Jasmeen Patheja is an artist in public service. Patheja builds ideas for public and collective action. She designs and facilitates methodologies committed to ending violence against women, girls, and all persons. Patheja is the founder and facilitator of Blank Noise, a growing community of Action Sheroes, Heroes, Theyroes citizens and persons, taking agency to end sexual and gender based violence. In 2019, Patheja received the prestigious Visible Award, awarded for socially engaged art practice. She was recently awarded the Jane Lombard Fellowship by the Vera List Center For Art and Politics at The New School, New York. BBC listed her as one of the 12 artists changing the world in 2019. In 2015, she received the International Award For Public Art, for the project Talk To Me (Blank Noise). She has been an Awesome Without Borders Grantee, from the Harnisch Foundation. She is an artist in residence at Srishti Institute of Art, Design and Technology.
Who has shaped the way you show up today as an artist and/or activist?
Jasmeen: In the 20 years of calling myself an artist, multiple influences at different stages have shaped and informed me. If my lived experiences with patriarchy led to threat and gender-based violence – art was the only route – the place of resistance, the way to imagine and create change, the call in, the call to collective feminist action located in what could be, and what we could allow ourselves to become, beyond the binaries of action and reaction, violence and resistance. Art with its offering in imagination, or how else and what if, has been the guide for how I show up as an artist in public service today.
I am deeply grateful to the multiple influences that have shaped me at different stages of my life and practice. My teachers, Geetha Narayanan (founder/director at Srishti) and Ravindra Gutta (faculty at Srishti) who introduced me to the relationship between art and social change. I was part of a year long lab called Communication For Social Change at Srishti in 2002. The year long lab introduced me and my peers to ideas such as, artists working with stakeholders, artists coming at the start of a process for social change and not in the end, artists devising ways to trigger public conversation, artists as facilitators.
Artists who have inspired me include Suzanne Lacy, Marina Abramovic, Eve Ensler. As an art student I was drawn to the ways, tones and methodologies in which different artists brought attention to a social issue. I was inspired by the intent, humor, tactics and politics of the Guerilla Girls in tackling sexism in art institutions. I was inspired by the vulnerability, confrontation and connection located in Marina Abramovic’s practice. I was inspired by Suzanne Lacy’s community specific approach and performance work in bringing attention to rape and sexual assault, especially her early piece Three Weeks in May. V’s (formerly Eve Ensler) practice is rooted in listening to survivors of sexual assault – I am inspired by her especially as I work through my own role of the artist as listener. I am drawn to the link between process based movement building work, and form, more today than before and am returning to the practitioners mentioned here with this curiosity.
Srilatha Batliwala has been my friend and guide. Srilatha is a feminist thinker, and has supported feminist movements, written about them. She is someone I have learnt from, worked with, and who has influenced me deeply to examine the relationship between art and movement building, movement building and structure. Srilatha has also been my advocate and connected me to feminist networks; thereby also shaping my practice.
Kamla Bhasin (died 2021) held the megaphone through projects such as Meet To Sleep. She mobilised several organisations , fostered alliances through the Sangat Network. Kamla herself wrote poetry, wrote slogans for feminist movements. The intergenerational learnings from senior feminists have shaped my practice and identity.
My grandmother Indri and I have also been long time collaborators (2003/date unknown – ongoing). She wanted to become an actor and I wanted to pursue photography. We came together through play and a shared desire; where Indri dressed up in character roles she wished she had been. She has been the queen, a fairy, a politician, a scientist. I share this to bring in the importance of play, and lightness in being an artist.
What is the power of connecting artists working at the intersection of arts and social movements across different geographies?
It is extremely powerful to connect artists at the intersection of social movements and geographies for because this practice is still rare, often unscripted and artists are finding their own path or ways of doing this work. There is no ‘model’.
There is strength in coming together to learn from each other – I am interested in how artists of this kind are living and working, how our varying practices are speaking to the different stakeholders in the process of social change. What is, the artist in public service when the service is not necessarily crisis intervention or something a bit similar to but a bit different from how other stake holders will approach the same issue. This needs greater understanding because often our contribution is in the process and in the new questions asked. It may even be intangible. There is a need to know what we do, how we do and how do we strengthen this practice – so we can strengthen the movement too.
It is also very important to bring together artists working in the intersection of arts, social movement because each artist is devising methodologies unique to their context . Each artist is building or working with language that is specific to the community they work with.Coming together will allow us to know the shared landscape we are located in, while also understanding the local contexts of resistance and art practice. This knowing, and deep understanding is a place of inviting artistic collaborations for social change. It has the potential to foster solidarity amongst artists and the feminist movements for gender justice.
How do you see art with relation to social change and movements, toward gender justice and decolonization?
I love this quote from the poet David Whyte: “Poetry is language against which you have no defenses.” . It speaks to me because art invites and offers experience. It evokes feeling. It isn’t telling you. It isn’t advising you, convincing nor yelling at you. It isn’t asking for your opinion.
It has the potential to invite you to feel and sit with that feeling – let that feeling or experience lead you on your terms. You – the viewer, the audience and in my practice, the Action Shero to awareness, let awareness guide action for change – towards gender justice.
I locate my practice in the quadrant of these 4 words in hindi/ urdu and arabic :
mehsoos (to feel) , ehsaas (to have a realization based on feeling), hamdard (for it to lead to empathy) and towards insaniyat (towards our greatest human potential).
Social change can happen through a shift in consciousness, through empathy building, and solidarity building. Art is calling in to go beyond defending and far from fire fighting solutions. As an artist I have been journeying through the question why to what if. Artists facilitate and offer imagination vs. solutions, to trigger questions vs. have answers, to expand the idea what we could be, or how it could be that being in defense in the context of gender based violence.
We need to go beyond defending and not be reduced by it.
We could be so much more-if.
We could be so much more-if
Our existence and being was not reduced to having to fight, or being silenced. Or being forced to leave – our school, our college, our bus, our streets, our home, our parks, our desires, our freedoms, and our dreams.