Caput Mortuum, Chemould Prescott Road, Mumbai, 2021

How do we stop the exponential rise of violence? Is it still possible to dream of an egalitarian society? Can we find love and hope amidst hate?  Will we be able to heal the festering sores that riddle our world? How long will we continue to remain silent? To speak about a present besieged by brutal acts of violence, this body of work takes its name from the synthetic Iron Oxide pigment Caput Mortuum (Dead Head) that resembles dried blood. In alchemy, Caput Mortuum is classified as ‘worthless remains’– the residue left on the bottom of the heating flask once the nobler elements sublimate. Perhaps, like our society, an outcome of a flawed experiment. Using this metaphor of decay and decline, I seek to highlight much of what we leave unspoken in our complicity and attempt to dispel the collective amnesia that sustains the cruel illusion called progress.

 After grinding it into fine watercolour, I deposit Caput Mortuum in thin washes onto the burnished plane of the Wasli. It appears to haemorrhage through the overlying stratum of intense colours, staining the surface of the painting in the same way as historical injustices seep through the cracks of time to mould our present, just as wounds inflicted by hate scar our society. In this process, Caput Mortuum also becomes a marker of a past rife with injustice and comes to signify the complexity of our current predicament. The blots of bleeding colour disrupt the picture plane, positing the explicit imagery portrayed as fallouts of all that lies underneath, i.e., the effects of deep malaise and structural violence, and, at the same instance, become portents of futures that are yet to unfold.

The events inscribed onto the surface of each painting document the extraordinary struggles that people are facing and bear witness to life without power and political agency. I draw upon medieval imagery of interpretations and revelations to develop a language that allows us to process not just portents and spectacles but also anxiety caused by political and social upheavals.  Drawing inspiration from Griselda Pollock’s seminal work on memory that “agitates the present to warn us of the continuing threat, not only of genocide but of the experimental elaboration of a system of total domination and systemic dehumanization” (Griselda Pollock & Max Silverman, Concentrationary Imaginaries, 2015), I engage with the growing phenomenon of violence that is bringing us to the brink of annihilation. The language that builds on stains, scars and disruptions is further supplemented with ‘remediations’ of the iconography of miraculous and apocalyptic visions, specifically the Augsburg Wunderzeichenbuch, or the Book of Miraculous Signs and other depictions of infernal realms. My works are at once a reference to, a subversion and perhaps even a hijacking of complex and ever-changing processes that we call tradition. They are a result of deep love for and a grounding in the material processes, and at the same time, are shaped by a discomfort with the idea of tradition and what this word implies. Thinking through such imagery with equal fear and hope is a call for urgent action to unmake the future that current events have set into motion.

Varunika Saraf 2021