Revisiting artist Waswo X Waswo's prescient 'Like A Leaf in Autumn' series in wake of Black Lives Matter movement
Amid the widespread protests in support of the Black Lives Matter movement this year, the themes explored in Waswo X Waswo's October 2019 exhibition of miniature paintings, Like A Leaf in Autumn, feel quite timely.
In October 2019, the artist Waswo X Waswo presented an exhibition of miniature paintings called Like A Leaf in Autumn at the Gallery Espace. The exhibition marked the culmination of a decade-long collaboration between Waswo X Waswo and miniaturist R Vijay. In an interview with Firstpost at the time, Waswo acknowledged that with Like A Leaf in Autumn, he was “addressing questions of race head on… The concept of ‘whiteness’ is very much a motif that runs throughout”. The artist also discussed how he’d considered himself an “old-fashioned liberal” all his life, but how over time, “without changing any of [his] beliefs, [he] suddenly became a ‘conservative’ to [his] friends”.
In the aftermath of George Floyd’s death this May and the widespread protests in support of the Black Lives Matter movement that followed, the themes explored in Like A Leaf in Autumn feel quite timely. As statues were being brought down in the US and UK by BLM protestors and allies, igniting debates about what such actions mean, the toppled statues that featured in Waswo’s exhibition took on a prescient quality.
Speaking with Firstpost this month, the 67-year-old artist dwelled on some of the ideas he presented through Like A Leaf in Autumn, and how they tie in with the concerns of the present era.
The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
What about the idea of ‘falling’ made you want to explore it as a theme in Like A Leaf in Autumn?
I’m 67. There’s the feeling that you’re kind of nearing the end of your lifespan. And that’s often referred to as autumn. So it referred to my age. But also I feel like the West right now is going through a really traumatic time. It’s being challenged on so many fronts. Even though I’ve lived in India now for 20 years or more, I still have a lot of feeling for the West because I grew up in the US. And I hate to see the way it all seems to be falling apart. So I was very concerned about that.
But as a wider notion, [the show is also] exploring how civilisations tend to rise and fall. Not just in regards to the West but worldwide. I feel we’re in a time of immense upheaval and I guess some of the artwork just expresses that.
How have you noticed people responding to statues around them in India?
I think India has a different set of problems than the US. It’s a very different situation here. It has a different history. It has a different power structure and a different leadership. I don’t want to go too far into that. There are very easy comparisons between Donald Trump and Narendra Modi, but I don’t think that really holds across societies. Because I think that much of the cultural power structure in the US is very left leaning: The academies, the media houses, Hollywood, even many corporate houses tend to lean rather left and liberal, whereas in India you have most of these things being moderate or to the right. So Modi doesn’t get that much pushback, whereas Trump has gotten tremendous pushback in the US. So it’s a very different scenario.
What are your views on the taking down of statues?
In the current scenario in the US, it seems like it’s out of control. I certainly understand the desire to take down the Confederate statues; they are a blight upon the landscape in the US. [But] they have a history and I can also understand some of the arguments for why they were erected. After the Civil War, they were basically a way to help the South regain some pride and retain a hold on some of their history [in light of their defeat]. Partially, the North allowed [the statue building] because they wanted the South to have some pride in the reconstruction process, but then of course they were also used to intimidate the newly-freed Black slaves. I think that the time has come for these Confederate statues to go. And taking them down I think should have been done 20 years ago or more.
[However, there now seems to be] a lack of knowing the history, or of seeing the historical context, and it’s more of “Oh, there’s another statue of a white man, let’s tear it down”.
In my home state of Wisconsin, in the city of Madison, they recently tore down two statues: One called ‘Forward’ — a statue of a woman pointing the way ahead with a raised arm, designed by a female sculptor from the Art Institute of Chicago, and entirely paid for by women. It was supposed to be a statue memorialising the progressive, liberal ideals of the state of Wisconsin. So when it was brought down, it’s like you’re tearing down a symbol of early progressivism — which is exactly what you say you’re for… And the other statue they tore down in Madison was of an abolitionist [Col. Hans Christian Heg].
What role do you think a statue plays in society?
I think a statue is like a remembrance of history. It doesn’t really teach history because I think most statues in parks or whatever, they become just decorative objects and pretty soon people don’t even see them anymore. Most people can’t even tell you whose statue it is, unless it’s someone very recognisable. History is pretty much learnt through books and through the educational system, but statues are like little art objects that have come down to us from history, that carry certain messages. You can interpret those messages, like time capsules from the past. And maybe you agree with their sentiments, or maybe you disagree with their sentiments, but that has to be very well considered before you determine to topple something.
For instance, there’s the controversy in Washington DC over the Emancipation Memorial. I understand why its critics have problems with it: You have Abraham Lincoln standing upright and then at his feet is the slave who’s unshackled and is beginning to rise. People say it’s demeaning because it shows the Black man in a crouched position. But the statue is actually paid for by former slaves… and the Black man, he’s not looking up at Lincoln like he’s some master; he’s looking up at the sky, like he’s got all these hopes and dreams ahead of him. And so there are older African Americans who have come out to speak in favour of the Emancipation Memorial, and say, ‘This is part of our heritage’, while there are motions in Congress [to remove the statue] because it is demeaning to Black people. So it’s a very complex thing.
There are also debates about whether statues [deemed problematic] should be placed in museums, and perhaps having context can help make that decision?
One of my Facebook friends made the suggestion and I thought it was rather cool that if you don’t like a standing statue you can actually make an adjacent one that somehow relates to it or takes the idea forward.
So one idea with the Emancipation Memorial is that you could commission artists to build another statue, to show a proud Black man and Black woman standing straight with raised fists, with their chains at their feet. So it could be like a continuation of the narrative and you could actually make a more powerful statement rather than with just erasing the statue or hiding it away in a museum somewhere.
I want to say again, I’m certainly not defending Confederate monuments, [but] many of these [other] figures are open to interpretation…
I kind of saw all of this coming when I was going into Like A Leaf in Autumn, because I was aware of some of the preliminary skirmishes with the statue issue and just generally what postmodernism is doing to society. And I want to emphasise, I’m not against postmodernism in its entirety because when it first came about, it was very necessary. Because modernism had constructed this kind of cheery narrative that everything will just get better and better if you just listen to Reason and Science. And post-modernism came along and said, ‘Science gave us the atom bomb. Science gave us World War II in many ways’. It started to deconstruct the cheery, happy, ever-forward narrative of modernism.
The grand narratives of history, even Marxism, were all very Eurocentric and Western-centric. Specially in art theory, they just totally overlooked what was going on in China, in India, in Japan, Africa, and the rest of the world. So postmodernism was really important in its early days because it was about deconstructing a narrative and trying to broaden it.
But I feel like now it’s become what they call “reified postmodernism” — postmodernism has now almost become like its own grand narrative, almost like a religion. Now I mean the kids go to school and they’re only taught now to deconstruct everything: find out where the power structures lie, how are we going to deconstruct the power structures? And so rather than approaching a classical work of art or literature, and understanding that it might have good moral/humanistic stories within it to learn from, people no longer are open to looking at anything like that anymore. They want to tear it apart, which I think is a problem.
Waswo X Waswo talks us through seven of his artworks from Like A Leaf in Autumn —
In the Garden of Archetypes #4
In the Garden of Archetypes #3
In the Garden of Archetypes #5
Dreams of the Orientalist #15
Dreams of the Orientalist #17
It’s OK to be White
— Art by Waswo X Waswo and R Vijay. All photos courtesy Waswo.
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