Camden VOX presents: Sutapa Biswas

Camden Commissions at Swiss Cottage Library

Taking the Women’s Suffrage movement as a point of departure, Camden VOX has commissioned four artists to produce a series of posters that explore ideas of equality, place, power and identity. Featuring works by Sutapa Biswas, Claudette Johnson, Ingrid Pollard and Hannah Collins and exhibited in the atrium at Swiss Cottage Library from June 2018 to January 2019. 

August - September: Sutapa Biswas

“Truth comes in all shapes and sizes. But you know it when you see it.” 

Sutapa Biswas, artist.

There is a famous photograph taken in 1977 of Jayaben Desai, a British Black woman of South Asian parentage, holding up a placard that reads ‘THE WORKERS UNITED WILL NEVER BE DEFEATED’. It is an image that for many black British people growing up in the UK during the 1960’s and 1970’s will forever remain iconic. This is certainly the case for the British artist Sutapa Biswas. For at that time in UK history, as Biswas states “it was highly uncommon to see a feisty working class Indian woman, donning a modest sari who broke all the stereotypes, represented within any context of our mainstream media, let alone leading striking workers and winning the hearts of a wider public”. 

Jayaben Desai was a woman who was 4 foot 10 inches in height, and slight in stature. On a baking hot day of Monday 23 August 1976, Desai told managers at the Grunwick film processing plant in Chapter Road, Willesden, in the north-west London borough of Brent, “A person like me, I am never scared of anybody”, shortly before she led a walkout.

“Desperate for work, the newly arrived accepted long hours and low wages, though the need to do so, Desai said, “nagged away like a sore on their necks”.” - Jack Dromey (28/12/2010). When finally Desai had had enough, she responded to her manager with what is now a famed quote, “What you are running is not a factory, it is a zoo. But in a zoo there are many types of animals. Some are monkeys who dance on your fingertips. Others are lions who can bite your head off. We are those lions, Mr. Manager.”

The events that followed, contributed hugely to raising awareness of the appalling working conditions of newly arrived migrant workers, and through Desai’s work, oversaw the largest mobilisation in British labour-movement history in support of fewer than 200 strikers. As Jack Dromey writes, “Defying all the odds, one courageous woman inspired all who heard her”. For Biswas, Desai has remained a beautiful fixture in our collective British history of the right of individuals workers to live with dignity and be allowed to work in conditions that are respectful and humane.

In the context of Biswas’ series titled ‘Red, Black, Silver and Blue’ (2018) she has centred one of her all time heroines, Jayaben Desai. Biswas’ artwork is partly inspired by the famous photograph of the Civil Rights activist Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. (1965) in which MLK stands before a number of microphones as he delivers an important protest speech. Whilst Jayaben Desai commanded respect for her achievements, her own voice, nevertheless, did not receive such prominent press reception. Within the context of ‘Red, Black, Silver and Blue’, Biswas additionally references the visual aesthetics of protest posters / art that many artists, including Faith Ringgold, Emory Douglas and Andy Warhol, commonly drew from. For Biswas, Desai’s voice and act of resistance are emphasised through the visual repetition of the microphones that surround Desai’s tiny frame. Each separate print image echoed in colours close to the Union flag. For Biswas, this work highlights the power of the human voice, the importance of defending our right for equality through the act of speech and speaking out.

Artist bio:

Born in India and educated in the UK since the age of four, Sutapa Biswas is a conceptual artist working across a range of media including painting, drawing, film and time based media. With her background in fine art and art history, and frequently inspired by art historical and literary texts, Biswas’ works explore ‘spatial stories’ and the relationships between people and the places they live in. Underpinned by an interest in colonial histories and how this relates to gender, race and class, her art is nuanced by the ways in which oral narratives reveal the human condition and their relationship to our collective histories and to questions of time.

Biswas graduated with a BA in Fine Art with Art History from Leeds University, completed her postgraduate at the Slade School of Art and was a research student at the Royal College of Art. Her works have been widely exhibited including at Tate Modern, Tate Britain, Tate Liverpool, Yale University Art Gallery (New Haven), ‘Mixed Bathing World 2015’ Triennial (Beppu, Japan), 6th Havana Biennial, Neuberger Museum (New York), Nara Roesler (Sao Paolo), Art Gallery of Ontario (Toronto), Melbourne International Arts Festival, Whitechapel Gallery, Iniva (London), and ICA (London). Biswas has had solo exhibitions at Nara Roesler (Brazil), Iniva (UK touring), Douglas Cooley Gallery (Reed College, USA), PlugIn Institute of Contemporary Art (Winnipeg, Canada) in collaboration with Locus+ (Newcastle Upon Tyne,UK), Leeds City Art Gallery and The Photographer’s Gallery (UK). She was the 2008 Andrew W. Mellon Fellow at the Yale Centre for British Art, and is a European Photography Award 1992 nominee. Her artworks are represented in collections including: TATE; APT (New York); Arts Council England; Reed Gallery, USA; Graves Gallery, Sheffield Museums and Galleries, UK. Biswas is currently a Reader in Fine Art at Manchester Metropolitan University, UK.

Biswas is currently exhibiting in the exhibition 'Speech Acts: Reflection-Imagination-Repetition' at Manchester Art Gallery until 22nd April 2019. The exhibition asks: What do public museums collect and why? Which works become highlights, and which lie forgotten in storage? More info:

Have a look at our past poster commissions here!

About Camden Vox
Taking inspiration from the Women’s Suffrage movement and the centenary of the Representation of the People act, Camden VOX will celebrate and explore themes of equality, place, history and power. Camden’s annual arts programme will offer free and low cost arts and cultural events for those who live, work in and visit the Borough.Through celebrating Camden’s unique spirit which is rebellious, creative and progressive, and working with partners and key cultural institutions in the borough, Camden VOX offers a thought provoking and engaging arts and cultural programme for 2018, featuring theatre, pop-up performance, song, spoken word, exhibitions, commissions and artist led, drop in family friendly workshops across the borough.

For more information on Camden VOX please visit our programme page!