Shilpa Gupta, a Mumbai-based artist, has become a powerful voice against the infringement of free speech, not only in India but globally. Through sculptures, drawings, installations, interactive videos, public art, and books, Gupta addresses urgent issues like political persecution, border violence, religious nationalism, and the costs of military occupation. Her renowned artworks, especially For, In Your Tongue, I Cannot Fit, reflect the United Nations Sustainable Development Goal of Reduced Inequalities.
One of Gupta's most famous works, showcased at the 2019 Venice Biennale, is a profound testament to the resilience of free expression. In a dimly lit room, For, In Your Tongue, I Cannot Fit features 100 microphones hanging from the ceiling, reverse-wired to function as speakers. Below them, metal spikes impale papers bearing the words of poets from the 6th century to the present, individuals who faced imprisonment and, in some cases, execution for their courageous expressions.
Each microphone echoes the voice of a poet, creating a haunting chorus that includes the likes of Adonis, the Syrian poet jailed in 1955, and Maung Saungkha, the Myanmar poet-turned-soldier jailed in 2016. The poignant combination of voices across time and space amplifies the strength of free expression, turning the gallery into a sanctuary for the silenced. This immersive installation serves as a stark reminder of the preciousness of free speech.
Gupta's work extends beyond the visual to the tangible and visceral. In her 2021 exhibition at the Barbican Centre London, Sun at Night, she captured the spirit of those who resist oppressive regimes and fought for free speech. One such work is an untitled piece that showcases a poignant representation of Chinese dissident Liu Xia's passionate poem to her imprisoned husband, Liu Xiaobo.
Gupta has translated the poem and pinned it beside a line drawing of Liu Xiaobo, a Nobel laureate who faced imprisonment for defending human rights against China's authoritarian state.
The artist employs an old-fashioned typewriter to type out the poem, emphasizing the timeless struggle for freedom. In the exhibition, the stories of Xia and Xiaobo unfold alongside those of other activists, highlighting the continued suppression of free speech globally. In her exploration of such narratives, Gupta critiques contemporary challenges to free expression, even in ostensibly democratic societies.
In the exhibition, Gupta also made a nod to the father of conceptual art, Marcel Duchamp's practice of declaring everyday objects as art. She does so through an untitled piece that shows a spoken poem in a bottle, where Gupta had bottled not air but the poetic voice. Each corked bottle has a poem's title inscribed on it, acting as a vessel to preserve the essence of poetic expression. By showcasing how spoken words can have a physical meaning, this work elevates the significance of spoken words, emphasizing their sanctity and the need to protect voices that dare to speak them for justice.
By highlighting the persecution of writers, poets, and activists, Gupta draws attention to the unequal power dynamics that suppress voices seeking justice, equality, and freedom. Her immersive installations serve as a powerful advocacy tool, fostering empathy and understanding for those who endure the consequences of inequality.
In an era where censorship and the suppression of dissent are prevalent, Gupta's artworks stand as beacons of resistance. Through her exploration of historical and contemporary narratives, she invites viewers to reflect on their role in upholding or challenging systems that perpetuate inequality and inhibit free expression.