Art that glamorises what should be condemned leads to a series of tricky moral questions: how should destruction be presented? Can it only be written about rather than shown? How should artists respond to violence without falling into the trap of beautifying horror? Outside of its possible propagandistic function, political art can, however, often un-bury acts that have been forgotten.

Art can commemorate and remember the past, but it can also serve as a memory in the present, a sign or symbol ensuring that forgetting is not possible, no matter how uncomfortable the debate it instigates might be.

The art of protest

Can artists respond effectively
to social and political upheaval?
Nina Power
22 February 2016

K B Goel on Bela Gupta

Bela Gupta is an artist who is moved by the human condition and drawn to values outside art to examine them in art terms. The world of hunger and misery is juxtaposed against the hollow exuberance of modern society. And the two realms with all their glaring contrast fuse in her art.

Bela’s show at the IHC Gallery in New Delhi, which was on view couple of weeks ago, represents a quantum jump. To say so would be making room for high seriousness, a condition most unfavorable for art these days, since this cannot form part of teatime prattle on art; what is required is a judicious mixture of seriousness and frivolity — a necessary condition to be successful.

For this reason, she has cast her net wider in attempting to push out the frontiers of art on a public rather than private level. Intuitively, she has worked out a complex relationship between language and visual imagery. The glittering models of Victoria’s Secret are contrasted against emaciated bodies, warped by hunger and deprivation, which becomes a vehicle of expressing rage and pity as a manifestation of man’s inhumanity. The paintings thus become for Bela, a means of self-expression and they are not entirely illustrative in quality but have a definite pictorial merit.

In her recent paintings on show at the India Habitat Centre Gallery, Bela is involved with surrealistic metaphysics. For the surrealists, the state of mind is a built-in condition of the method of surrealism and it is more than mere effect, the surrealists rely on surprising effects of bringing incongruous objects together in unlikely situations. As an imagist, Bela employs the pictorial language of the surrealists. She uses photographs and images of mass culture made popular by Sunday glossies, the TV and the Internet. Her paintings are a direct comment on the human condition brought out by a purely visual experience.

If her images look like representation of things that belong to the visible world, it is a mere device, an aid to allow us to enter the power of the works themselves where significance of one image can be understood in relation to another image. The images and objects depict ideas behind them, their presence has no obvious meaning or reality, they express a deeper reality/meaning. A meaning that only a painting can express visually. An object has a mental reality and a physical reality. The mental reality is the virtual reality. This is really important because, reality—social reality, that is the raw material of Bela’s imagination.

Art ceases to be merely an activity one associates with, like in Bela’s earlier works, metamorphosizing Cola cans into saleable art commodities. Art now means something higher than such activity, something closer to a religious experience, holding the possibility of release from suffering. Art of such magnitude cannot be a mere vibration inside a museum: such art involves us with moral questions. The artist has either to play the moral role, protest against the pretended innocence of a corrupt value-system, or quit doing art. Rather than quit painting, Bela has chosen art's essential role of shaping the consciousness. She chose to tell her story. The story of those lonely, solitary hours: the story of the night of long knives. And she thinks her narrative will influence the world.

The essence of her work in a way lies in brigding the gap between life and art by making us aware of the links between the artist and her universe via sensations: they are part of our environment and this is her theme and subject matter.