The Global Art Project

Beautiful Acts of Resistance

The exhibition title A Sheet of Paper Can Become a Knife is inspired by a poem by Tsering Woeser, whose ongoing struggle against oppression and violence has been a source of inspiration for activists throughout the world. Her description of what is presumably an ordinary paper-cut suggests that almost anything can suddenly become a weapon—inexplicably and without warning. Her poem resonates as an apt metaphor for the proximity and threat of violence worldwide. The entangled histories of violence and oppression conveyed in this exhibition convey a deeply unsettling collective narrative of social injustice.

Although the primary focus is on violence and oppression in contemporary society, the brutal weight of history looms heavily throughout. The stories that unfold reveal striking similarities between forms of violence regardless of location. Recurring themes include gender violence and the prevalence of violence against women and children in particular; censorship and surveillance; the exotification of the black female body, and shared histories of war, military rule, and political oppression. The featured works also shed light on the social circumstances that lead to violence and oppression in the first place.

Some of the strongest voices in the exhibition speak of gender violence, as conveyed in the work of Teresa Margolles, who is dedicated to raising awareness about crime-ravaged places where women are abducted and murdered on a daily basis. Discrimination against women is also addressed in Zanele Muholi’s work. Most importantly, she focuses on black, African, female, transgender and queer empowerment.  Regina José Galindo speaks out urgently against oppression in performance works that threaten to put her own life in danger. Newsha Tavakolian encourages us to consider the moral economy of warfare in a series of portraits of female FARC guerilla fighters, while Naiza Khan’s sculptures balance precariously on a fine line between seduction and aggression. A single iconic portrait pays special tribute to the late David Goldblatt and his lifetime investigation of oppression in South Africa both during and after apartheid. Censorship and surveillance is at the center of Oscar Muñoz’s Distopia (2015), while Amar Kanwar’s and FX Harsono’s works speak of the shared pain of collective memory, political oppression, and histories of war. Finally, Cildo Meireles’s Banknote Project emphasizes how little has changed since the work was first created in the seventies, both in Brazil and elsewhere.   These themes are shaped into a non-linear narrative that extends back and forth through time, across oceans, and between countries and continents.



As an exhibition featuring artists who are dedicated to visual activism and the power of collective resistance it seems fitting to begin with Teresa Margolles' work. The collaborative textile work Dylegued / Entierro / Burial (2013) featured in A Sheet of Paper Can Become a Knife commemorates a native Kuna boy, Obed Jadeth Rosano Jahen Lopez, who was brutally murdered in Panama City. The work was created in collaboration with his family members in memory of his tragic death, and was executed using the traditional mola embroidery technique on fabric permeated with blood from the body of a woman assassinated in Panama City. This work is part of an entire body of work that relates to gender violence in Brazil, Guatemala, Nicaragua, Mexico and the United States. Similarly, for Tela Bordada (2012) Margolles collaborated with a group of women from Sololá, Guatemala who implement embroidery to protest violence against women. Sitting together in a circle, the women stitched traditional Mayan symbols in vibrant colors onto a stained cloth. The cloth was taken from the morgue where it was stained with the blood of a woman who had been murdered in Guatemala City. In contrast to the gravity of such issues, the exquisitely embroidered fabric relays a sense of hope in the brightly colored symbols such as the sun and the moon, birds, butterflies, and flowers.

These collaborative textile works are a logical continuation of Teresa Margolles’ longtime exploration of violence. For each new collaborative textile she invited embroiderers to create patterns on bloodstained fabric as a way to trigger a conversation about the violence and social problems that plague their respective communities. As recounted in the video documentary Opening Paths to Social Justice, the textile from Guatemala memorializes the sorrows and struggles of Mayan women members of ADEMKAN Asociación de Desarrollo de la Mujer K’ak’a Na’oj from Sololá, situated along the shore of Lake Atitlan. Focusing on domestic violence, the embroiderers speak out against the prevalence of violence in Guatemala and the sexual abuses and murders that mark their lives. They discuss the importance of giving voice to women everywhere in an ongoing search for peace and dignity, emphasizing the importance of working together to create change.

