An exhibition at the Menil Collection explores the resonance of M. K. Gandhi’s ethics of non-violence in visual art.
The exhibition, which includes 130 works in various media spanning several centuries, echoes the expansive humanitarian concerns of the Menil Collection’s founders.
“Experiments with Truth: Gandhi and Images of Nonviolence” opened on 2 October 2014, the 145th anniversary of Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi’s birth. The exhibition will run until 1 February 2015 at the Menil Collection in Houston, Texas, before travelling to the Red Cross and Red Crescent Museum in Geneva, Switzerland.
The exhibition is curated by Menil’s Director Josef Helfenstein in consultation with renowned Indian artist Amar Kanwar. The title echoes Gandhi’s autobiography, The Story of My Experiments with Truth (1927).
The ethics of non-violence
The exhibition is the first international project to explore the resonance of Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi’s (1867-1948) ethics of non-violence, or satyagraha – literally ‘truth-force’ or the outward, transformative power of inner peace – in the visual arts, throughout the centuries and around the world.
The catalyst for the exhibition is a carefully constructed, anonymous still-life photograph of Gandhi’s last possessions, which Helfenstein first saw in Gandhi’s autobiography. The curator refers to the image as the “portrait in absentia of a charismatic person [and] an allegory of an extraordinary way of life.”
On show are 130 works of art spanning several centuries to the present, including paintings, drawings, photographs, prints, sculptures, rare books and films. The artists represented are from Africa, the Americas, Asia and Europe.
The exhibition – whose themes echo the expansive humanitarian interests of the Menil Collection’s founders – aims to create a platform for international dialogue on the issues of human rights, compassion, civil disobedience and progress through non-violence.
In the press release (PDF Download), Helfenstein explains the wide range of artefacts and their connection with each other and with Gandhi’s ethics:
There are beautiful works of art and compelling artifacts and documents in this exhibition […] Our goal is to allow for an undistracted, not didactically over-orchestrated experience of these works, in the hope of eliciting a deeper understanding of their dialogue. Together, they speak to an ancient, complex topic that has concerned humankind throughout history: how to deal with and overcome violence through nonviolent means.
Themes of non-violence in the visual arts
The exhibition is divided into six sections with a variety of themes, ranging from the memorialisation of Gandhi and other figures of peace to the 1947 India-Pakistan Partition:
- Gandhi’s final moments and the memorialisation of his predecessors
- Religious traditions of selflessness and compassion
- Nonviolent resistance in action
- Creative responses to a world distorted by violence
- Religious traditions of charity and social action
- The division Gandhi sought to avoid
Works on show in the six galleries comprise historical artefacts, as well as artworks by renowned classical and modern masters (such as Rembrandt, René Magritte and Henri Cartier-Bresson) and post-war and contemporary artists from all over the world. Among the latter are Yves Klein, Jean Tinguely, Marlene Dumas, Robert Gober, Barnett Newman, Robert Rauschenberg, Agnes Martin, Mark Rothko, Andy Warhol and William Kentridge.
From East Asia, Shomei Tomatsu’s photographs from 1961 evoke the nuclear bombing of Japan, through images of humble everyday objects damaged in the blasts. Ai Weiwei’s Feet (2003) reclaims fragments of Buddhist sculptures from China as a testament to the loss of tradition and the effects of destruction.
South Korean artist Kimsooja’s six-channel video installation A Needle Woman, Patan (Nepal), Havana (Cuba), Rio de Janeiro (Brazil), N’Djamena (Chad), Sana’a (2005) sees the artist ‘travelling’ through different places, “as a needle that passes through the fabric of a place and its people.”
From the Indian contemporary art scene, Zarina Hashmi’s works evoke a sense of fragility and meditativeness, while Shilpa Gupta’s 1:14.9 (2011-12) represents the length of the India-Pakistan border in the form of a hand-wound ball of thread.
The Sovereign Forest (2010-12), one of Amar Kanwar’s recent installations, is a research project on the effects of population displacement and environmental degradation on communities in Orissa (now Odisha) in India. His poetic video work A Season Outside (1997) shows the military ritual at the India-Pakistan border and the separation imposed on the people, juxtaposed with texts and images that recall Gandhi’s insistence on non-violence as a form of active, peaceful intervention.
C. A. Xuan Mai Ardia
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