The Womb of the Covid
The Womb of the Covid by Joyotee Ray Chaudhury
When I was approached some months ago by Singapore artist Joyotee Ray Chaudhury, I had seen some of her early stage works on this theme, but I had no idea how these works would evolve and develop into a project as the Covid 19 situation was still unfolding. I decided I would collaborate with or without the NAC grant as I believed in her vision and creativity. At many levels this theme resonated with me. So here is my curatorial take after several discussions with the artist and reading through several stages of her script that accompanies these works. Even without it, the visual vocabulary pushes forward the multi-layered narrative and the video script provides an existential layer like “stream of consciousness” as the artist rightly puts it. The Womb of the Covid inspired by the COVID 19 virus is an existential docu-narrative in visual, literary and audio-visual formats. The ‘cover’ of this project is a postcard written by the artist ‘observer’ from the earth to another observer in the outer space where the sense of time is unknown and indefinite. Joyotee Ray Chaudhury has reinvigorated her artistic impulse with diverse techniques and tools from her armoury in expressing her inner states of mind during these difficult times. She juxtaposes them symbolically against massive changes the pandemic has brought in its aftermath the world over.
COVID 19 caught majority of the humanity unawares and turned into this global pandemic of the proportion no one had visualised in late 2019 as people all over revelled in excesses routinely as they reigned in 2020. But from the artist’s perspective in Hindsight 2020, the new year unfolded most unexpectedly, to put it mildly.
As the pandemic began to rear its ugly head and began to spread far and wide silently – in Singapore what was a distant happening reached our little island due to its global air connectivity quite quickly and engulfed many people in its wake. The lethalness and the destructiveness of the disease in other countries only became palpable in March by when only little was known about the virus, and the fear and uncertainty loomed larger than any infectious disease or biological warfare known. Today in hindsight State as well as public at large have become much wiser, responsible, adaptable, and cooperative with the authorities than they were a few months ago in staying safe and making sure others are safe in their presence too. Many old ways were unlearned, ways of life changed for ever and many people suffered huge losses in its wake starting with loss of livelihood, loss of life and loss of loved ones.
The pandemic induced uncertainty and fragility of life hit the artist’s life hard when she took refuge in art for solace and produced an incredible body of works as a “silent observer”, shrinking into a “womb” for comfort and protection. As the virus invisibly began to take life after life all over the world relegating humans to retreat into their homes and stay confined, nature began to bloom and ‘take over’ as if reclaiming its place on earth while healing itself and the humanity. The image of Gaia all curled up and despairing within the globe resonating with the generative sound of Tibetan OM and bloodied axe suggestive of destruction give us an insight into Joyotee’s range of visual references in Killing Gaia and My Planet that paradoxically imply eternal cycle of creation and destruction.
Consumerism receives a candid commentary by Joyotee in Gotchya and Branded On with branded masks and shops being floated by consumerist businesses trying to make a fast buck as people scurried around to readjust their status symbols still reigning supreme with sheer survival instinct when the virus sarcastically targeted humankind. With events cancelled, travel cancelled, businesses curtailed, institutions and offices shut down, human resource was badly hit as jobs got wiped out in a blink, the virus took a greater toll of the ‘living’ than those it engulfed in its wake. Human ethics, values and beliefs, importance of one on one communication and everything one took for granted earlier came under the scanner and changed for the better or for the worse.