The work created in Mexico, sewn by Rarámuri (Tarahumara) living on the outskirts of Ciudad Juarez, addresses the stigmatization of indigenous women in regards to how they dress and the language they speak. The embroiderers also address the assassinations of Rarámuri living in the mountains, and the attempted cover-up by authorities that falsely claim that the victims committed suicide due to hunger. The textile created in Brazil relates to the unresolved mystery surrounding the 1970 murder of an eight-year-old girl on Pina Beach in Recife, whose body was never identified. To this day she is only known as Menina sem nome (the nameless girl). The work of embroiderers from Managua, Nicaragua addresses the disastrous effects of the Contra war in Nicaragua in the 1980s, as an entire generation continues to suffer from alcoholism, drug addiction, and daily violence. Finally, the textile completed in Harlem, New York expresses the embroiderers’ concerns regarding police brutality against African-Americans today, and the increasing number of deaths that result from police brutality. The work was created on a fabric imprinted by the spot on Staten Island where Eric Garner died while being placed under arrest as a result of being put in a chokehold. Similar to the other works, this textile expresses the embroiderers’ struggle for justice and a shared hope for better social conditions in their community.

Zanele Muholi’s iconic portraits have become synonymous with black, African, female, transgender and queer empowerment, and her ongoing series Somnyama Ngonyama / Hail the Dark Lioness is no exception. With this series of work she integrates classical depictions of femininity, the mechanics of fashion photography, and ethnographic imagery to address identity politics from a critical perspective that challenges what Kobena Mercer refers to as “the oppressive regimes of myth and stereotype”. In the true spirit of Frantz Fanon, this body of work confirms that she is an activist that questions modes of representation. "I’m reclaiming my blackness, which I feel is continuously performed by the privileged other. My reality is that I do not mimic being black; it is my skin, and the experience of being black is deeply entrenched in me. Just like our ancestors, we live as black people 365 days a year, and we should speak without fear." Taken in various locations throughout Europe, North America and Africa, each portrait raises critical questions about social justice, human rights, and contested representations of the black body. Befittingly, the ongoing series will only reach completion once 365 photographs are taken. One of the featured portraits occupies a central position in the space in recognition of Muholi’s interventions to the photographic archive. A selection of photographs from the Somnyama Ngonyama is also presented on a nearby screen, giving a more complete sense of this body of work. 

Through continued investigation of different archetypes and personas Zanele Muholi’s self-portraits suggest visual antidotes for various cultural biases and stereotypes. Inspired by various photographers including Renee Cox who is also known for relentless explorations of identity, the nature of representation through self-portraiture, and playing multiple roles, Muholi takes control of the entire narrative, both behind and in front of the camera. Her photographs involve a clever reversal of history as she appropriates what is useful to her, often turning it inside out and backwards, to magnify how objects function symbolically in the social milieu. 

The formal range and variety of her photographs is astounding, and Muholi succeeds in addressing a wide range of related topics without ever being redundant. Whether the self-portraits incorporate scouring sponges, discarded bicycle tires, a worn bed sheet, or a crown of braids, Muholi is chameleonesque as the roles adopted and issues addressed change from photograph to photograph. The images in Somnyama Ngonyama play with, tease, and challenge notions of visibility and invisibility. Muholi captures our full and undivided attention through her powerful presence and reversal of the gaze.  One cannot help but linger on the seemingly small everyday details, the trappings of domesticity that are magically transformed into sartorial exclamation points that speak on behalf of women everywhere, and first and foremost on behalf of black, African, queer empowerment.
Naiza Khan’s galvanized steel armor works hover in an ambiguous space between aggression and seduction. We are confronted with the inherent contradiction of objects that appear both ominous and fragile at the same time. This ambiguity encourages us to search beneath the surface for the deeper implications of the work. There is an unsettling quality to the steel bodices, skirts, and dresses that somehow seems to suggest the exact moment when seduction becomes aggression. Whether they evoke personal experience or collective memory, attraction or repulsion, are some of the many contradictions that the work encourages us to question.

