By Quan Hui Lin, Joey
Diploma in Creative Writing for Television and New Media
Being ‘S Raoul’ gave Shubigi Rao access to the art world she would not have had as a woman. (Photo Credit: Joey Quan)
The witty and charming Shubigi Rao is a fan of 10-year projects, such as Pulp – a film, book and visual art project about the history of book destruction and censorship, as well as her alter-ego: S. Raoul, the genius male scientist who allowed her freedom in a world where women are still seen as inferior.
How she became S. Raoul
The first time Shubigi put on the paper moustache that would go on to be S. Raoul’s defining facial feature, she was a student in India playing around with her classmates for a presentation. The moment she put on that moustache, she felt free.
“I just realised I didn’t feel female anymore, I didn’t feel looked at, I didn’t feel judged for being a female and having to perform as female all the time,” she said.
The liberation and honesty that came with S. Raoul made her love being him. He was her guide to getting objective feedback on her work, but it also shed some light on the sexism in the art industry.
Woman with a grand experiment
In 2003, Shubigi gave up her spotlight to her male alter-ego. For the next ten years, she refused to do solo shows, even though she had been “garnering some attention” while graduating with her Bachelor in Fine Arts at LaSalle.
“The idea was I didn’t want that visibility,” she said.
So, she gave all of that to her creation – a historian, scientist and mustached recluse. In return, she was able to access archives and build institutions as a protégé of S. Raoul, a man who didn’t even exist. She could do whatever she wanted, but this freedom came at a price. Now, after killing him off in a “tragic accident” in which he trips over an art installation, and even as a fairly well-respected artist and writer, she says she is unable to access the same things she once could.
Shubigi, who’s been based in Singapore for more than 10 years, was accused of plagiarising S Raoul thrice. When she revealed that his writings were actually hers, she was even told to her face, “that’s impossible, no woman could write this way”. And this is exactly what she wanted to address with this project – the fact that women are judged based on their gender, and not their work. The same critic who praised S. Raoul’s work dismissed hers, even though they were of the same quality.
Now, five years later, Shubigi has embarked on another remarkable decade-long project – Pulp – travelling the globe and collecting anecdotes. Vol I of the project was shortlisted for the 2018 Singapore Literature Prize.
But it has not been easy working without S. Raoul. She has to “constantly justify her right to be in a field”.
And she’s tired of that.
“I could be completely liberated in a way, I could be completely outrageous,” she said of her alter-ego.
Wistfully, Shubigi says that she misses S. Raoul – her convenient scapegoat.