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Both Sides of The Veil

A transmedia installation about India's queer community

 

Both Sides of The Veil is an immersive exhibition-oriented project comprised of photographs and multi-channel video projections of India’s LGBTQ community. Through extensive interviews, still and video portraits and scenes of daily life in contemporary India, the installation explores the jarring effects created when social progress abruptly changes course. At its core, it addresses the question:

WHAT HAPPENS WHEN A COUNTRY TAKES A HUGE AND UNEXPECTED STEP BACKWARDS?

In 2009, the Delhi High Court decriminalized Section 377 of the penal code, which made same-sex sexual activity illegal. When the decision came down, many believed it was a huge step in a march toward progress in the rapidly changing country.

So the shock was widespread when, just a few years later in 2013, the Supreme Court nullified that decision. Then, at the beginning of September 2018, the Indian Supreme Court struck down Section 377 once and for all, ending years of limbo. But for a time, India had the peculiar distinction of being one of the only (if not the only) countries in the world to have decriminalized and then re-criminalized homosexuality.

Though court convictions were real, they were uncommon. Instead, the law provided legal cover for harassment, physical abuse, and a general climate of homophobia and transphobia. But despite the newfound legal freedom for members of India’s queer community, there are many social barriers that remain before anything like true equality can be claimed.

Through extensive interviews and portraits, this project explores what it’s like to be queer in the present moment in India. And in the age of Trump, Brexit and other dramatic about-faces, this work explores one community’s sudden shift in fortunes, a microcosm of the global tides rewriting our collective sense of progress.

 
 
We have to continue being angry with the government. They said you should not have equal rights. That is in the head of a kid when he realizes he is different.
— Sambhav Dehlavi
Ashish

The installation includes three major elements:

1) Video PortraitS

We created a grid of video portraits of people in our project variously staring into the camera, with their backs turned, or beginning in one position and turning their backs (or vice versa) as the viewer watches. At any given time, visitors were confronted with the stoney gaze of members of the LGBTQ community or their backs, and individuals within the grid will turn at various moments creating a rich visual interplay.

 

2) STILL PORTRAITS, QUotes and Interview

Throughout the space we displayed vibrant photographic portraits of those we’ve met, printed at human scale (examples can be seen throughout this page). Photo portraits were accompanied by quotes and/or stories displayed alongside (or accompanied by snippets of interviews accessed by visiting this link). The images variously hide or reveal the sitter's face and location. Also occasionally seen in the portraits are the hands of others helping hold up backdrops, alluding to the ways the general public is culpable in the current state and its solution.

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3) SCENES

We also installed images and large-scale projections — played in reverse —  from the urban and rural settings where the people we met live; intimate scenes from the daily lives of our characters; and other scenes of manufacture and production, conveying an endless coming together and undoing of everyday objects. These elements are intended to bring the audience into the environment of the people affected, but also to destabilize them and alert them that something here is amiss.

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Taken as a whole, the installation disrupts the narrative of an endless march towards progress. In the age of Trump, Brexit and other sudden-seeming about-faces, Both Sides of The Veil is explicitly designed to provoke feelings of destabilization, as well as empathy for India’s LGBTQ community, who, for years, were denied the ability to love who they want. Below, find images of the installation of our exhibition in New Delhi.

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FIRST EXHIBITION

We launched an exhibition of the work at New Delhi’s India Habitat Centre on January 10. The India Habitat Centre is deeply rooted in New Delhi's arts and social justice communities and strives to showcase work and projects that help advance the cause for both.

The show featured some 50 images, spread out across the large campus in a totally public exhibit, up for nearly 10 weeks. Due to its impact and innovative presentation, the exhibit was selected for inclusion in Photosphere, a major photography biennial. Over its run, the work reached more than 400,000 Indians from across the socioeconomic spectrum.

We worked with a Delhi-based marketing team to draw a diverse array of the Indian public to the exhibit, and with a coalition of universities to draw in yet more, with the ultimate goal to bring this work, and the questions it asks about the future for India's LGBTQ community, to as broad a cross-section of Indians as we are able. See more about or outreach here.

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NEXT STEPS

September 6, 2019 is the one-year anniversary of the Supreme Court decision striking down Section 377. So, phase two of our project seeks to more explicitly address questions of what the future holds for the queer community in India via two-pronged approach: an even more immersive exhibition, and an interactive web component. We plan to revisit our subjects to gather more audio and video about what has changed since 377 was struck down, what the future looks like from their perspective, and what society needs to know and do to collectively move toward equality.

One of the most rewarding elements of the exhibition at the India Habitat Centre were the multitude of responses the work generated. Queer people told us they felt proud and deeply seen. Allies felt elated about the visibility given to queer issues. Those on the fence told us the work encouraged them to think more deeply about the rights and struggles of the queer community. And the more conservative visitors still found themselves intrigued and open to further dialogue.

As a result, we want too push this aspect much further in this second iteration. We will work with our Creative/Marketing partners The Brewhouse and leverage our relationships with the LGBTQ activism community (led by filmmaker Faraz Ansari and activist Keshav Suri) to create a digital campaign to gather audio from across the country from a variety of perspectives on LGBTQ issues, and incorporate the subsequent materials into the exhibition as well as a digital component.

The resulting work will be a unique record of this moment in India's history, as well as a ongoing place for the public to engage in a conversation about what the future might hold.

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