Naiza Khan’s galvanized steel armor works hover in an ambiguous space between aggression and seduction. We are confronted with the inherent contradiction of objects that appear both ominous and fragile at the same time. This ambiguity encourages us to search beneath the surface for the deeper implications of the work. There is an unsettling quality to the steel bodices, skirts, and dresses that somehow seems to suggest the exact moment when seduction becomes aggression. Whether they evoke personal experience or collective memory, attraction or repulsion, are some of the many contradictions that the work encourages us to question.

These sculptures reflect a continuation of Naiza Khan’s ongoing formal and conceptual investigation of the female body. She has produced a major body of work, in the form of photography, large-scale drawings and watercolors, which explores the sensuality of the female body and the implications of its presence or absence, its visibility or invisibility. The three works featured in the exhibition, Armour Suit for Rani of Jhansi, Armour Skirt I, and Cage Corset, are symbols of empowerment that also question typical notions of femininity by creating alternative narratives through allegory. Each piece of attire also alludes to the construction of multiple personae as a strategy, and as a way to extend the body beyond its static self. These artworks are situated in a paradoxical space in between, where the contours of the feminine body are clearly delineated but ultimately invisible as a true form. Femininity is thereby conveyed through the shape of an absent body, which stands in sharp contrast to the chosen medium of the garments—galvanized steel. There is a sense of sensuality conveyed in the intimacy of these garments that would ostensibly be worn over bare skin. Yet it is difficult to determine what is more important to the work—the visible or the invisible, what is represented or what is only suggested. As symbols of empowerment these steel garments also bring to mind the heroism of female warriors, from Joan of Arc to the Rani of Jhansi, and the shining armor that has protected them through the ages.

It’s no coincidence that one of the sculptures pays homage to the queen of Jhansi in Northern India. She was one of the leading figures of the Indian Rebellion of 1857 and became a symbol for Indian resistance in the face of British colonial rule. There’s no ambiguity there, but Khan’s blue-feathered steel suit for the Rani of Jhansi still leaves us with more questions than answers. In the end we have to imagine what is found in the space between visibility and invisibility, absence and presence, power and submission. 

Newsha Tavakolian’s Out of Hiding conveys the reality of women who partake in violence in their role as FARC guerrilla warriors in the Cauca jungle of Colombia. Tavakolian’s uncomfortably intimate photographs provide a glimpse into the complexity of their lives and encourage us to consider the personal side of their situation and the motivations behind their choice to become fighters. Her interest in photographing women fighters was inspired by reading Nobel-laureate Svetlana Alexievich’s book The Unwomanly Face of War, which recounts the stories of Russian women who fought during the second world war. In speaking about her photographs of the female FARC guerrillas Tavakolian explains, “I think we all think about these women as a people who kill others but at the same time, they are survivors.”

Out of Hiding captures the female guerrilla fighters of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) as they prepare to leave the jungle and integrate into society. Through her visit to the FARC guerrillas Tavakolian was interested in creating a nuanced picture of the dire circumstances that led some of these women to become fighters. She also hoped to better understand some of the problems they are likely to face as they return to Colombian society. Tavakolian’s photographs, presented along with testimonies from the women she met, provide a behind the scenes glimpse into the lives of these women.

Tavakolian’s portraits paint a nuanced picture of their daily lives that also helps contribute to a deeper understanding of some of the social circumstances that led to them becoming FARC guerrilla fighters in the first place. As we look at the expressions and poses of these women we witness signs of exhaustion, vulnerability, and anxiety that one doesn’t necessarily associate with guerrilla warriors. Interestingly, there are no signs of anger in their faces, and there appears to be no immediate danger hiding in the shadows. Nevertheless, these are not romanticized images of erstwhile terrorists in the jungle. These photographs convey the mundane details of everyday life and the personal details of their situation.  Tavakolian succeeds in capturing our attention, and if it feels utterly uncomfortable to observe where these guerilla fighters rest, sleep, do their laundry, wash their hair, converse, drink coffee, or attend group meetings, one should take the time to read their testimonies that relay the harsh realities of their social and economic situation.

