Modes of Encountering the Survivor of Violence: Reflections from AAA 2013

It is not uncommon for anthropologists to encounter talk of “the invisible” and “the unspeakable” in contexts of sexual violence and rape around the globe, especially zones of mass violence and conflict. For example, one of the first human-rights reports that addresses sexual violence during the 2002 anti-Muslim pogrom in Gujarat, India, opens by acknowledging the women-survivors “who had the will to live, and the courage to speak of the unspeakable” (Hameed et al. 2002, 1). In turn, anthropologists, along with NGOs and activists, take upon themselves the urgent task of “giving voice” to women silenced by sexual violence. But these notions raises important, if paradoxical, questions, like how to speak of the unspeakable? During my fieldwork with survivors, activists, and lawyers in the aftermath of the pogrom in Gujarat, I found the “invisibility model” inadequate to understand the ways in which sexual violence is in fact widely discussed, represented, and circulated in the media, activist and scholarly circles, and the court.

The paper I delivered at the AAA meeting grappled with such issues, but I skirted the really thorny issue of how to respect survivors and their silences. During the last decade, I have watched waves of well-meaning activists, students, NGOs, scholars, and journalists come to Gujarat in order to unveil “women’s silence” on sexual violence. This experience has made me shift my focus away from survivors’ experiences to analyzing institutional and structural contexts that frame the testimony and experience of sexual violence. Instead of privileging the erased and the absent in narratives of violence, I began to look at legal cases where survivors dare to speak but the courts do not listen. I concluded my paper by suggesting an analytical bind: activists and anthropologists must interrogate institutional modes of veiling and erasing sexual violence while being attentive to the limits and effects of their own modes of enclosure (Kockelman 2007). Even as I made the argument, I was unsure of where it might lead us.

Unbeknownst to me, a few blocks away from the Hilton, similar questions were being posed at the Art Institute of Chicago. Inside the behemoth museum, a cave-like opening in the current-exhibitions hall lead to a dark room showing The Lightning Testimonies, an eight-channel video installation by the Indian filmmaker Amar Kanwar. The installation used eight projectors to concurrently display still and moving images on all walls of the room—the effect is simultaneously alienating and immersive. Crackling campfire, thunder and rain, and close-ups of bright orange flowers mix with testimonies of women affected by mass sexual violence in South Asia, ranging from the Partition of India in 1947 to the anti-Muslim pogrom in 2002. Seeking refuge in the Art Institute after presenting my paper, I stumbled on Kanwar’s provocative and disorienting art, which blurred for me the boundary between the AAA and the “world outside,” and made me rethink the language and grammar of “victimhood.” 

I sauntered into the current-exhibitions hall after soaking in the impressive collection of the Impressionists at the Institute, and immediately overheard a voice saying “. . . an Indian artist who challenges stereotypes . . .” It was a man’s voice introducing The Lightning Testimonies to a crowd of visitors waiting in front of a dark entrance that seemed to lead nowhere. Walking into the room, I found myself surrounded by luminous rectangles displaying scenes from everyday life in South Asia: a crackling bonfire in Manipur, two men on a motorbike in Gujarat, sepia photographs and newspaper articles in Bengali. Unlike my paper, there was no helpful introduction, no explicit argument, and certainly no place from where I could see all the eight channels at the same time.

Other visitors seemed to be in a similar position: some, like me, sat on small white cubes in the center of the room. Others stood in the corner, trying to see more than one film. It was difficult to focus on any one particular projection or sound, or connect an image with its appropriate soundtrack, because all eight stories (let us call each projection a story) played simultaneously. I realized The Lightning Testimonies does a better job than my paper in moving beyond the “invisibility model” because it moves away from a definitive image of victimhood and shows that memory and landscapes are part of the event of sexual violence itself. The installation presents the testimony of survivors but reframes their stories outside of individual experience. Instead, the “experience” is embedded in images of trees, clouds, rain, and weaving—a shift from the forensic to the poetic. The films move from the register of the “real” (newspaper articles) to the performative (scenes from a play) and back again. Instead of uncovering a common theme or stable narrative of violation and victimhood, the images slow down, freeze, and refuse to focus on their object, thereby interrupting the viewer’s desire to grasp the story or argument, and the desire to move on.

The artist and the anthropologist seem to pose the same familiar question: how to represent sexual violence? But for me, The Lightning Testimonies takes us back to a different question: how to encounter the survivor of violence but not feast on her experience? Instead of relentless questioning and probing of survivors and the circulation of their personal experience, Kanwar’s artwork made me rethink the building blocks of our own stories. By focusing on the spaces of violation, the forests and birds that live in them, and the provisional and oblique strategies by which communities and witnesses remember and memorialize sexual violence, Kanwar’s film helps us all to rethink ways of writing sexual violence.

For example, one of the eight screens tells the story of Bilkis Bano, a Muslim woman whose family was killed and who was gang raped during the anti-Muslim pogrom in Gujarat. The camera lingers on the dry and stony landscape of Gujarat and freezes on a wide shot of the undulating profile of mountains in the distance. But soon the outline of the mountains, the dips, ridges, and peaks, begins to plot the timeline of the legal case that Bilkis fights to get justice. Helped by activists, Bilkis fights her case for five long years: initially dismissed in the lower court, the case is transferred, and then adjudicated outside Gujarat, but ends with a conviction. Bikis’s testimony is narrated in the second person, not “I.” Kanwar’s work forces us to slow down, pay attention to the background, the landscape, and the aftermath.

Walking back from the Art Institute to the bustling Hilton, I saw my paper in the light of Kanwar’s reversal of the explicit and implicit in testimonies of sexual violence. While The Lightning Testimonies’s focus on stories that have gained some visibility and traction, I am left thinking of the legal, media, and official landscapes in our midst that elicits testimony and experience from survivors, but only to reject it, declare it inconsistent, and unreliable.


Paul Kockelman. 2007. “Enclosure and Disclosure.” Public Culture no. 19, no. 2: 303–5.

Hameed, Syeda S., Ruth Manorama, Malini Ghose, Sheba George Sahrwaru, Farah Naqvi, and Mari Thekaekara. 2002. How Has the Gujarat Massacre Affected Minority Women: The Survivors Speak. Report sponsored by the Citizen’s Initiative, Ahmedabad.

Moyukh Chatterjee is a Ph.D. candidate in anthropology at Emory University in Atlanta. Since 2002, he has conducted twenty-nine months of ethnographic research in India, primarily in Ahmedabad, tracking the work of NGOs, lawyers, and activists in the aftermath of the 2002 Gujarat pogrom. His forthcoming dissertation concerns the production, performance, and architecture of impunity in the aftermath of mass violence.

Image credit: Amar Kanwar, The Lightning Testimonies, 2007. Thyseen-Bornemisza Art Contemporary,