Containing Toxicity


As a visual anthropologist, I am interested in exploring the aesthetics of toxicity across a range of environmental and political contexts. What are cross-cultural and culturally specific visual conventions for representing and conveying toxicity? How do we come to visually apprehend toxicity? How too does the visual work with other sensory modes through which we apprehend and confront toxicity? I propose to explore the aesthetics of toxicity in the following sites: graphic signs that signal danger and toxicity, documentary photographs of heavy metal sludge, and depictions of Shiva’s throat in Hindu iconography. For example, the respective yellow, red, and black color palettes of danger signs, as compared to the shiny metallic colors of photojournalistic images of metal waste, and the use of blue to signify poison in Hindu devotional imagery point to differentiations in visualizations of toxicity across forms and contexts. I seek to work with a found images of design blueprints of danger signs, WhatsApp forwards of Hindu imagery, and created images of metal sludge from a film I shot at an iron foundry to understand the relationship the range of visual conventions of toxicity. In thinking through the aesthetics of toxicity across the images that participants in the design project contribute and annotate, I am keen to think about whether and what kind of toxic aesthetic emerges across our visualizations.  

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Found Image: Imran Khan as The One with a Blue Throat

 This Pakistani Muslim League-Nawaz (PML(N)) supporters’ image of Imran Khan as Shiva visualizes a sensational anxiety around the minority figure in Pakistan. In this image, Imran Khan’s face is transposed as Shiva, a chief deity in the Hindu pantheon. Bringing together Hindu iconography and the likeness of Imran Khan, the image conveys a tension around religious minorities and electoral politics in the region. Moreover, the caption text works with the image brings to the fore a critique of personality cults. Before being elected as the Prime Minister of Pakistan, Imran Khan, was an internationally famed cricket player.
     At the center of the image in the foreground, spanning about a third of the frame, is Imran Khan’s slightly tilted face, but with light blue skin, thick gold earrings, a tilak, and flowing black locks with a thick top knot. Alongside are a crescent moon, drum, trident, and cobra. A snow-capped mountain range is pictured in the background; the Himalayas are Shiva's holy abode.  These signifiers come together as a visual metaphor, Imran Khan is god, is a Hindu god.
      The intent of the production and circulation of image appears to have been to stigmatize and mock Imran Khan and PTI's alleged support of and commitments to religious minorities in Pakistan. The religious minority figure in Pakistan both a source of sustenance for maintaining an idealized ethos of an egalitarian Islamic democracy, but also a reminder of the state’s incapacity to be egalitarian in practice. Here, PTI supporters’ alleged sympathies with religious minorities in Pakistan are a source of tension and even suspicion. When first posted on a Nawaz Sharif and Shahbaz Sharif fan page on Facebook, the post included an instruction to "share [the image] and embarrass Imran Khan’s slaves [supporters]." But the image alone is not a clear mockery. Without the caption to contain the image’s excess, the visuals also come together to valorize Imran Khan as god, rather than simply mock his supporters’ or his party. The Urdu caption text overlayed onto the bottom of the image in a light blue font with a black outline constrains the visuals and guides the viewer’s interpretation: “PTI supporters have no faith or honesty, all they have is God Imran (Yuthio ka deen hai na imaan hai, unka sirf Imran bhagwan hain)” The text then works with the visuals to make the image toxic for religious minorities in Pakistan. A comparison of Shiva and Imran is connected with a comparison between PTI supporters and Hindus, who, in their idolatrous devotion of Shiva, among other gods, are pagan and irrational within a dominant Muslim framework. The image caches on such operative stereotypes about Hindus in Pakistan. As such, leading minority Hindu politicians and leaders in Pakistan immediately reacted to a visual substitution of a Hindu icon with the likeness of Imran Khan and worried about the unrestricted spread of an image they considered offensive to religious minorities. 
     Neelakanta, or “the one with a blue throat" is an epithet for Shiva. In Hindu mythology, Shiva is blue because he swallowed halahala, a deadly poison that emerged during an episodic churning of the ocean in a joint effort by devas and asuras toward extracting a special nectar. The poison turned Shiva’s body blue, but the feminine energy of Shakti and Shiva together were able to control the spread and absorption of the toxin. Shiva’s light blue skin, oft rolled-back eyes,  and cross-legged seat offer a contemplative calm in contrast to the deadly toxicity of halahala. The containment of toxicity is an impressive feat. As such, the image also points to how toxicity, or at least the control of toxicity, is a form of power. How is toxicity connected to containment? Perhaps the uncontainability of this image given both its visual excess as well as its circulation on social media contribute to its toxicity.


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Created date

November 26, 2018