For over sixty years the late David Goldblatt was dedicated to documenting South Africa’s racial divide during some of its most turbulent years, and became known as one of the world’s foremost documentary photographers. I first met David Goldblatt in 2000 while working on the exhibition Rhizomes of Memory: Three South African Photographers, curated by Gavin Jantjes for Henie Onstad Kunstsenter in Norway. His photographs changed how I looked at documentary photography ever since and remain permanently imbedded in my mind’s eye. Through the years he transformed the wounds of racial injustice into captivating photographs that demand our full and undivided attention. The importance of South African photography and Goldblatt’s singular contribution to its development was beautifully conveyed by Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Mpilo Tutu in his preface to the Rhizomes of Memory catalogue, “Photography is a wonderful tool. Photographers who documented apartheid’s history made us choose sides. These photographs are poetic narratives of the worlds of yesterday, today and tomorrow. The scope of their vision includes a passionate concern for people and it brings images into our lives whose haunting beauty will linger for years”.  

In David Goldblatt’s own words, “During those years my prime concern was with values – what did we value in South Africa, how did we get to those values and how did we express those values. I was very interested in the events that were taking place in the country as a citizen but, as a photographer, I’m not particularly interested, and I wasn’t then, in photographing the moment that something happens. I’m interested in the conditions that give rise to events.”

The single photograph featured in A Sheet of Paper Can Become a Knife is a portrait of Lawrence Matjee, whose injuries are the result of a police arrest: Matjee was forcibly dragged from his home, by his feet, dislocating his arms in the process. Atrocities such as these were a common occurrence in South Africa during the brutal years that preceded the fall of apartheid. Among his most iconic works, this photograph is included as a special homage to David Goldblatt who was a founding member of the Market Photo Workshop, and who passed away earlier this year.

Among the most mesmerizing works in the exhibition is Oscar Muñoz’s video Distopia. As an incurable bibliophile I was immediately captivated by this text-based work that appeared to be some kind of a poetic intervention. In fact, the video is composed of passages from George Orwell’s 1984 printed with black toner on wet sheets of paper, which are then submerged in the water. One by one, the letters slowly come off the paper, distorting the original text and making it completely impossible to read. The process is rather magical—straight out of a world where books come to life and the boundaries between text and image, fiction and reality are completely erased. Of course, the message is far more sinister. The disintegration of the text refers directly to the central themes of the novel—censorship and surveillance. The work also references the novel’s protagonist, Winston Smith, who works in the Ministry of Truth where he is responsible for rewriting historical documents and altering photographs before he incinerates the original documents and photos.

As part of the process Muñoz dips page after page of typed text into a liquid bath that slowly lifts the letters from the page making the text illegible. So, while the illegible words from the Spanish translation disappear in front of our eyes, Muñoz is essentially playing the role of Winston Smith. Suddenly, the reference to the book seems almost secondary. We all know the storyline of 1984 which describes a future controlled by Big Brother, and where workers in the Ministry of Truth delete contradictory histories and redundant words from the dictionary to create a pure efficient language: Newspeak. Instead of burning texts to ash, Muñoz submerges them in liquid, in a gesture almost like a reverse typewriter that sets the letters free. It’s certainly a poetic gesture, but considered within the wider framework of Muñoz’s work, there seems to be a subtext that relates to more pressing issues such as historical revisionism, fake news, and the ever-increasing threats of surveillance and censorship in our daily lives. 

