Modes of Encountering the Survivor of Violence

Photo by Amar Kanwar.

It is not uncommon for anthropologists to encounter talk of “the invisible” or “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 addressed 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.” In turn, anthropologists, along with NGO workers 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 discussed, represented, and circulated in the media, activist and scholarly circles, and the court.

The paper I delivered at the 2013 annual meeting of the American Anthropological Association 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 in which survivors dare to speak but the courts do not listen. I concluded my conference 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 (see Kockelman 2007). Even as I made this argument, I was unsure of where it might lead me.

Meanwhile, a few blocks away from the Hilton, similar questions were being posed at the Art Institute of Chicago. Inside the museum, a cavelike opening in the current exhibitions hall led 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 was simultaneously alienating and immersive. Crackling campfire, thunder and rain, and closeups of bright orange flowers mixed 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 meetings and the world outside, prompting me to rethink the language and grammar of victimhood.

I sauntered into the current exhibitions hall after soaking in the Impressionism collection at the Institute, and I immediately overheard a voice referring to “an Indian artist who challenges stereotypes.” A man was introducing The Lightning Testimonies to a crowd of visitors, waiting in front of a dark entrance that seemed to lead nowhere. Walking through it, I found myself surrounded by luminous rectangles displaying scenes from everyday life in South Asia: a bonfire in Manipur, two men on a motorbike in Gujarat, sepia photographs and newspaper articles in Bengali. Unlike my conference paper, there was no helpful introduction, no explicit argument, and certainly no place from where I could see all 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 corners, trying to watch more than one film. It was difficult to focus on any single projection or sound or to connect an image with its appropriate soundtrack, because all eight projected stories played simultaneously. I realized that The Lightning Testimonies did a better job than my paper in moving beyond the invisibility model because it moved away from a definitive image of victimhood and showed that memory and landscapes are part of the event of sexual violence itself. The installation presented the testimony of survivors but reframed their stories outside of individual experience. Instead, the experience was embedded in images of trees, clouds, rain, and weaving—a shift from the forensic to the poetic. The films moved 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 slowed down, froze, and refused to focus on their object, thereby interrupting the viewer’s desire to grasp the story or argument and the desire to move on.

Both artist and anthropologist seem to pose the same familiar question: how to represent sexual violence? But The Lightning Testimonies took me back to a different question: how to encounter the survivor of violence but not feast on her experience? Instead of relentless questioning of survivors and circulation of their personal experience, Kanwar’s artwork made me rethink the building blocks of the stories we tell. 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, Kanwar’s film helped me to rethink ways of writing sexual violence.

For example, one of the eight screens told the story of Bilkis Bano, a Muslim woman whose family was killed and who was gang-raped during the pogrom in Gujarat. The camera lingered on the dry and stony landscape, pausing with a wide shot of mountains in the distance. But soon the outline of those mountains, the dips, ridges, and peaks, began to plot the timeline of the legal case that Bilkis fought to get justice. Helped by activists, Bilkis pursued her case for five long years: initially dismissed in the lower court, the case is transferred and then adjudicated outside Gujarat, ending with a conviction. Bilkis’s testimony is narrated in the second person, not the first. With this choice, Kanwar’s work forced the viewer to slow down and 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 light of Kanwar’s reversal of the explicit and implicit in testimonies of sexual violence. While The Lightning Testimonies focuses on stories that have gained some visibility and traction, I am left thinking of the legal, media, and official processes that elicit testimony and experience from survivors only to reject it, declaring it inconsistent and unreliable.


Paul Kockelman. 2007. “Enclosure and Disclosure.” Public Culture 19, no. 2: 303–305.