Cover The cover of a racy Jawi novel published by Qalam Press in Singapore, as shown by young heritage enthusiast Faris Joraimi. (Photo: Shubigi Rao)

The artist and writer offers a haunting tribute to books, from their creation and destruction to the threats to future knowledge

Growing up, Shubigi Rao considered the books in her home library her third parent. Even though her family lived in a remote part of the Himalayas in Darjeeling, India, in the 1970s, “I never felt lonely because I was lost in these books all the time—and I read whatever I could get my hands on,” shares the Mumbai-born Singaporean artist and writer.

“I was brought up very much by reading the words and voices of humanity across time and space—and it didn’t matter that [as a young Indian girl], I was the wrong audience for some of the books; I read and enjoyed them anyway, and I felt included,” she says. “There was no distance, whether geographical, political, ethnic, or over time or otherwise, as distance collapses [when you read].”

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It was through books that some of her questions about the world were addressed, from the growing pains of dealing with bullying in school to the existential proof of god. And when Rao was confronted with India’s caste and class divides for the first time, her mother discussed the issues with her, before recommending “the literature that I should read”. From there, she discovered how humans think and rationalise difficult situations, and how ideas, beliefs and philosophies were shaped. “These lay the groundwork, or the foundation, for me when it comes to appreciating the best of our species,” she says.

Books, or literary works, continue to inspire her well into adulthood, and are central to her presentation at the 59th International Art Exhibition, La Biennale di Venezia (Biennale Arte 2022).

Returning after a one-year hiatus due to the pandemic, the Venice Biennale runs from April 23 to November 27. Conceived by Rao and curated by Ute Meta Bauer, the founding director of Nanyang Technological University’s Centre for Contemporary Art Singapore, the presentation, titled Pulp III: A Short Biography of the Banished Book, comprises a book, a film and a visual arts exploration of the destruction of books and its impact on the futures of knowledge. It also marks the midpoint of the artist’s second 10-year project, Pulp, which she started in 2014.

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Rao released her first book from the Pulp project in January 2016, which was shortlisted for the non-fiction prize at the biennial Singapore Literature Prize in 2018. The second book from the series, published in 2018, won in the same category in 2020. Both books have also won numerous other awards.

“Now I’m not saying that books are the best of us, because at times, they are the worst of us as well and I also talk about dangerous books that have damaged humanity, and led to wars, genocide and immense cruelty,” Rao says. “I don’t think the book is like a sanctified thing for me—it’s not just about books and libraries, it’s about highlighting the best and the worst of humanity.” She holds to the belief that “whoever controls knowledge controls the future”.

The exhibition created for the Singapore Pavilion at the Arsenale’s Sale d’Armi in Venice also features a paper maze, which brings visitors on a journey to explore topics such as public and alternative libraries, endangered languages, as well as regional print communities in historic print centres, including Venice and Singapore. This year marks Singapore’s 10th participation in the Venice Biennale and Rao is the first woman selected to represent the country in a solo exhibition, as part of the first-ever women-led artist-curator team.

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“I don’t think the book is like a sanctified thing for me—it’s about highlighting the best and the worst of humanity.”
Shubigi Rao

In her work, Rao also touches on oral histories that have not been recorded or are often overlooked—including those about women. “Historically, women have not been included in libraries because our stories are not regarded as important. It was almost impossible to be published as a woman, under a female name, for most of Western history. A lot of the Victorian, British and European ideas exported after colonisation were always privileging the idea of the man as the mythic, lone genius,” she expounds.

In fact, for her first 10-year project, from 2003 to 2013, Rao wrote and created art under the persona of a male polymath S Raoul, exploring topics such as archaeology and neuroscience, while she was “his naive, starry-eyed protégé because no one wants to believe a woman can do that kind of work”. She says: “It was easier for people to believe a fake man did it. This is me trying to find my place in the world and my responsibility to it; what is it that I can say and do about the injustices that make me angry and upset?”

Art is surely the best platform to do so. “Many contemporary artists are socially engaged and socially aware. I wouldn’t call myself a primarily socially engaged artist, but I’m deeply aware of injustices and figuring out why they persist has been my motivation,” explains Rao. “With this Pulp project, I’m exploring the human desire to speak and tell stories, to listen, to make art, to make films, to write, especially, is how we try and fill in the gaps of the differences that exist between us.”

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Then there are the similarities that she identifies with the profiles she features. One of them is Italian poet Bianca Tarozzi. The books in her private home library in Venice had been damaged during the acqua alta of 2019 and when Rao visited her, she saw that the two top shelves were filled with what didn’t look like books. The poet shared that those were her diaries, and they were more precious than any other books (“While books can be replaced, the diaries can’t, so the next time the floods come, even if the whole house is flooded, the diaries will survive,” Tarozzi commented).

Rao cites American writer Susan Sontag, who said that “when we write for ourselves, we’re not writing with the male gaze anymore. And if you want to learn to write as a woman, you need to read the diaries of women writers”. One of her favourite books is a woman’s diary, Child of the Dark, which chronicles the life and thoughts of Brazilian slum dweller Carolina Maria de Jesus. “[Her diary entries were written] on scraps of paper, but her writing was so powerful,” she says.

Rao has also always been interested in vanishing languages, including those of Singapore and Venice, in particular that of the Kristang, a Eurasian community of Portuguese descent in Singapore and Malacca, and the Cimbrian, an ethnic minority residing in Italy’s Veneto region. “For a lot of people, the loss of language is the loss of their people. When a language leaves, it takes with it all the accumulated knowledge, ways of thinking, culture and philosophy, among others, of generations. And we’re incalculably impoverished as a species,” she says.

For Pulp III, Rao features author Melissa De Silva from Singapore and academic Stefanie Pillai from Malaysia, who both discovered the Kristang language as adults, and almost by accident. “So what does it mean when you’re not banned from using your language, but there are mechanisms that don’t allow for it to thrive? It’s an endangered language for a number of reasons. At the same time, a lot of well-meaning people can highlight a language or a community that feels threatened, but if you don’t do it sensitively, it’s a real problem,” shares Rao. “I’ve only just begun my research into this, so I’m very tentative about it, which is why I let both women take the lead in telling their stories.”

And then there is a section of the Pulp project that looks at Malay print histories in Singapore. Young heritage enthusiast Faris Joraimi discovered a wealth of books that were produced here and has been collecting them for years. One of them is a racy Jawi novel published by Qalam Press, which is known to, in Faris’s words, “print didactic Islamic texts”, so it is fascinating that it was also publishing these erotic books.

“I think it’s very much part of the complexity and contradictions of humanity. Our imperfections are what make us interesting. We can be contradicting ourselves, as long as we’re not complete hypocrites; we can be spiritual, but we can also enjoy the pleasures of the flesh, so to speak,” Rao elucidates. “I think it’s important that we recognise these things, because a lot of our precolonial cultures celebrated them—and we sometimes forget that.”

Rooted in literary movements and narratives raised and rewritten by humankind, Pulp III: A Short Biography of the Banished Book is a valuable lyrical “manuscript” charting the breadth of human cultural endeavour.

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