Cups of nun chai — 50 & 51: Art in a war zone

Cups of nun chai — 50 & 51: Art in a war zone

This participatory memorial, by artist Alana Hunt, emerged in response to Kashmir’s Summer of 2010. In the face of the violence, the growing number of dead and the lack of serious media coverage, Hunt evolved ways to speak, to connect and to write in a form that would reach places where the news headlines do not. By July 2012 she had invited 118 people to share a cup of nun chai with her as a simple act that acknowledged this loss of life. Like an ever-growing memory the endeavour unfolded over two years of tea and conversation – across Australia, Europe, parts of South Asia and Kashmir – into a gentle yet challenging refusal to allow that loss of life to simply pass.
Since June 11, these memorialising words and images have  appeared here in Kashmir Reader serialised  every Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday.


“Well, if art is about expressing a perspective of the world, then yes, for me it (photojournalism) is (art).” — Matt
“Well, if art is about expressing a perspective of the world, then yes, for me it (photojournalism) is (art).” — Matt

I met with Matt and Cayla at their home in Brisbane. They are a young husband and wife, aspirational and creative, working in arts administration and journalism respectively. Matt had been thinking about my work before we met and almost immediately he asked, “How do you feel about the idea of art in a war zone?” His question was direct, almost confrontational and I paused.
Arundhati Roy once wrote about the importance of searching for flowers in war zones. I told Matt that art had the potential to be one of the most important things both within and outside of a war zone, and I asked what he thought? “I’m not sure. It’s probably something quite specific to each individual context. I’m not really into the idea of a whole heap of large-scale installations popping up around the place while people are being bombed and going hungry. But I guess there are other, more relevant ways for art to exist.”
“Photojournalism can do powerful things during war,” Cayla added.
“Do you think that is art?” Matt asked.
“Well, if art is about expressing a perspective of the world, then yes, for me it is.” Cayla continued, “Damon Winter is this photojournalist with the New York Times. He won some big award for photos he took of the war in Afghanistan with his iPhone’s hipstamatic application. But it sparked up huge controversy when people found out the images were made with an iphone app.” The hipstamatic app gives digital images taken on the iphone a nostalgic aesthetic, similar to a saturated medium format roll of film. Winter was criticised by some for manipulating the ‘truth’ with a popularised aesthetic. In defence, Winter remarked:

“Photojournalism can do powerful things during war.” — Cayla.
“Photojournalism can do powerful things during war.” — Cayla.

We are being naïve if we think aesthetics do not play an important role in the way photojournalists tell a story. We are not walking photocopiers. We are storytellers.  We observe, we chose moments, we frame little slices of our world with our viewfinders, we even decide how much or how little light will illuminate our subjects, and—yes—we choose what equipment to use. Through all of these decisions, we shape the way a story is told.
Winter made me think of how Kashmir’s stories are told. Most people will say that truth is something hard to pin down in Kashmir. But rather than search for a single truth, it’s important that lots of stories are told, that lots of different truths are heard. In some ways this is starting to happen in Kashmir. There seem to be more Kashmiris telling their own stories, and the internet has opened up avenues for circulation and distribution.
We spoke more about culture and art in the warzone of Kashmir. Cayla is developing a website about music videos. I told her about the rapper MC Kash and we watched his music video Beneath This Sky, produced by Elayne McCabe. The landscape of Srinagar’s streets spoke vividly; imagery of Maqbool Bhat’s face pasted to a wall, barbed wire in the sky, military cantonments on a hillside, convoys on the streets, burnt out empty houses, the polluted Dal Lake, and graffiti that speaks of human rights violations and cries for Azadi (freedom).
But in comparison to Beneath This Sky the imagery that accompanied MC Kash’s 2010 release I Protest (Remembrance) was more graphic and confronting. Photographs of the summer’s violence changed with the rhythm of his lyrics. We saw faces, bloodied and people dead. I protest was raw and Cayla’s eyes were sensitive. As MC Kash recited the individual names of those who died in the Summer of 2010 Cayla, Matt and I fell silent. We listened and we watched.
This is art produced in a war zone, where flowers also grow.

—Alana Hunt makes art, writes and occasionally curates. Her work is informed, in quiet yet consistent ways, by the dual (post)colonial worlds of South Asia and the remote  East Kimberley region of Western Australia.

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