Featured in
Issue 226

Shubigi Rao Builds Community Out of Erased Histories

Featured in this year’s Venice Biennale, the artist zooms in on Singapore and Venice, two ports of the publishing world

S
BY Skye Arundhati Thomas in Roundtables | 12 APR 22

For the past decade, artist Shubigi Rao has been following the micro-histories of forgotten, censored, stolen or erased literature and language. Her installation for the Singapore Pavilion at this year’s Venice Biennale, entitled Pulp III: A Short Biography of the Banished Book (2022) – which takes the form of a paper maze, book and film – marks the midpoint of this ambitious project. In her films, Rao interviews people who are engaged with the preservation or collection of small, but powerful, literary histories.

18th-century edition of Index Librorum Prohibitorum, the Catholic Church’s infamous list of banned books and ‘heretical’ authors, as shown by Federico Bucci, Venice. Courtesy: Shubigi Rao
18th-century edition of Index Librorum Prohibitorum, the Catholic Church’s infamous list of banned books and ‘heretical’ authors, as shown by Federico Bucci, Venice. Courtesy: © Shubigi Rao

For this iteration of the project, she zooms in on Singapore and Venice, two vital historical ports of the publishing world. She interviews the Malay historian and academic Faris Joraimi, who explains that his collection attempts to ‘expand our understanding of the production of meaning’. Rao often moves the camera onto her interviewees’ hands; how they gesticulate while describing their preoccupations are to her as important as the language they use. Joraimi pulls open a package wrapped in crinkled white paper. Inside is a large piece of Batik fabric – cloth painted in wax then overlaid with resistance dye – covered in turquoise-feathered birds and flat, open leaves in shades of terracotta. For Joraimi, the fabric is a form of ‘subaltern literature’. In Malay, the word used to describe the application of wax onto the fabric also means ‘to write’.

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

The writing of histories, especially canonical ones, can often rely on crude binaries. These become entrenched and essentialized. Joraimi articulates some as he goes along: ‘The modern versus the traditional; the ethnic versus the cosmopolitan.’ One tension remains locked within the dialectical script of Jawi, which has an Arabic root and is often too simplistically conflated with the production of religious texts. Joraimi holds up unusual examples of this writing: it was a script also used to produce fantastical writing, he explains. He shows the camera an erotic novel with a blood-red cover. A woman is dressed in tight-fitting, arctic-blue silk, with a slow frown and lit cigarette tucked in her mouth, staring steely into the distance. Joraimi flips the book to reveal the back: it was published by Qalam Press – off Java Road in Singapore – which had a reputation for producing didactic, morally coded work. ‘But [it] did so through the writing of erotic, racy novels,’ Joraimi says, which is an unexpected, pointed camouflage.

Each person Rao interviews through her films undoes the hard binaries of history-making to introduce soft slippages. Each shows us the special, uniquely charged items of their collections, and each object becomes a portal into a small history that is filled with the complexities of its time and place. In Venice, we visit a bookmaking press run by Paolo Olbi – housed in a palazzo owned by the city’s Armenian Mekhitarist Fathers – where Olbi is diligently working 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 spine.

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

Alongside the film is the third volume of Rao’s ongoing anthology of books (of which there will be five), Pulp III (2022). This comprises a detailing of her process and reflections as she moves through the project. The book is annotated, by footnotes and Rao’s own errata, indicative of how her writing is evolving. For this edition, she lists certain concerns in the introduction of the book: first, that libraries, ‘continue to occupy vastly varying ideological grounds, and that we must continue to unceasingly query these positions’. She is looking to critically examine how institutional knowledge is made and kept. Rao centres the impetus of anecdotal evidence in her work, which, she explains, holds together ‘the precarity of endangered languages, the historical cosmopolitanism of a regional print community, alternative libraries, and the power of resistance’. The book and film are joined by a ‘paper maze scenography’, as Rao calls it, one that will structurally animate the ideological considerations of her project. At the end of her book, in a short afterword, Rao explains how building community around language and history gives momentum to her work: ‘I carry with me,’ she writes, ‘the comradeship of those I’ve encountered during the filming and making of this project.

Shubigi Rao's ‘Pulp III: A Short Biography of the Banished Book’ is on view at the Singapore Pavilion of the 59th Venice Biennale from 23 April to 27 November 2022.

This article first appeared in frieze issue 226 with the headline ‘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

Skye Arundhati Thomas is a writer based in Goa, India. They are co-editor of The White Review.

SHARE THIS