Pritika Chowdhry’s Counter Memory Project uses art to challenge war on terror narrative

In today’s world, where connectivity has increased, making the world a smaller place has left many to feel “untouched” and “unloved” by the problems of others. While social media websites have allowed uncovering socio-political issues unprecedented due to the free flow of information that did not exist prior, the challenge remains even greater than before. As humans, and being part of a globalized world & community, our access leaves us quite overwhelmed and disconnected rather than making us more concerned about our surroundings.

To overcome this, artists are doing a splendid job as they understand the power of art, which has existed historically as earlier as the oldest cave paintings now can be found in the mountains of Armenia. Art allows evoking emotions while at the same time not telling the people exactly what to do. Human engagement with a thought-provoking work of art helps us as individuals to connect with our senses, mind, and body. Very similar to that of a good movie, a TV show, a play, a poem, or a fiction novel that allows to “feel” the sufferer’s pain. Art is rather thus more powerful as one can see the physical aspects right before their eyes. The evoked feeling(s) helps to develop thinking about the issue and, at times, consider a well-needed action.

This is why it becomes important for the artists of today to increase their responsibilities and help people understand the much-needed call for action. The work of Pritika Chowdhry is a great example. Pritika is an artist, curator, and writer. She was born and brought up in India and is currently based in Chicago, IL, United States of America. She has a great portfolio of past exhibitions and awards. Her artwork is featured in both public and private collections depending upon the topic she’s covering.

“Counter Memory Project” is one of her recent projects featured on the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, which shocked the entire world. The main focus of Pratika’s in this project is to highlight the loss of life which Iraqi and Afghani civilians endured as the ongoing US efforts to curb terrorism. More than 46,000 civilians have died in Afghanistan from 2001 till 2021 by all sides, and thousands more have been injured, with 2.2 million displaced. The numbers are even more frightening in Iraq as over a million lost their lives, with 3.5 million to 5 million left displaced due to the war.

To understand Pratika’s work, it is vital to understand what counter-memory and what anti-memorial are. As defined in Michel Foucault’s counter memory exhibition, counter-memory is an act of resistance against the official versions of history and memory. On the other hand, anti-memorial is defined “as an aim to not to console but to provoke, not to remain fixed but to change, not to be everlasting but to disappear, not to be ignored by the passers-by but to demand interaction, not to remain pristine but invite own violation, and not to accept the burden of memory graciously but to drop it at the public’s feet” by the author James E. Young.

Pritika’s work helps to touch some of the topics that include the US’s foreign policy in relations with the Middle East and South Asia; as a whole the Muslim countries in the region, the artwork looks at the why some lives [referral to the US lives] are important over the others, how is anti-memorial vs. a regular memorial being defined, and how the Counter Memory helps to answer these much-needed questions. Adding to the recent withdrawal of US and allies from Afghanistan, leaving behind chaotic scenes of refugees trying to flee from the country, Pratika adds, “America and Afghanistan are back to where they were about 20 years ago, as the mounting refugee crisis is all enmeshed within the US’s policies.

Pratika’s work also helps to challenge the notion which one finds at the 9/11 memorial where only the lives of 2,983 lost are mourned; however, her 9/11 anti-memorial known as “Ungrievable lives: the ghosts of 9/11” is a project curated to help visitors acknowledge the true cost of the war on terror, which made actually to fight the attacks of 9/11. The loss of precious and innocent lives due to “collateral damage” is something that many must consider. All actions have consequences, and if those actions are not considered to talk about, they will be forgotten in the public’s eyes. The project, therefore, not only provides a reminder to the public about the ugly face of the war on terror but also raises the question as to why American lives are considered to be the “grievable ones.” In contrast, other lives are ignored when under the UN’s Charter of Human Rights, Article 1 states: all human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights.

In one of the displays, Pratika uses a gold bar with one of its end featuring 1 of 2,983 referring the American lives as the “gold standard,” while on the other side of the display can be found a slice of Halal meat referring to the Muslim lives lost in the War on Terror.

The gold bar has more weight on the weight-measuring device as opposed to the other side. The purpose is to draw public attention and refer towards the ugly fact that comprises the American lives being more important than the others.

The work of Pratika helps to question the status quo. The project is important not just within the community but also beyond as it helps the public see how many lives were lost and how many could have survived if the actions were changed. Terrorism is a global issue, and many Muslim countries have lost more than the US, but only the US’s lives are talked about in the global press. Art has power, and artists like Pratika understand the right usage for that power who is helping the public educate themselves about the human cost of the War on Terror.

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