Amar Kanwar’s Letter 5 (2017) is featured as an interval for quiet reflection. The work is comprised of six small projections that cast flickering images onto small sheets of handmade white paper that float delicately away from the wall. As viewers, we are inspired to decipher the visual poetry of short passages of text coupled with enigmatic black and white images that include a crow perching on a tree branch, a leaf caught by the wind, and a pattern of clouds floating in the sky

Letter 5 is part of Kanwar’s eponymous project, Letters, consisting of seven different works (Letter 1 to 7). Kanwar’s Letters relate directly to his 2017 film, Such a Morning, in which a renowned mathematician retires, cuts his career short unexpectedly, and retreats to the wilderness to live in an abandoned train carriage. He then proceeds to black out all the windows and seals himself into a chamber of darkness. With no spoken narrative, intermittent titles offer clues to a dramatic sensory journey into a new plane of emotional resonance between the self and the world around. Over time, the professor records his epiphanies and hallucinations in an almanac of the dark, an examination of 49 types of darkness that finally emerges as a series of letters. The feature length film begins with an early morning eclipse, which causes panic among a flock of crows that leave the city in search of shelter. These are the birds that reappear in Letters, where they are seen along with excerpts from the professor’s almanac.

Amar Kanwar describes Such a Morning as a modern parable about two people’s quiet engagement with truth. Searching for a way to comprehend the difficult times we are living in, Kanwar asks “What is it that lies beyond, when all arguments are done with? How to reconfigure and respond again? Such a Morning unlocks a metaphysical response to our contemporary reality as it navigates multiple hallucinations between speech and silence, fear and freedom, democracy and fascism.” As part of his film Kanwar conceived a narrative that continues beyond the film - the professor continues to write his letters - towards a research project with diverse artistic, pedagogic, metaphysical and political collaborations, to be shared as the project travels and gathers experience. The train coach built for the film remains in Delhi, a memorial for the teacher who refused to conform, who stepped off the tracks and wandered into the wild.

Returning to more direct themes of political oppression, the abuse of power, dictatorship, and military rule brings us to the work of FX Harsono, who has been an active critic of Indonesian politics, culture, and society since his early student days in the seventies. He often weaves references to his own family history into installations that expose Indonesia’s tumultuous history, paying special attention to the systematic discrimination of minorities. This melding of personal and political themes is particularly evident in his most recent works, as is seen in Gazing on Collective Memory (2016) featured in the exhibition.

FX Harsono was one of the founding members of Indonesia’s New Art Movement, which emphasized an experimental, conceptual approach, the use of everyday materials, and engagement with social and political issues. These are artistic methods that he has adhered to ever since. During the Suharto regime (1967-98), Harsono implemented installation and performance works as a form of artistic activism against an oppressive government. The fall of the regime in 1998, which triggered rioting and widespread violence, mainly against Indonesia’s ethnic Chinese minority, prompted a more introspective shift in Harsono’s artistic practice. This involved an in-depth investigation of his family history and a critical questioning about the position of minorities in society, with particular emphasis on his own Chinese-Indonesian community. The recovery of buried or repressed histories, cultures, and identities – and the role that the artists can play both in terms of recalling these histories as well as implementing art as a form of activism are integral to his work.

Since 2010, FX Harsono has focused on raising awareness about the prevalence of mass graves in Indonesia in the aftermath of World War II. More specifically, his works document the events, people, and circumstances surrounding the massacres committed against Indonesians of Chinese-descent throughout Java from 1947 to 1949. Through the years, his work has become a powerful means of sharing the otherwise untold stories of violent, traumatic episodes which have affected thousands of Indonesian lives. He continues to excavate stories of trauma from the minefield of Indonesian collective memory, coupling the severity of the themes with a visual vocabulary that comes across as a form of non-violent protest. The understated beauty of Gazing on Collective Memory, with its collection of found objects, which includes electric candles, family photographs, and porcelain cups, creates a serene shrine-like environment that is a perfect site for critical reflection about Indonesia’s tumultuous history.

