Protest Art in Digital Space

Black blocks in solidarity with protests demanding justice for George Floyd in America. Greyscale photos of women from around the world to express support to their Iranian counterparts fighting state violence and patriarchy. Scores of resistance artists raising their voices against all kinds of oppression on a daily basis and whose work is followed and shared by millions.

The digital space is witnessing the creation of a new, shareable and performative language of protest. Over the years, social media has been used extensively to organise and demand action, and digital art seems to be providing this with a visual vocabulary. Technology that gets better and more sophisticated by the day has only helped to make this a more spontaneous way for protest artists, most of whom prefer to remain anonymous, follow a guerrilla mode and strike when we least expect it. There is a growing discussion about this moment of emerging artistic activism on social media all over the world, as it increasingly becomes a dynamic tool and space to build allyship and solidarity.

In India, protests against CAA-NRC-NPR triggered a sudden and fascinating rise in digital/graphic resistance artists, especially on Instagram. They're fearless, and their art is hard-hitting and dynamic. As part of a new series, we spoke to a few of them to know what they thought of this emerging space.

Here is the first feature in our new series, where Mukulika R of the Indian Cultural Forum speaks to Siddhesh Gautam or "Bakery Prasad", the one who bakes sizzling art.

Siddhesh Gautam/Bakery Prasad

Mukulika R (MR): Let's start with something basic. What's the story behind the name “Bakery Prasad”?

Siddhesh Gautam (SG): I started my Instagram page with the username “Bakery Product”, simply because I’m very fond of baked goods. I wanted to create art as good as baked delicacies. It changed from “Products” to “Prasad” after I read Munshi Premchand’s Godaan — his story about Dhankar Rai Shrivastava becoming Nawab Rai and later Munshi Premchand. Also, “Bakery Prasad” sounds quite futuristic to me. 

MR: A lion’s share of your work is based on Ambedkar and his ideals and vision. In fact, you’re known for it and this makes you stand out. Was it a sudden burst of inspiration or a gradual process?

SG: I was brought up in a very liberal family. There wasn’t much censorship over what we were reading or listening to, especially in terms of ideology. When I think of it now, it feels as if we all were exploring various ideologies together. Since most of my schooling happened in various missionary schools, I was quite influenced by western literature, poetry, art, and so on. But after the Kargil War, there was a stream of nationalism pushed into our schools that brought my attention towards the Indian National Movement. I was quite impressed by Gandhi and Nehru those days. I used to play Gandhi in various school dramas and that made me explore his life even more.

Anand Teltumbde and Ambedkar | Bakery Prasad

Ambedkar, on the other hand, was always present in my family. Even though we never had any photograph or idol of Ambedkar, we had a good collection of his works at home. As a kid, Ambedkar was too serious a commitment for me. However, Bhima’s (Bhimrao Ambedkar) struggles were very influential even then. I had only heard stories of Ambedkar’s childhood from my father and grandfather.

As a school kid, I often used to hear my classmates discuss caste but I avoided those conversations every time. When I moved to Mumbai for my Bachelor’s at NIFT, I remember that the first thing I did was to lie about my caste. We were looking for accommodation and my classmates were discussing each other’s castes, and I didn’t want to be left out. I told them that I was a Brahmin and borrowed the “gotra” of a very good friend of my father’s who was a Brahmin. I lived that lie throughout my post-graduation at the National Institute of Design (NID), as I was too terrified about the fact that people might judge me because of my caste.

It was during my stay at Milan, as an exchange student at the Istituto Europeo di Design, that I first experienced racism. It made me think about the global discrimination which seemed like will never cease to exist. It was then that I accepted the fact and broke free from seven years of lies. I gained confidence from a free PDF of Ambedkar’s Annihilation of Caste that I read at my small studio apartment at Milan. After my return to India, I began reading more literature by and on Ambedkar, and it gradually started to reflect on my work.

Classless and Casteless 2020 | Bakery Prasad

MR: You have around 25k followers on Instagram and your images are shared quickly and widely across social media, and even used by young political activists. You are contributing to the making of a visual language of protest on social media. Have you published your work outside the web and how do you think the digital space has aided it?

SG: I started off by publishing my work outside the web. There was no intention to use Instagram or the web as platforms to publish my work initially. I have been a part of various exhibitions in India and abroad and it’s only very recently that I caught the eyes of people on the web. The internet has spread and influenced my work exponentially. I’ve discovered some really great people through the internet who continue to inspire my work. I’ve also found some inspiring followers who continuously provide the boost I need to make better work each day. I won’t say that I am making a visual language of protest myself. All of us are doing it together.

MR: Tell me about your colours and style. They’re mostly soft blues, reds/maroons and sometimes beige. You have described your art as being "postmodernist" and "minimalist".

