ideas with her hands, is to be alerted to glimmers of wonder in unexpected places. The changing perimeter of a tiger’s terrain. The miracle of finding an ancient rice grain in the sand. We speak for nearly two hours, our conversation buoyed by her roving intellect and rapid-fire speech, often veering off in tangents and falling down rabbit holes.

Her observations hew close to the bone and she’s often bitingly funny. Rao doesn’t have a gallery – “My work is not really commercial,” she laughs – and doesn’t care for the machinations of the global art world. “The whole reason I embraced being an artist,” she says, “was to opt out of this capitalist machinery.”

She tells me that she’s not an ambitious person. “I don’t want to play the game because I find it singularly uninteresting,” she says. “Part of the reason is the kiss-arse culture. You have to kiss the arse of people who are incredibly boring and narcissistic.” She smiles mischievously. “I always want to be in a place of listening and learning. If I’m not intellectually stimulated, I can’t be bothered.”

Lockdown, she says, has offered respite. “I slept and slept and recovered from years’ worth of exhaustion.” Still, there’s a lot to do. Next April, Rao will be the first solo woman artist to represent Singapore at the Venice Biennale with a presentation curated by Ute Meta Bauer. In December, she will show new work at the 10th Asia Pacific Triennial (APT10), opening next month at the Queensland Art Gallery and Gallery of Modern Art in Brisbane.

Kochi comes up again. Rao was in Bosnia, working on Pulp: A Short Biography of the Banished Book – a decade-long book, art and film project about the history of book destruction – when she was chosen to curate the 2020 edition of the Kochi biennale, Asia’s largest contemporary arts festival. Last month it was postponed to 2022. “I’d rather have a biennale that people could visit rather than browse online,” she says. “Kochi is amazing. It is brilliant. It is quite something. It is infuriating and completely extraordinary at the same time. It really gets under your skin.”

Rao was born in Mumbai in 1975 and spent her early life in Darjeeling. When she was nine, her father was posted to Delhi. Then, in the mid-’80s, her parents bought land in the jungle on the foothills of the Western Himalayas. “It was called Kaladhungi, where the conservationist Jim Corbett lived,” says Rao who, along with her brother, attended boarding school at a hill station called Nainital. “It was a natural corridor and there were a lot of animals. By choice we had no electricity, no running water for five or six years.”

Her parents’ book collection kept her company. “I picked up the way a 17th-century naturalist would write,” she recalls. “If I explored the Amazon, it was through an English or Spaniard’s translation. My parents would be like, ‘You are in the jungle, stop reading!’ But I was reading through the colonial gaze. I have to say this because it’s taken me decades to unpack.”

She studied English literature by correspondence at Delhi University. By then, she says, her parents had split, their library dissolved. She spent her university years travelling through India on a motorcycle. “I hated the constant attention and sexual harassment that is part of being a young woman who doesn’t have the protection of a community,” she says. “I dressed as a boy and lived on my own terms. Looking back, a lot of it was foolhardy – like going white-water rafting without knowing how to swim in one of the most dangerous rivers in the world.”

Rao found a new artistic freedom when she moved to Singapore, aged 26. She enrolled at the Lasalle College of the Arts. In the tradition of great conceptual artists such as Marcel Duchamp and Joan Jonas, she started working under a persona she called S. Raoul, an inventor and scientist who served as the young Shubigi’s patron. She was trying to satirise the idea that only men could be polymaths.

“I was just his naive little protégé and biographer, a girl with stars in her eyes who had to be mentored by this brilliant man,” she says, adopting a faux adoring tone. “It was about realising that the early naturalists were actually at the forefront of colonial enterprise. I had to create an alter ego to exorcise all of this. A degendered, de-ethnicised version of myself, who could perform many functions.”

For her first act as S. Raoul, she taught herself archaeology. In her early years in Singapore, she was struck by the city-state’s throwaway culture. “One of the things that archaeology is [involves] the study of garbage,” she says. “In India, because of poverty, people use and reuse. But here, people would order at the food stall in a Styrofoam box. It’s going to last for 500 years!”

