Shilpa Gupta at the Barbican: social injustice, censorship and poetry

By Cleo Roberts-Komireddi

The words of Azerbaijani poet Mikayil Mushfig (1908 – 1938), labelled an enemy of the state by the Soviets, hover in the air. From a canopy of 100 low-hung microphones, a chorus clusters and repeats the poet’s statement. There is heavy breathing. Hums dissolve into whispers. Fingers click and hands furiously clap. An unpredictable rhapsody of disembodied voices darts around a dimly lit room, creating a dense fog of sounds that lingers over a field of metal spikes. 

Once your senses adjust, you can edge through these spines that comprise Shilpa Gupta’s sound installation, For, In Your Tongue, I Cannot Fit (2017 – 2018). Rising up to waist height, the spears forge a constricted path. Each pierces a leaf of paper bearing fragments of the spoken verses, written by a poet incarcerated for their beliefs. It is a panoply of resistance spanning time and place, with the words of dissident writers such as Maung Saungkha from Myanmar, arrested in 2016 for his risqué claim that he had a tattoo of the president inked on his penis, melding with those of Ayat al-Qurmezi, jailed in 2011 for supposedly defaming Bahrain’s royalty. 

15 October 2021