SG: Well, if we go by the definition of postmodernism, it is vaguely defined by an expression of scepticism, irony, or rejection of grand narratives and already set ideologies. It rejects knowledge claims and value systems of the present as it is considered contingent and socially conditioned. I am deeply influenced by the postmodern thinkers like Jacques Derrida, Foucault and Douglas Kellner. I also relate Ambedkarism with postmodernism which somewhere runs parallel to the thought of rejecting the old narratives and building new ones with humanity.

Self Portrait | Bakery Prasad, 2020

Minimalism on the other hand is a tool to get rid of life’s excess in favour of focusing only on what is important — so I can find my happiness and fulfilment on a personal level too. I feel minimalism helps in finding freedom — freedom from fear, worry, overwhelm, guilt, depression and the trappings of consumer culture. It gives me real freedom and that reflects on my work as well. Minimalism is not only an aesthetic style to reduce noise from the illustration, it has also got to do with defining a concept. It is the foundation stone of all my work.

My colour palette and style have evolved with time and are direct results of my postmodern and minimalist beliefs that have also developed with time. A chunk of my art practice has gone into black and white illustrations. I have had my own fears of using colours appropriately and I’m still terrified sometimes. Colours have a very big semiotic value in visual communication and if used appropriately, they can speak a lot more than one can even imagine. Sometimes the right shade is enough to describe the mood and even the subject of the artwork. I’ve borrowed a lot from Indian aesthetics which values colours like red, Indigo and beige in its own way.

Ignore the Background | Bakery Prasad, 2020

MR: There are contradictions within the digital space, besides the fact that it isn't accessible to all. For instance, some American illustrators have said that it is difficult to bring across pain and rage in a way that suits digital tastes (visually pleasing, shareable, easily understandable because of a minimised attention span). This is all the more formidable when the artists belong to marginalised communities, since they’re trying to communicate their own trauma and suffering. How do you make sense of all this? How can we place the artist’s own identity?  

SG: It’s very true that the digital space is not accessible to all, but it still reaches way more people than art exhibitions which are limited to a few metropolitan cities. The accessibility becomes even less when we use English, instead of regional languages, and this worries me more. Offline art in the form of posters, zines and pamphlets is a costly affair and various young upcoming visual communicators are focusing more on digital screens over print and other physical forms. I’m of the opinion that both online and offline art should proliferate simultaneously.

There are many restrictions on the internet as it only caters to our audio/visual senses, while the others remain dormant. Because of this, the real experience of emotions such as pain and rage is either lost or even gets manipulated. I believe that mainstream media has taken away the ability of the masses to understand abstraction with their oversimplified content. This has forced visual communicators too to follow the path of oversimplification of data and this does not allow any breathing space for personal inferences. To be very honest, I really wish to be able to drift towards abstraction in my visual art, but that doesn’t seem possible at present. My work could be misunderstood and even rejected for just being complicated.

20,000,000,000,000 Mitro | Bakery Prasad, 2020

It’s understandable that communicating complicated emotions such as trauma and suffering is still very difficult over the web. Due to this, we simply ought to keep our offline presence alive and yet try to develop the masses for such aesthetics on the web too.

The artist’s identity is not stable or rigid — it changes with time and different situations. I believe that an artist’s identity is even more susceptible to change as they are especially expressive about their emotions. If we need to keep the reflection of the identity of artists transparent, it is important that we train, develop and evolve our audiences to start thinking more abstractly and broadly.

MR: There could be a lot of political material to work on considering the kind of dangerous situation the country is at the moment. Does it get overwhelming?

SG: It does get overwhelming, as I expressed previously. I really wish to do more exploratory and abstract work, but I’m bound because of the country’s situation. However, I might not be able to forgive myself if I leave it where it is without playing any part in it. I do explore other mediums and ways of abstraction but I restrict myself from sharing it with many people. Maybe a better time will come for all this as well.

MR: Does the fear of repression affect you?

SG: I do skip a few heartbeats everyday due to fear. Recently, I started noticing that it has started to take a toll on my mental and physical health as well. I listen to music, play some instruments, read poetry, sew, and practice other crafts to handle it. Sometimes, however, it gets too overwhelming that I go on long walks just to fix myself.

Cow Raj | Bakery Prasad

MR: We’d love it if you could pick one image that you hold especially close to your heart from your entire repertoire so far and tell us why it is so.

SG: This illustration was titled “Cow Raj” [image above] and is one of my favourite works from my feed. It does not dictate any particular story and gives you enough space to ponder over. It comments on various issues, yet remains ambiguous at various levels. Besides, it looks pessimistic and optimistic at the same time. At least, that was the intention.

Siddhesh Gautam is an artist and visual designer who runs "Bakery Prasad" on Instagram. He is a post graduate from the National Institute of Design, Gandhinagar.
Mukulika R is a member of the Editorial Collective at Indian Cultural Forum, New Delhi.