The Study of Leftovers imagined Singapore as an extinct civilisation, understood through its rubbish. The 2003 installation cast etchings, drawings and found objects as the material evidence of the artist’s elaborate metafiction. “I did a dig on the beaches of Singapore,” says Rao. “Koka noodle cups kept washing up on the beach so I beautifully illustrated them and wrote about how they were totemic to this vanished culture.”

She invoked Raoul repeatedly for the next 10 years. The Tuning Fork of the Mind, an installation commissioned for the 2008 Singapore Biennale, grapples with a pseudoscientific theory of brain activity sparked when a viewer encounters art. Stabbing at Immortality: Building a Better Jellyfish, part of the 2013 exhibition The Retrospectacle of S. Raoul, explores the imaginary scientist’s discovery of an invertebrate that could live forever.

With that show, she tells me, she “killed” Raoul to focus on Pulp: A Short Biography of the Banished Book. The destruction of libraries, a tactic of fascist regimes through human history, is also an effort to stamp out the breadth and depth of cultural expression. When Serbian troops burned the National Library in Sarajevo in 1992, for instance, three million books were turned to ash. In 2015, 100,000 books and manuscripts burned in Iraq’s Mosul University at the hands of ISIS.

Pulp spans five volumes over a 10-year period. Two books have been published so far: Pulp I was shortlisted for the 2018 Singapore Literature Prize, and the next volume won the 2020 prize. To make it, Rao visits archives and collections around the world and interviews people whose knowledge has been lost, from activists and academics to civilians and pirate librarians. Written in Rao’s trademark wry tone, Pulp bears witness to these accounts. She also translates the material into artworks and films and has presented her findings in the 2018 show The Wood for the Trees and 2017’s Written in the Margins.

Interspersed with ink drawings, diagrams and notes, Pulp is also a critique of the form itself. “I was looking at our warring impulses, our literary impulse, our impulse to write, to create and to make art,” says Rao. “And how that is in contention with a violent impulse. A lot of people assume that this is a dichotomy. That if you are a writer, you are for the preservation of books. That’s not true. Most libraries are sites of violence.”

For Rao, the word “banished” is instructive. The modern library, of course, is a product of colonial values. It’s S. Raoul’s domain. “Where are the books written by women?” asks Rao. “Where are the books written by marginalised people? Who gets to publish, who gets to be taught? Literature doesn’t just mean texts or books. It can be oral history, storytelling, any form of making knowledge.” She pauses. “As I get older, I feel a deep sorrow for our propensity for destruction, what we do to the planet and each other.”

Through lockdown, her family recorded and shared birdcalls over WhatsApp. “My mother lives in India, my sister in the UK and my brother in South Africa, and although we’re very close, we hardly get to see each other,” she says. “In lockdown, birdcalls were all we could hear and [this was] one of the ways we could share our affection.”

In the forest, she says, silence is dangerous. Her mother taught her siblings how to listen for the sounds of predators. “My sister was really young, she would have made a nice meal for a leopard,” she says. “You don’t just listen to your species, you listen to all species. But as the world has gotten more populated, you can hear the degradation of biodiversity in the change of birdcalls.”

At APT10, as part of a presentation curated by Reuben Keehan, Rao will exhibit photographs, mixed-media drawings and a film, A small study of silence (2021). Based on footage and stills shot over years, the film portrays spaces such as public parks and natural reserves where nature’s soundscape remains.

“It’s not just about landmass,” she says. “When you have a road that cuts through a forest, you don’t have two equal fragments. Only a few species can survive there because of road noise and, within each patch, this shrinks even further.” This fragmentation of habitats, she says, is a metaphor for our own cultural dislocation. When imperial instincts unmoor humans from language and knowledge, the sense of loss is incalculable. We lose the ability to speak to each other.

“As we’ve become more globally connected, we have also created intellectual silos,” she says. “I want to talk about the territories that we define for ourselves during lockdown, the arbitrary lines that have led to massive fragmentation.”

Rao believes borders – intellectual, artistic, geographic – are a construct. “When a tree dies, it releases its resources to other species,” she says. “I think it is ridiculous that we are still speaking in imperial terms, in terms of nation and Empire, [when] these things don’t actually exist.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on November 27, 2021 as "Unexpected wonders".

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