A disquietingly direct approach is witnessed in the work of Regina José Galindo, whose performances often involve dangerous situations that could potentially put her life at risk. Throughout her work she explores topics of discrimination, violence, and other forms of abuse that are prevalent throughout contemporary society, placing particular emphasis on Guatemala. Among Galindo’s highly unsettling works, her site-specific performance work La Tierra speaks effectively about the transgressions of the former dictator and president of Guatemala José Efraín Ríos Montt. In 2013 he was convicted of genocide and crimes against humanity.  More specifically, he was found guilty of trying to exterminate the Ixil ethnic group, a Mayan Indian community whose villages were eradicated by his forces. Regina José Galindo’s video is a haunting interpretation of the atrocities recounted during his trial.

Tierra begins with Galindo standing alone and naked in a grassy meadow where her space is invaded by a bulldozer. Danger and aggression are clearly conveyed as the bulldozer comes closer and closer to dig a hole around Galindo, cutting deeper and deeper into the earth until she is left all alone on a small island of mud and grass. As the film progresses the angle of the camera and the zoom of the lens make the bulldozer seem evermore ominous, and close-ups emphasize the precariousness of the situation. At times it seems that Galindo will be struck down by the bulldozer’s claw. The atrocities of Guatemala’s history are chillingly evoked through a scarring of the earth. Galindo alludes to the incident in which innocent citizens were murdered and subsequently buried in a mass grave. The stark contrast between the bulk of the bulldozer and Galindo’s small, vulnerable body captures the powerlessness of people who suffer under oppressive regimes, while the chasm that grows around her evokes a sense of despair and alienation that results from political oppression and violence in general.

Cildo Meireles’ Banknote Project was first conceived in 1970 as part of his Insertions into Ideological Circuits project that was featured in an exhibition held at The Museum of Modern Art in New York entitled Information. The Banknote Project explored the circulation and exchange of goods, and questioned the power of wealth and information as manifestations of dominant ideologies. His artistic intervention involved stamping subversive messages onto Brazilian banknotes and US dollar bills before returning them into normal circulation. The messages, appearing in both English and Portuguese, included various slogans that called for democracy and political freedom. Among the most famous were the bills stamped with the words Quem Matou Herzog? (Who Killed Herzog?), referring to the journalist Vladimir Herzog who was killed in October 1975 while under police custody. In 2013, following the abduction and murder of Amarildo de Souza by members of the UPP (Police Pacification Unit) during a raid of the Rocinha favela in Rio de Janeiro, Meireles initiated another banknote intervention featuring the messages Cadê o Amarildo? (Where is Amarildo?), and O que aconteceu com Amarildo? (What happened to Amarildo?).

The continued importance of Cildo Meireles’ banknote project cannot be understated. In fact, the original project has inspired numerous artistic interventions through the years.  This was recently made shockingly clear in the aftermath of councilwoman and human rights activist Marielle Franco’s tragic death. As the only black woman among Rio’s 51 city council members, her voice and role was quite significant. Franco had spoken out fiercely against increased militarization and the prevalence of police killings in Brazilian favelas, particularly in Rio de Janeiro where she was from. Shortly following her assassination on March 14, 2018 Brazilian banknotes began popping up around Rio de Janeiro stamped with the slogan Quem Matou Marielle Franco? (Who Killed Marielle Franco?). The intervention effectively questioned the suspicious circumstances of Marielle Franco’s death and emphasized the haunting similarity to the 1975 killing of Vladimir Herzog, while also paying homage to Cildo Meireles.

A short excerpt from an interview with Cildo Meireles for Revista Carbono emphasizes the timelessness of the Banknote Project, “It’s a work about production, distribution, and control of information. This is the core of the work…Clearly Insertions has the capacity to give voice to the individual within the macro-structure, something that I have always found interesting…the project was and is dedicated to amplifying a question that is on the lips and minds of the people…Yes, people are still being killed by the same people, for the same reasons and in the same places. This is the absurdity of Brazil, its hypocrisy.” 

Echoing the perfectly measured words of Mahmoud Darwish when he stated that every beautiful poem is an act of resistance, the artworks featured in A Sheet of Paper Can Become a Knife are all beautiful acts of resistance. Through these works the participating artists give voice to millions of others whose stories need to be heard. We can only hope that the harsh lessons of these stories will eventually be learned.