With the global spread of the virus engulfing the whole world, when the State began to document every movement of the humans making the pandemic’s seriousness even more palpable, the dots began to join – the notion of the ‘world’ shrinking and becoming a No Fly Zone – the notion of ‘global’ took on a new meaning altogether. When strict arm of the State machinery began to protect its population authoritatively and decisively clamping down new rules in order to control the movements of people to contain the virus, many citizens felt like being treated as robots or puppets while some protested the basic rights to breath and move about freely without masks. Amidst all this chaos and humbling experiences, the artist’s humour is tickled when terms such as “Covidiot” emerged during the pandemic. In Totalitarianism, Joyotee pulls out a puppet with a hand manipulating the strings – a feeling many citizens all over the world could identify themselves with. Using a patchwork of scripts, she has alluded to many aspects of challenges faced by ordinary people foremost being exploitation at many levels while keeping oneself sane and balanced. The migration of daily wage migrant workers in India and other countries as businesses and construction projects came to a hurtling stop hit many Indians especially those living outside India hard. We saw many images on media feeds day in and day out as families and groups of workers young and old set off on foot scaling across the length and breadth of the country on barefoot along railway lines, through villages and fields finding their way home. Joyotee draws our attention to this unprecedented phenomenon in Peregrine.
With the passing of each day, marvelling at the omnipotence of the virus and how it has debilitated the humanity – displacement, the plight of the migrant workers everywhere; new meaning of Home, #stayinghome, vulnerability, the proliferation of ‘social distancing’ and wearing masks in public – has taken on a new meaning altogether. The keen eye and ear of the artist have not missed a single cue – be it from nature when it began healing, or birds chirping in reclaiming their universe, to human beings adapting to “working from home” and “teaming” via teaming technologies. In another instance, all the social distancing and masking up norms produced a new set of rules people had to observe otherwise faced harsh punishments, drawing noteworthy public outcry. Marked Spaces and Safe Spaces allude to the new normal as #StayHome notices and advises were issued, quarantine rules were strictly followed as well as monitored. Home suddenly took on a new meaning, it became office and workspace at the same time which people had to share with family members including toddlers and seniors erasing the strict norms of official and formal spaces which were fiercely guarded in the pre-pandemic era referenced in Zoom Call or teamed Up. From being in isolation to teaming using technology, we have all come a long way in adapting, innovating and making everything work, while the pandemic took the toll of humanity all around us. It was blurring sooner and faster than we thought while allowing certain suffocation and abuse of the more vulnerable ones to whom no help could reach as atrocities happened behind closed door. In New Normal artist has used a noose to exemplify the plight of some people during the covid pandemic and how it is imperative to build a circle of trust and reason to fight it unitedly and cohesively. People reached out to each other, communicated more ‘sincerely’ and asked after each other’s health more genuinely than ever before. Joyotee has expressed this paradoxical sentiments and issues facing humanity very aptly.
The next batch of works allude to mental health, emotional balance and equipoise many have battled through the covid situation. In the face of the uncertainty of life and ‘being’ itself which made us aware of the fragility of life, Joyotee explores her own kundalini rising – practicing meditation every day to evoke her inner balance and prana, the life source. Manasa and Chi Rising obliquely refer to the rising of the Kundalini, the inner energy through the chakras which the artist practices and articulates through these two works as if verbalising her encrusted inner thoughts. The fine line drawing of Manasa Devi, the snake goddess popular in Bengal and northeast of India where the artist draws her roots from, has been introduced symbolically with an amazing contemporary edge wielding a mobile phone in one of the multiple arms while suggesting her wrath and benevolence at the same time as she protects the humanity from the pandemic. The gouache rendering of the Chi Rising is more like intestines than snake-like with interesting pen details revealing through the layers of water colour. In Dancing the dynamism is even more pronounced as abstracted energy rising up is made to dance while chanting the OM sound resounding within the inner core now laid bare. In Raw, the bareness of the human form is revealed in all its glorious textures and surfaces presenting the body as honest revelation.
In Baby, Baby with Clock and Contemplative Baby, Joyotee comes full circle in putting the clock back as she searches and yearns for the warmth of the womb and creativity through “good days and bad days”, “productive days and not”, attempting to address a sustainable solution to the pandemic situation while remain a “silent observer”. If one follows the trajectory of these works, the artist is everything but silent.
Dr Gauri Parimoo Krishnan
Founding Director, DMBG Consultants