50 South Asian Artists Examine What It Means to Be a Bystander — and an Ally — in 2019

Created by a collective of South Asian women, nonbinary, and queer folk, ‘The Bystander Anthology’ will explore what it means to be a bystander, by choice or by circumstance, in the midst of political and social upheaval.

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Illustration by Bystander Anthology artist Samya Arif. The Bystander Anthology is live on Kickstarter now.

The word “bystander” reminds Akhila Krishnan of childhood. “A lot of children from the [Indian] subcontinent, at least in my generation, will remember this — growing up, you’re told to mind your own business and not participate, not get involved in things you might see on the street,” she says. “Not because you don’t care, but because the threat of an ordinary incident escalating into mob violence in India is actually quite high.”

These days, the morality of being a bystander — of not participating, not speaking up, not taking action — is hotly debated. As activist movements and media draw attention to global injustices like sexual violence, electoral suppression, class and caste discrimination, and assaults on reproductive freedom, being a bystander seems not only like a luxury afforded only to a privileged few, but an act of negligence. How can you stand to one side when others are suffering?

That question is the focus of The Bystander Anthology, live on Kickstarter now. The book will feature comics and graphic narratives from more than 50 South Asian artists from 13 countries, investigating the many facets of what it means to be a bystander, by choice or by circumstance, in the midst of social and political upheaval.

Left to right: Bystander Anthology editors Akhila Krishnan, Aarthi Parthasarathy, and Gopika Bashi

Bringing the work of South Asian women, nonbinary, and queer artists into the spotlight

Krishnan, a South Indian filmmaker and comics artist now based in London, is a founding member of Kadak Collective, a group of women, nonbinary, and queer artists from the Indian subcontinent. Formed in the wake of a global outcry against the Angoulême International Comics Festival, which in 2016 failed to shortlist a single female artist for their prestigious Grand Prix award, Kadak is a response to the absence of women, nonbinary, and queer creators of South Asian descent in the world of comics.

Kadak’s seven other founding members are spread across the United States, United Kingdom, and parts of India. They collaborate across time zones and creative industries, with members picking up projects as their schedules allow. (They all have day jobs in addition to their work for the collective; Krishnan works in projection design for live performance.) They’ve created commissions for the Goethe Institute and the British Council and exhibited their work at the East London Arts and Comics Festival, Chicago Art Book Fair, and L.A. Zine Fest, among others. One of their Goethe Institute commissions focused on the theme of breasts.

“We’re quite political and quite feminist, [and] quite provocative, especially in an Indian space,” Krishnan says. “Kadak is a space for us to pursue experimental and non-commercial work, a place to experiment and try new work and new kinds of writing.”

Left: Kadak publications at the East London Arts and Comics Festival. Right: At the St. Louis Small Press Expo.

Exploring how and why people become bystanders

When Kadak member Aarthi Parthasarathy, also a filmmaker and comics artist, suggested the “bystander” theme for the collective’s first anthology, the team knew they’d hit on something worth exploring. “It’s quite a simple word, but it holds a lot of potent meaning in this part of the world,” Krishnan says.

It has emerged, for example, in the Indian #MeToo movement, where women from marginalized communities have refused to let the privileged upper caste speak on their behalf in public life any longer — a practice that has long made them feel like bystanders to their own experiences of abuse and discrimination, and to mainstream Indian feminism itself. People don’t always choose to be bystanders, Krishnan notes — some are forced into the role.

“In India, being an ally is a very complex thing. There’s a difference between supporting a cause and speaking for somebody else, describing their experiences in a way that’s inauthentic. Now people are saying, ‘We don’t need these people to speak for us. We want to find spaces to speak for ourselves.’”

Left: Poster by Bystander Anthology artist Shehzil Malik. Right: Illustration by Bystander Anthology artist Upasana Agarwal.

The Bystander Anthology will bear witness to that transformation. Available in print and online, it will feature comics and illustrated narratives that tackle the theme from a variety of angles, from an exploration of power structures and patterns of abuse and control in relationships to an investigation of how culture and identity differ and converge in India and Pakistan. There will be pieces about tribal identity and environmental devastation, about what it’s like to be a Sikh person in queer spaces in the U.S. or to navigate disabled spaces as a South Asian woman, and about identity and belonging as a member of the South Asian diaspora.

“In large part, all of the stories are tied up with the identities of the people making them,” Krishnan says. “We wanted that range of responses and identities to talk about the complexity, dimensions, and range of experiences around this seemingly simple theme.”

Allowing overlooked voices to speak out

Krishnan hopes the anthology can help introduce much-needed nuance into social and political debates.

“I hope these stories allow the reader to become a better ally — to be able to look on a situation unfolding and understand its nuances and its politics in a bit more of a sensitive manner,” she says. “It opens other lived experiences to the reader, and it gives you an insight into other identities in a deeply personal way.”

“I hope these stories allow the reader to become a better ally — to be able to look on a situation unfolding and understand its nuances and its politics.”

And in foregrounding a cohort of talented South Asian women, queer, and nonbinary artists, Kadak will further its mission of amplifying voices that have historically been muted. “We want to speak in our own voices about things that we feel affect our lives,” Krishnan says. “We’re reclaiming authorship for ourselves.”

Rebecca Hiscott

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