The Performance Artist Protesting a Decades-Long War by Walking a Cabbage

This is one way to protest violence.

by Brigitte Noël
Apr 13 2016, 6:40pm

All photos by Shahid Tantray

For decades—basically since the 1947 partition—India and Pakistan have been fighting over the ownership of Kashmir, a region that straddles the two countries' northernmost parts. Caught between two nuclear-armed nations, the disputed territory is now one of the world's most militarized zones, with no resolution in sight.

The numbers are hard to pin down, but in the past 25 years, it's estimated that tens of thousands of people have been killed or displaced.

To protest the constant threat of violence and to raise awareness of the struggles faced by the area's residents, a group of Kashmiri artists have begun to stroll through the capital with vegetables on a leash. These acts of protest are based on the work of Chinese artist Han Bing, who started stringing vegetables along back in the early aughts to challenge social conventions and materialism.

VICE reached out to one of these cabbage walkers, who spoke to us on condition of anonymity, to talk about origins of cabbage walking and the human cost of this conflict.

VICE: What can you tell me about yourself and about the inspiration behind this performance?
Kashmiri Cabbage Walker: What I can tell you is that I'm Kashmiri, was born in Kashmir, I am a person of the soil, I can't say son or daughter. It's been more than 25 years since [we were first occupied by the military], and i just thought to myself wow, another 25 years might pass by, so I wanted to do something different.

I'd heard of Han Bing, the Chinese artist and his work, his "walking the cabbage" performance. So I started to do research, then I got to meet him, eventually, and decided to do this seemingly absurd art performance.

What I wanted to do basically is juxtapose the absurdity of this performance with what was happening around—the structures of violence that I was seeing around me, the barbed wire, the military centers, the army camps, the bunkers, the check posts. All these structures of violence that have taken over the Kashmiri landscape.

I wanted to do something countering that, so I decided to walk a cabbage. I decided to take Han Bing's performance—I had seen his interviews online, the New York Times did a whole feature on him, and in it he talked about questioning normalcy. It clicked in my mind, and I thought to myself this is a perfect opportunity to raise awareness of this issue of living in a conflict zone, the world's most militarized zone, with this seemingly absurd and childish act of walking the cabbage.

Tell me about the current situation in Kashmir?
We are stuck in a stalemate situation where basically all the parties who claim to have a stake in the conflict—namely Pakistan and India—for years and years of wanting to talk, of trying to establish talks, have time and again failed. And what has happened is that instead of a diplomatic solution being offered and instead of Kashmiri people being considered part of these talks and considered actual stakeholders in this conflict, the two nations of India and Pakistan have nuclearized.

The civilian population feels like they've been held hostage. We all walk through the markets, through the public spaces and there are men in uniform, the Indian soldiers with their guns, ready to attack if anybody makes any sort of remotely suspicious move.

You don't know how the state and its enforcers, its agents of violence—which is what they are to us Kashmiri—how they will react. It's hard to trust a person when they have a gun in their hand. In 2010 we had more than 120 youngsters shot dead for protesting on the streets, you can't even protest, you can't even congregate in a crowd and march in a peaceful protest.

Why is it important to hide your identity? Would your life be in danger?Potentially, I could be in danger but it's mostly that if I put a human face on this, it will be attributed to me exclusively, the whole "Walking the cabbage" movement in Kashmir, and this figure will become whoever it is that is behind this mask. Then, everybody will say oh, that's the Kashmiri Cabbage Walker, and I don't want that. I conceive this to be a collective identity. There are other Kashmiri cabbage walkers, we're about four people. And so far two of us have done Han Bing's Chinese performance in Kashmir.

More and more of these performances are due to show up. That's the beauty of it. Anybody who picks up a cabbage or any vegetables grown on the Kashmiri soil and does this becomes an artist, that's the beauty of Han Bing's work. I personally think Han Bing is a genius in that sense because when he introduced this performance, 15 years ago, he said the meaning was open to all, that anyone could make of it what they like. I thought this was a perfect opportunity to do something very very absurd in the face of war, in the face of nuclearization, in the face of violence.

As far as I'm concerned, I'm just a civilian and so are all the others doing this. We just want to raise awareness on this fact that there are millions and millions of people stuck under military occupation.

When you walk the cabbage, what kind of reaction do you get?
There are many but the first reaction is that people start laughing, they start smiling, and they're very very perplexed by seeing a person just walking a cabbage, they start staring and they can't take their eyes off it. It makes me really happy when I see people just paying attention to this. It's been taken well.

I really enjoy being able to do this but at the same time one gets very nervous doing something like this. One always has the fear, what will they think, how will they react, and the fear of authority. What if you run into a soldier or a figure in uniform, how will they react to what you are doing? You have to be careful.

So how have the soldiers reacted?
We have tried to be as non-confrontational as possible. The first performance was done within the city center. So knowing beforehand that there would be soldiers in the place—and there were about eight to ten army officers there—we had to be very careful. So I went in my Kashmiri sari, which is a traditional garment, and sat in the plaza with my cabbage on my leash ready to go.

I sat there for about half an hour, with a friend, and we just talked and talked and the soldiers looked at us and would not take their eyes off us. They were perplexed, wondering, what is this person doing with a cabbage on a leash?

So once this sight of me with a cabbage on a leash was habituated, that's when we decided to act and start the performance and walk the cabbage. We did this for 15 minutes because it was a tense situation.

Why is art a good weapon against war?
Art can deconstruct and dismantle weapons and render them to be physical objects. The entire occupation of Kashmir by military forces is one that is operational at a physical level.

It's really powerful, at least to me, that I can just walk a cabbage and basically laugh at the world that I was raised in and born into. I think art has that potential because it's very rhizomatic and comes from all directions, it can incorporate every single thing. What I've been doing with this performance is interrogating the world that surrounds me, the world of occupation, the world of militarization, the world of living between bunkers and living between army camps and what used to be torture centers.

Art is so polymorphous, if someone wants to call this protest art, sure they can call it protest art, people can call it whatever. It's not really my art, it's a performance from a Chinese artist that I borrowed.

I'm just somebody who wants to walk a cabbage and reflect on what is happening around me and there are many others in Kashmir who feel the same way and probably, at one point or another, will walk the cabbage.

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