What I may see as truth, you may see as propaganda. I’m not talking about universal truths like the sun rising in the east. What if we do not view truth and propaganda as binaries and instead view all relative truths as being interwoven with various hues of propaganda? For example, what you view as truth is shaped by your lived experiences, cultural exposure, the geopolitics of the place you grew up in and so many other important factors. Unaware of all these factors, I may view your truth as propaganda as it does not align with my versions of truth. However, that does not make your truth any less true. So, the only way to experience truths from diverse places is to be open-minded to various versions of truth and not view it as mere “biased information”, as is the traditional dictionary definition of propaganda.
I hope that I have been able to keep you on board my train of thought so far and with that in mind, I’d ask what is the medium of expression of truth for an artist? Their art, of course. Like propaganda, art cannot be unbiased, can it? That’s because art is created by humans, who have unique subjectivities ingrained in their minds. Just because it's biased, it does not become untrue. So, in other words, it's impossible to create art that isn’t biased. With that in mind, today I will introduce Anupam Roy, a talented visual artist, who unwaveringly calls himself a propagandist.
Over the past decade, the artist has boldly embraced the role of a propagandist inextricably linked to various socio-political movements within their native country of India. During this period Anupam has borne witness to the multifaceted dimensions of violence and repression faced by his countrymen. He has not just been a silent observer but has also closely worked with several social movements at the grassroots level. His lived experiences have influenced him to create an artistic practice that transcends pre-existing categories and challenges conventional approaches to political art.
The artist advocates for a paradigm shift in political art, asserting that it must move beyond journalistic reportage or mere aestheticized representations, and instead adopt a propaganda praxis that responds dynamically to the collective upheavals of the masses. Anupam’s practice acknowledges the challenges of representing the voices of marginalized groups, amidst the complexities of present violent reality. Recognizing the limits of representation in political art, the artist sees this challenge as a way to explore the impossibility of fully capturing these experiences. This exploration serves as a reflective tool, which forms the essence of his artistic practice.
As a practitioner of visual propaganda, the artist's expansive repertoire transcends traditional boundaries, encompassing drawing, painting, photography, graphic/poetry novels, posters, banners, graffiti, raw video documentation, diaries, journalistic documentation, festoons, articles, magazines, installations, and performances. In a departure from conventional framing, the artist's work evolves into a discursive platform that invites viewer participation, transforming the work of art into a shared space for diverse experiences. This interdisciplinary approach is informed by both theoretical insights and ground-level engagement, allowing the artist to traverse multiple terrains simultaneously. Thus, the artist's visual practice extends beyond image-making and incorporates a lot more. It is important note how the focus of Anupam's practice goes beyond the creator and onto the masses.
In a candid interview with Homegrown, Anupam Roy shared details about his artistic practice, metholodlogy, inspirations and more.
Tell us about the beginnings of your artistic journey.
I joined the Bengal Fine Arts College in Chandpara, North 24 Parganas in 2004, but my artistic journey began earlier, with my local teacher Kishore Ghosh, who guided me till my BFA entrance. I completed my BFA in Painting in 2008 but my first test and experience as an artist came in 2007, when I made posters and graffiti for a movement against land acquisition in Nandigram, West Bengal. My engagement in this movement changed my perspectives about art practice and its orientation in my life.
I’ve read that you call yourself a propagandist artist. Can you tell us why and if all art is propaganda?
I call myself a propagandist because I seek to counter the dominant “propaganda model” of the state/capitalists/privileged groups, which is relentlessly engaged in the “manufacture of consent”. If the truth of contemporary reality lies in the much-censored narratives of violence and corporal suffering, the ethical and political task of the propagandist is not merely to report or represent them from an outsider’s position, but to expose oneself to the brutality of the world in the course of transforming it.
As an artist, I find myself trapped between mutually contrary acts of violence and testimony, victimization and witnessing. The productive tension that is unleashed expands and materializes my artistic capacities, which form the basis of my material production. I believe that every art practitioner is in some way or the other a propagandist. We all propagate our ideologies/beliefs/opinions, explicitly or implicitly.
Regarding the question of free will or free play of imagination, I have serious doubts about how free such notions can be. Consider labor. It is always forced labor, to an extent, and it is compartmentalized by structures of caste/class/gender/race as well as the overarching capitalist mode of production. So, if anyone thinks that they can exercise their free will or express as a free labouring subject, I would say it is an illusion. Everyone has their individual ways of practicing free will, but I don’t see any way in which such practice can make a real impact and attain true meaning.
