Part II: Adira Thekkuveettil and the defaced murals in India

Contributed by Hannah Kennedy, Two Coats Intern /  Adira Thekkuveettil is an emerging photographer working in Gujarat, India, who created Women on Walls,” a series of photographs inspired by the notorious 2012 Delhi gang rape incident.
When she noticed that public murals depicting women that were intended
to beautify the city had been defaced, she began photographing them.
Thekkuveettil ultimately developed a series of images that deconstruct
the notion of sexual violence and its prevalence in India, using text,
photography, and performance to illuminate these themes. This is the second  of a two-part interview that explores Thekkuveettil’s artistic
background and her “Women on Walls” series.

Part I of the interview is available here.

Hannah Kennedy: So what inspired the “Women on Walls” series?

Adira Thekkuveettil: As I said, Initially, it was a reaction to the amount of protests that were happening at the time. Everybody was talking about it and I was not in Delhi at the time. Everything was happening in Delhi, or Mumbai, and everybody expects protests to happen there. Ahmedabad is not a metropolis like Delhi and it’s a more quiet kind of place. At that time it was also under the rule of Modi and there was a strong Hindu right-wing influence in the city. Initially, I wanted to look at how women are perceived in a public space and that’s how I started. I was just walking around the city, photographing women I saw, women I met at bus stops. There were a lot of options. What I noticed as I was walking around the city, there was a drive by the government to beautify Ahmedabad and they asked to put paint on the walls. A lot of the murals depicted women because women are beautiful and it’s about Indian culture and this and that. So to make the walls pretty they painted a lot of women on them. If you go in a car, you just see a lot of murals and you think, “Wow, its such a beautiful city”. If you are taking a walk and you’re in these areas, it’s not the same. You suddenly encounter, you’re in the street, everything happens in the street and I as a single woman walking around with a camera, I instantly noticed. A lot of people came up to me and asked me, “What are you doing? Who are you?” and I got a lot of catcalls from people. So as I was experiencing this and seeing that the walls and almost all of them have been defaced in one way or another. Then I realized that it’s kind of like a threat on the walls for women walking.  This is what’s going to happen to you. So that reaction, I realized this is right there, the threat is right there. We think that we are living in such a safe city, Ahmedabad was voted the number two safest city in India because everyone was doing surveys about which is the safest city for women.
Seeing how that can happen on the walls and how regular people walking by on their way to work or on their way home or probably a kid. They see this as an invitation for them. They see it as a woman on the wall who can do nothing to you. It is just there. It gave them permission to do whatever they felt like on it. That’s kind of how Indian culture is, in a way. Most women in India don’t have a voice. We are living in societies where both you get married and then you don’t have a voice because your husband controls you. There is a small class of women who are educated and who are relatively middle or upper-middle class who can stand up and say, “This is who I am, this is my sexuality, this is my being, and I will do whatever I want, I will wear whatever I want, or I will do whatever I feel like”. No one is there to control you. Most men feel like they have the right to do whatever they feel like to any woman. As I was walking by the murals I noticed that they had used almost every kind of woman on the murals. There were goddesses, there were regular women, and there were mothers and children. None of them had been spared. None of them had been, “Oh this is a child so I wont do anything to the little girl”. It was not like that. It was already on the wall and every kind of woman was already targeted. It’s not as if it’s just a piece of art or it’s just there to make my city look pretty.
So that gave me the idea to work on the murals themselves. And then I added text and had somebody perform with the murals just to make that more evident. For me, I felt that if I just took pictures of damaged murals, it wouldn’t emphasize the point. As I was walking there, I was also experiencing things and I wanted to show what I was experiencing and the way that I was thinking. I wanted to put that across to the viewer. I didn’t want it to say, “Look there it so much damage done.” I want it to show this is what I think of the damage done to it and this is what I as a woman feel and how every woman in the world feels. So that is why the text is very enforced, I point it out “this is what’s happening, look at that”. I want it to be very obvious and very evident, because otherwise most people don’t see it. It’s not like it’s only happening in my city, it’s probably happening all over the world. I’m living in India, so it’s a reaction to India, but I’m sure if I went to Rio or New York it would be something similar. It’s just a matter of ideology and it’s not about just a particular place.
HK: So you touched on how the text and the performance function in the series, but I was wondering if you could go deeper into how the hands function?
