Shubigi Rao

The Yellow Scarf (2019) and Growth of Man (2017), Man-Grove (2017), Forked Tongue (2017)

Film and Print Installation

Still from The Yellow Scarf (2019)
Image courtesy of the artist

Named after a book that Rao read growing up, The Yellow Scarf explores the history of the Thuggee cult in India, in relation to the colonial British administration that ‘discovered’ but also ultimately exterminated this cult of assassins. The modern term “thug” is said to be derived from Thuggee. Rao’s fascination with the Thuggee is interwoven with her parallel research into the strangler tree, found throughout South and Southeast Asia. While the Thuggee assassins were a cult of Kali-worshipping Bandits who often killed through strangling, the strangler tree is similarly known for its adaptive ability to grow around and to ‘strangle’ other trees. Presented as part of the installation are two prints that recall the elaborate ‘family trees’ that the British Administrator Sir Henry William Sleeman laid out to map and capture members of the cult.

Evocative of a dense textual forest, the installation places the viewer in an entangled history of conquest, governance, and both the literal and figural trees of knowledge that delineate Man from Monster. The Yellow Scarf is not just about the markers of monstrosity that are used to police a society, but is also the historical cultivation of society’s enduring fear of the forest and those that emerge out of it’s darkness.

Like other work by Rao such as Pulp (2016– ) or Written in the Margins (2017), The Yellow Scarf continues Rao’s study of the horrors that have defined human history through a specific facet of systematic destruction. In her other works, Rao described the destruction of books as a manageable way to look at the horrors that man can inflict upon himself and the world. The Yellow Scarf provides a focused lens on the construction, management, and infliction of horror as part of a lesser-known history of colonial governance that has been written and rewritten over through films and popular culture. Despite these generations of re-writing, the past continues to haunt the present through resilient myths such as that associated with the strangler tree.

Shubigi Rao interrogates how we know what we do and how we remember what we do. Her multifaceted installations are a cybernetic foray across archaeology, neuroscience, anthropology and etymology.  Sometimes absurd such as building immortal jellyfish and at other times serious such as an attempt to produce an encyclopaedia, her artworks are visual and physical representations that point at the complex and inherited systems that govern and define our lives.

Since 2014 she has been developing the project ‘Pulp: A Short Biography of the Banished Book‘, a decade-long film, book and visual art project about the history of book destruction.The first instalment of the project ‘Written in the Margins’, won the Juror’s Choice Award at the APB Signature Art Prize 2018. The work was also the first in which she employed the documentary film format. She is currently working on her first feature film as part of this project.

Rao has presented her work internationally on such platforms as the 10th Taipei Biennial (2016), 3rd Pune Biennale (2017), the 2nd Singapore Biennale (2008) and the upcoming Kochi Biennale (2018). Rao’s work has also been presented outside of the art world and included in neuroscience conferences.

Publications include two volumes from the Pulp project – Pulp II: A Visual Bibliography of the Banished Book (2018), and Pulp: A Short Biography of the Banished Book (2016), and the first volume to accompany her artwork from the project, Written in the Margins (2017). She has also published History’s Malcontents: The Life and Times of S. Raoul chronicling ten years of artwork and writing under the pseudonym S. Raoul (2013), Useful Fictions (2013), three pseudo-art history books (2006), Bastardising Biography (2005), and a number of limited edition artist books. She has also authored numerous essays and reviews. Since 2006 she has regularly conducted talks and lectures, and was a featured writer at the Singapore Writer’s Festival (2018, 2016, 2013).

The first volume of Pulp was shortlisted for the Singapore Literature Prize 2018.

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