Choosing not to be part of the dominant mode of thinking is about an individual’s agency, about situating oneself with respect to power. That is the only place from which I see some possibility. But we need to understand the limitations that the system imposes on us as we are all part of it yet remain disconnected from each other. Without collective emancipation, any exercise of free will or free play of imagination would remain impossible.
Can you walk us through the techniques of your artistry?
I use a journal for everyday documentation, which mostly consists of visual and written notes incorporating the experiences gathered from my socio-political journeys, as well as information and interactions on social media. Making digital/handmade posters, festoons, banners, signages, graffiti etc. for different socio-political movements comprises the core modality of my practice. I mostly draw-paint images on cheap and mobile surfaces, and I create my Poesis by organizing images and text with different sizes and textures.
Interaction between image and text, in fact, is central to my work’s visual presence. My approach is expressionistic, but it does not derive from any historical-ideological specificity. Rather, it allows it allows me to capture the ‘precariousness’ of the working-class body, and to draw-paint faster, which is a necessary requirement for making posters, festoons etc. on an everyday basis.
This expressionistic approach also allows me to address ‘incompleteness;’ the ‘incompleteness’ of my ability to understand the ‘Other;’ or the power of ‘Other’, the excess of emotions and experiences of the precarious subject’s inarticulateness. Imagining ‘power’ in relation to ‘equality’, which is inherently absent, therefore thinking towards ‘counter-hegemonic power’ led me to seek a different path to my propaganda practice.
My work has also been exhibited in art galleries. However, through these strategic locations of my work, I am bound to create ‘excess’. ‘Creating’ for me is not revealing the potentiality, as ‘potentiality’ in every compass is determined by the forces of capital.
Do you think your art resonates more with the viewers when you use text along with your bold and strong images?
The relationship between text and image is not static but differs for every space. In an exhibition, the image is more open to interpretation whereas the text functions as an independent contributor, conveying the overall thematic concerns. This comes from a dominant notion of seeing the production and consumption of art as primarily a retinal activity. However, in the material that is conceived as propaganda, such as my body of work, text is used more directly, and text and image together communicate the subject. I grapple with the relationship between text and image consistently while re/producing posters, banners, festoons, wall graffiti and other forms of visual and written propaganda material for various socio-political-cultural movements. Of course, every movement is distinct – it has its own reasons, demands, location, set of actors, political narrative and visual imagery. But there also exist many similarities and connections between movements across space and time, and I try to bring out these aspects in my work.
I rely on my daily journal (diary) to discover and record connections between movements across space and time and forge a link between research and practice. For me, the journal is a place where I write down minute observations regarding movements I am associated with, along with relevant readings, drawings, and layouts. The process of jotting down my thoughts every day, sometimes on the same page, where I had scribbled notes/ layouts earlier, helps me see for myself how and in what ways my observations regarding movements are changing. I can also see how the juxtaposition of images and text over a period of time disrupts preconceived meanings and opens up a discursive space for other meanings and possibilities to emerge. Engagement with text and image also helps me engage with various media like zines, magazine, visual-text books (non-narrative, non-sequential), video (which I have begun to explore), and other forms of print/reproduction/publication-related work, through which I can connect with the public.
Considering all these aspects in my practice, I see the interaction between text and image demystifying the hegemonic notion of art and its presumed aura.
Tell us a bit about why you prefer using black and white.
I prefer black and white because it gives a sharp contrast and it is easy/cheap to reproduce (in print). Both aspects are important, as most of my works are used as propaganda material. Movements against the regime generally are not economically stable, so Black and white/offset/xerox prints are the cheapest way to reproduce propaganda materials. Also, when we make graffiti or banners, black as a colour is readily available and cheap. I mostly use black pigment, which is primarily used in the textile industry. If I mix this with distemper, I can increase its quantity and make more work. It also gives me a matte and strong tone.
Who have been your inspirations and influences over the years?
There is no single person who has had a profound impact on me. Rather, I was inspired by everything every person around me including history, literature, poetry, ecology, politics, economics. If you ask about artists, then I’d say Ramkinkar Baij, Chittoprasad Bhattacharya, Ramashankar Yadav (Bidrohi), Binai Majumder, Sudhir Patwardhan, Shukla Sawant, Sambaran Das, Käthe Kollwitz, William Kentridge, Harun Farocki, Jonas Stall and many more.
Find out more about Anupam Roy and his propaganda here.