AT: Initially, I was photographing the murals and looking at the prints later on and mostly you couldn’t tell what was going on. In the print, the colors are so vibrant and the mural is so pretty that you can’t really see that something had been done. I wanted to enforce that point; I wanted people to see it. The performance in some ways acts out what happened, like there is an image of a woman with bubble gum across her breasts and there is a person blowing a piece of gum. I wanted to reinforce the act in a way. Also in some photographs there is an image of the goddess Saraswati, she is supposed to be the goddess of learning. I am holding a pencil, because that’s how you see her, she is the goddess of knowledge and she’s respected and she was defaced with a pencil. The object that we use as an item of worship was then used in the act of defacement. Each image is thought of like that, its either a reenactment of what happened, pointing it out in a way, or showering paan on her face. Its kind of an enactment of what has been happening and its kind of a reaction to it. I am using hands specifically to point it out because the hand is 3D in comparison to the image so that again works to point out exactly where it is. 
HK: Has this body of work been exhibited at all or has it been shown primarily in your school setting?
AT: Its been almost a year since I’ve made that body of work and of course its been shown in school and then I’ve been using it as kind of a public awareness thing. I give out pamphlets so I’ve given them out in Ahmedabad. I’ve seen that reaction and I’ve documented that reaction. It hasn’t been shown in a gallery setting or in a public space or in a purely photographic space. It hasn’t been so far, but I would like it to.
HK: How would you like it to be exhibited? What are your goals for this project?
AT: As a person doing this, as a woman doing this, I want it to be shown as big prints on walls. I want a wall in public areas because, this is where I found it this is where it is. In a way, I don’t want it to be a print in a gallery because that is kind of a removed setting. I would like it to be in front of the place where it is happening so it reinforces that idea in your head. I’d probably use cheap prints or newsprint hanging or stuck on walls. That’s how people stick things on walls everywhere in India. So it could be something like that, I would like it to be shown like that. Also, I want it to be something you can flip through like a pamphlet. Not exactly a physical book like a beautiful book, but something you can have because it’s about seeing all of them, not just one of them. So you could be on the road and see one of them, but I want people to see the whole set because it is about every woman. In that set it’s talking about different kinds of women, different kinds of reactions and different kinds of threats that have been made. So in a way if its something like that I would probably leave pamphlets that people can pick up or carry home and keep it with you. Because it is something that should be read and re-read to enforce it deeper because each time you read it you think of something else.
HK: You mentioned that you have handed out these pamphlets before. What has been the reaction to you handing out the pamphlets?
AT: Most people I handed them out to saw it more of a public menace, of they are making the city unbeautiful. They are defacing public works of art so that’s how they saw it. I didn’t have a selection of who I was handing it out to, I was just handing it out to regular people on the street. So they reacted to the fact that they destroyed a mural, they did not see that it was specifically women that were destroyed that’s what gained their attention. Then I had to point out, “But wait. Can you see that it’s a woman?” and then they would say, “Oh, that’s terrible”. That was not their initial reaction. Most of them were looking at it as it’s all ruined now and it used to be so beautiful. Because I had also put the text there and I was also pointing it out then they noticed later. Most didn’t react to that at first and some didn’t react to that at all. They still wanted to focus on that they are making our city look dirty. I feel if I keep working on this project or maybe do more with it, or do all the cities in India. Maybe it will have a different kind of scope.
AT: So is your goal with this project, are you trying to create a conversation around this issue of sexual violence?
HK: Yes, I am trying to create a conversation about sexual violence. Sometimes I think that since I am photographing murals it turns into a work on defacing public property, which I didn’t want it to be. So I might rethink how I approach it, but as of now I would like it to be a conversation. I would like it to be a conversation about threat, about violence that every woman feels whether it’s a public space or whether it’s at home, in any field or any space. That’s what I want people to talk about it. Each page has a story to tell, each page can create a conversation in itself. There are issues of mothers and children, women on the street, and every kind of woman. I want it to be about that. It’s a contemporary issue because there are rape cases every day on every corner of the country, which are not reported because they are not emphasized. If it’s happening in Delhi, but if it’s happening in a small village nobody talks about it. I want it to be talked about as much as possible. I want to keep enforcing that because in a way people like to forget. People don’t want to talk about it. Once all of the rage and the protests die down, people forget about it and life goes on. That shouldn’t be the case. It should always be there in front of you so people keep having conversations about it. Some people can make a change maybe. 
