Shubigi Rao builds community from erased stories

For a decade, the artist Shubigi Rao has been following the micro-stories of a forgotten, censored, stolen or erased literature and language. His installation for the Singapore pavilion at this year’s Venice Biennale, titled Pulp III: A Short Biography of the Banned Book (2022) – which takes the form of a paper maze, a book and a film – marks the midpoint of this ambitious project. In his films, Rao interviews people committed to preserving or collecting small but powerful literary stories.

18th century edition of the Index Librorum Prohibitorum, the infamous list of banned books and “heretical” authors of the Catholic Church, as depicted by Federico Bucci, Venice. Courtesy of: © Shubigi Rao

For this iteration of the project, she zooms in on Singapore and Venice, two historic ports vital to the publishing world. She interviews Malaysian historian and scholar Faris Joraimi, who explains that his collection attempts to “expand our understanding of meaning-making”. Rao often moves the camera over the hands of his interviewees; the way they gesture in describing their concerns is as important to her as the language they use. Joraimi opens a package wrapped in crumpled white paper. Inside is a large piece of Batik fabric – fabric painted with wax and then covered with a resistant dye – covered with birds with turquoise feathers and flat, open leaves in terracotta tones. For Joraimi, fabric is a form of “subaltern literature”. In Malay, the word used to describe the application of wax to fabric also means “to write”.

Cover of the novel Jawi published by Qalam Press, Singapore, illustrated by Faris Joraimi, Singapore.  Courtesy of Shubigi Rao
Cover of the novel Jawi published by Qalam Press, Singapore, illustrated by Faris Joraimi, Singapore. Courtesy of: © Shubigi Rao

Writing stories, especially canon stories, can often rely on rudimentary binaries. These become grounded and essentialized. Joraimi articulates a few as he goes along: “The modern versus the traditional; the ethnic versus the cosmopolitan. A tension remains locked in the dialectical writing of the Jawi, which has an Arabic root and is often confused too simplistically with the production of religious texts. Joraimi presents us with unusual examples of this writing: it was a script that was also used to produce fantastic writings, he explains. He shows the camera an erotic novel with a blood red cover. A woman is dressed in form-fitting arctic blue silk, with a slow frown and a lit cigarette in her mouth, staring into the distance. Joraimi flips the book over to reveal the back: it was published by Qalam Press – on Java Road in Singapore – which had a reputation for producing didactic and morally coded works. ‘But [it] did it through the writing of erotic and risque novels,” says Joraimi, which is an unexpected and sharp camouflage.

Each person Rao interviews through his films undoes the harsh binaries of story-making to introduce slight slip-ups. Each shows us the special and uniquely charged items of their collections, and each object becomes a portal to a little story filled with the complexities of its time and place. In Venice, we visit a book press run by Paolo Olbi – housed in a palace belonging to the city’s Armenian Mkhitarist fathers – where Olbi toils diligently on a book smaller than his own hand. He dips a wooden paintbrush into a small pot of white glue, dabbing it onto the hand-pressed back.

Poet Bianca Tarozzi in her personal library, with books that survived the 2019 Aqua Alta floods, in Venice.  Courtesy of Shubigi Rao
Poet Bianca Tarozzi in her personal library, with books that survived the 2019 Aqua Alta floods, in Venice. Courtesy of: © Shubigi Rao

Alongside the film is the third volume of Rao’s ongoing book anthology (of which there will be five), Pulp III (2022). This includes a detail of her process and her thoughts as she progresses through the project. The book is annotated, with footnotes and Rao’s own errata, indicating how his writing evolves. For this edition, she lists some concerns in the book’s introduction: first, that libraries “continue to occupy very different ideological grounds, and that we must continue to question these positions incessantly.” It seeks to critically examine how institutional knowledge is created and maintained. Rao centers the impulse of anecdotal evidence in her work, which she explains brings together “the precariousness of endangered languages, the historic cosmopolitanism of a regional print community, alternative libraries, and the power of resistance.” The book and the film are joined by a “paper labyrinth scenography”, as Rao calls it, which will structurally animate the ideological considerations of his project. At the end of her book, in a short afterword, Rao explains how building a community around language and history gives impetus to her work: “I carry with me, she writes, the camaraderie of those I met while filming and making this project.

“Pulp III: A Short Biography of the Banished Book” by Shubigi Rao is presented at the Singapore pavilion of the 59th Venice Biennale from April 23 to November 27, 2022.

This article first appeared in curly number 226 with the title “4 artists to watch 2022”. For additional coverage of the 59th Venice Biennale, see here.

Main image: film still, 16th century edition of Petrarch, censored in 4 different ways, Venice. Courtesy: © Shubigi Rao

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