You might be forgiven for thinking of Shubigi Rao as a writer, since her book Pulp II: A Visual Bibliography of the Banished Book just swept the Singapore Literature Prize 2020 for Creative Nonfiction in English, but the multi-talented 45-year-old really defies definition.
For one thing, Mumbai-born Shubigi is also an award-winning multi-disciplinary artist who makes layered installations of films, books, etchings, drawings, pseudo-scientific machines, metaphysical puzzles, video works, ideological board games, and archives, and who will be exhibiting in a major biennial and triennial next year. For another, she was unanimously selected to curate the fifth edition of the Kochi-Muziris Biennale, South Asia’s biggest visual arts event, which begins in December. She's also a filmmaker, with two new films in the works.
“I see very little separation between my artistic and literary work,” she explains. “Drawing is as much a primary impulse as language – both are rich yet incredibly flawed forms of communication.”
However, she prefers the term “artist”, precisely for its flexibility. “It gives me the freedom to research and make work in almost any field, to be critical, informed and openly opinionated, to switch between conceptual frameworks, and to teach myself new things, media, and ideas when needed.”
THE MEDIUM MUST BEST SERVE THE IDEA
While she loves film and paperwork, Shubigi often teaches herself a new medium because an idea demands it. “I’ve made video and film, text-based work, sound-pieces, art books, satirical board games, ceramic builds, a lot of printmaking, especially intaglio and aquatint, even more ink on paper and drawings, installations of found and repurposed objects, performance-lectures, quasi-scientific work like building neuroscientific machines under a male pseudonym for 10 years, and so on,” she lists.
This versatility informs the richness and depth of her work. Her decade-long Pulp project, about the history of book destruction, takes the form of art, film and books, with Pulp II being only volume two of five books planned.
“I travel to sites all across the world, solo-filming collections, libraries, archives, places and field interviews with people who have served as flashpoints in history, collecting fragments, ephemera, anecdotes and buried secrets, and piecing them together through my films, books, and artworks,” she explains.
Pulp has already won art, design and literary awards – the first portion, Written in the Margins, won the Juror's Choice Award at the triennial APB Signature Art Prize 2018, and the first book from the project was shortlisted for the Singapore Literature Prize 2018, and won numerous awards, including AIGA (New York)’s 50 best books of 2016 and a D&AD Pencil for design. Pulp II has also won numerous design awards – proving that Shubigi’s multidisciplinary approach has deep currency and appeal.
As she puts it: “Art, design and literature are not separate worlds, and gatekeeping or artificially separating these fields can sometimes diminish how much we have in common.”
Her uniquely holistic perspective seems to be the product of an unconventional childhood, which included living in the jungle for 10 years, alongside wildlife like elephants, tigers and leopards.
“As a child in 1970s Darjeeling, I was often alone but never lonely,” she recalls. “The worlds of books, my environment and surroundings, and the stories I heard, were indistinguishable from one another, and cross-pollinated each other. There were no artificial separations between humanities, art, science, spirituality and the incredible richness of the natural world.”
Growing up surrounded by books also meant she grew up a devoted and sensitive reader. “My parents had a wonderful collection of rare and sometimes outdated books on natural and political history, science, mythologies, literature, and the humanities, and I read them as voraciously as I read popular fiction,” she laughs. “I learnt to never privilege only one narrative over others, and to see parity in the vast literary output of our species. I also learnt to parse subtext and layered, submerged meanings or agendas.”
The mother-of-one credits her own mother – an environmentalist, writer, editor and “the most ethical person I know” – with bringing her and her siblings up “with humanist values, empathy, and critical thinking”. She does her best to raise her own nine-year-old son in the same spirit of “benign neglect”. “It’s where you allow a child to find imaginative ways out of their boredom rather than constantly providing entertainment and stimulation,” she explains. “It’s how I grew up, and why I didn’t have my creativity and eccentricity crushed by a frequently brutal school system.”
RESCUER OF ARTEFACTS
While her parents’ library sparked a deep love for books that eventually led to Pulp, growing up around their collection of “objects and rescued artefacts” taught her to appreciate beauty in “objects that most people don’t regard as valuable”, perhaps honing her early curatorial instincts.
As Singapore's sole representative at the fourth edition of the Kochi-Muziris Biennial, which ran until March 2020, Shubigi stayed in Kochi for almost two months, scouring junkyards and private collections alike, to make her work The Pelagic Tracts, a film that charts the lost, fictitious history of the book smugglers of Kochi.
Even though curating the fifth edition of the Kochi-Muziris Biennial has meant putting her own work on hold for two years, Shubigi is very excited by the opportunities afforded. “As an artist-led endeavour, it’s more liberated and allows for new inclusive forms, discussions, and practices,” she explains.
Since forming the curatorial research for the Biennial involved travelling to almost 40 countries over nine months to meet artists, thinkers, curators, writers, and cultural figures and institutions in Central and South America, West Asia, Europe, North, West and South Africa, Australia, and East, South, and South-east Asia, Shubigi is glad she was able to complete this before the pandemic disrupted global travel.
But true to her nature, she doesn’t see the pandemic as an obstacle as much as an opportunity, a “wake-up call” to rethink everything from potential artworks to the organisational and functional aspects of exhibition-making. “Artists are responding by embracing previously overlooked forms of interaction, process, and method, as well as inventing and expanding their processes of making, collaborating, and sharing,” she adds.
More important, perhaps, is how the pandemic has raised the age-old question about creative endeavour being a necessity, not luxury. In a piece she wrote before the pandemic, which perhaps rings truer now, Shubigi argues that “our fears for the future do not detract from our abilities to think and to make, but fuel our yearning to articulate through art the complexities of our realities.” The affirming power of artistic work, no matter the medium, is certainly a keystone in her practice.
"Gatekeeping or artificially separating art, design and literature can sometimes diminish how much we have in common."
"Our fears for the future... fuel our yearning to articulate through art the complexities of our realities."
Anything by Jorge Luis Borges
THE BOOK OF DISQUIET
by Fernando Pessoa
WAR'S UNWOMANLY FACE
by Svetlana Alexievich
CHILD OF THE DARK: THE DIARY OF CAROLINA MARIA DE JESUS
by Carolina Maria De Jesus
THE SHOCK DOCTRINE AND NO LOGO
by Naomi Klein
TOO LOUD A SOLITUDE
by Bohumil Hrabal
THE LEFT HAND OF DARKNESS AND ALWAYS COMING HOME
by Ursula K Le Guin
THE THURSDAY NEXT SERIES
by Jasper Fforde
PHOTOGRAPHY Phyllicia Wang ART DIRECTION Ray Ticsay STYLING Debby Kwong HAIR & MAKEUP Angel Gwee, using Shu Uemura & Kevin.Murphy