HK: Do you feel that you face challenges with working with the subject matter of sexual violence?
AT: Yes, there are challenges as a woman talking about sexual violence because most people don’t want to talk about it, most people don’t want it to be out there. It brings up that our society is not as perfect as we want it to be or we are not as Hindu culture as we would like to be. So all these way people want to shut it in a way. People don’t want to accept it because as I said, people want to think of it as public works being defaced rather than sexual violence because they don’t want to talk about it, they don’t want that aspect to be thought of. There are challenges with how this work has been received in most circles that are not art, already intellectual, or already talking about it.
HK: What other types of reception have there been towards this series?
AT: Otherwise, I was already showing it to Annu Matthew. She was giving me help in terms of editing and along with that she was showing it to different people. Their reactions were very different. I think the people she was showing it to were already coming from a background where they were talking about the issue or had an understanding of the issue. In that way the reception was different, it was better and they were more understanding towards what I was trying to say. As far as people in India. I showed this work to Sunil Gupta and other photographers and they were looking at it as what I was trying to say. They had suggestions as to how I could change the work or make it more public, things like that. I think the reception from people who are in my field was a lot better than regular people. In a way, I want it to be more for people who can do something or are on the street as opposed to people who are already making work or are in galleries.
HK: What about sexual violence specifically interests you?
AT: For me, I don’t think sexual violence is about sexual violence at all. It’s about power and that’s the core of it. Any tangents off of it are in correlation to power. For me, its how specifically sex is used as a form of violence and a form of power. It’s very interesting and its very upsetting. It’s supposed to be something that is a natural phenomenon an act of love lalala, but then it’s used as an act of power. No matter what kind of relationship you’re in, sex is used as a form of power. I am not talking specifically in cases of violence, but also in a husband and wife setting. Mostly in society people use sex as a motivation to their power so that for me has been of interest.
Also, sexual violence has been a taboo subject. Nobody wants to talk specifically about sexual violence. They want to talk about all other kinds of violence, murder, death, grievous injury, but they wont talk about sexual violence specifically. Somehow that topic is taboo. I wouldn’t say that specifically about my society, its that way in all societies. Nobody wants to talk about sexual violence. It’s associated with emotions like shame,  emotions like self-respect and dignity and things like that. I’m wondering how all of these things came together and in a way I am dissecting these things or in my future work I would like to dissect these things further. I would like to ask, “How did we start associating sexual violence with shame? Why do women or men not want to talk about it at all? Or when they want to talk about it, why don’t people accept it? Do something about it?” Issues like that I would like to explore further.
HK: How do you see your practice evolving or what would you like to work on in the future?
AT: I’m a very reactionary person, so right now I am working on a project…because right now we just had an election in India. It was a landslide victory for a major right-wing party with a major right-wing Hindu ideology, which has never happened in India to this extent. That in itself is a very unique situation in which we are in. In our 60 or so years of independence we have never had a government that is so distinctly towards one kind of community has taken over the whole country. I’m exploring that and I am exploring how left-wing groups have just become kind of irrelevant. Like in states like Kerala, where the Communist party is so strong, that they could never lose and now they are irrelevant. What happened to left-wing ideologies? What happened to being a socialist state? It’s written in our constitution that we are a socialist state, which we are not. All these ideas I am looking at right now. My next project will be looking at that. Its also looking at how globally we are becoming more right-wing. Where is that leading us in a global context? Where is that leading us in an India context? Those are the kind of questions I am trying to deal with now.
All photos appear courtesy of the artist.


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Two Coats of Paint is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution – Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License. To use content beyond the scope of this license, permission is required.


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