In a hybridity characteristic of her practice, Kallat’s works interact with the Museum’s collection in a thought-provoking dialogue about identity, memory, history and the natural world.
Art Radar spoke to the artist to learn more about her work on show at the Manchester Museum.
A confluence of science and human culture
The art of acclaimed artist Reena Saini Kallat has always celebrated the multiplicity that is our reality – in the social, political and cultural diversity of India, the sub-continent and the world. Her paintings and installations have always skilfully woven a myriad of ideas relating to identity, memory and history resulting in works of art that have engaged diverse materials and technology in order to conflate beauty and embellishment with serious contemplations and conceptual underpinnings.
It is fitting therefore that an artist who has used her practice to comment on the impact of manmade boundaries and the unbounded natural world is exhibiting at the 150-year-old Manchester Museum, United Kingdom’s largest university museum, which displays works of archaeology, anthropology and natural history. Kallat’s solo exhibition is a part of the New North and South network that includes eleven arts organisations across the North of England and South Asia, who have come together in a three-year programme of commissions, exhibitions and intellectual exchange to celebrate shared heritage across continents and develop artistic talent.
Kallat’s show titled “Earth Families” explores the linkages between the human and the natural world, bridging the divide between them with a masterful use of diverse media such as drawing, sculpture, photography, audio and video.
In a series of works on display, juxtaposed brilliantly amidst the Manchester Museum’s rich and varied natural science and human culture collection, Kallat extrapolates meaning out of the institution’s own narrative to project complex histories of conflict and co-existence. Speaking about her thought process behind “Earth Families”, Kallat tells Art Radar:
This has come out of years of my work – years of thinking about communities, the communalisation of politics and my own deep, personal feelings about the legacy of events such as the partition in the Indian subcontinent. I have always been concerned about these long, shared histories that countries have had and how unlike manmade geographies, nature has no borders.
Promoting peaceful coexistence through symbolism
In “Hyphenated Lives” (2015), a collection of artworks that resemble zoological and botanical drawings, Kallat has created hybrid birds, animals, trees and flowers by artistically fusing species appropriated as national symbols in conflicted countries – symbolically unifying the divided nations which are their habitat, through fictive wildlife. The paintings invite viewers to think of the many bonds and borders that make up our complex existence in this world and how we must attempt to resolve the ensuing tensions that have erupted. About the series the artist tells Art Radar:
I felt the need to turn to species other than the human race to tell us how to cohabit the planet, where the existence of one depends on the other or the disappearance of one species affects the other adversely. I often think of these conjoined forms as an allusion to nature’s defiance of artificially imposed, man-made divisions on the ground; a poetic provocation from the past or a proposition for an imagined future where indeed they may reunite.
One of the paintings in the “Hyphenated Lives” series is Ti–khor (2017), which Kallat has conceptualised by combining the tiger, the national animal of India, with the markhor goat, the national animal of neighbouring Pakistan. The work has been placed atop a display case that exhibits ‘Maude’, the Manchester Museum’s tigon specimen, which is a cross between a male tiger and a female lion. With Ti–khor, Kallat uses an animistic metaphor to promote the possibility of unifying apparently incompatible national identities through the dissolution of divisions of species, caste, creed, nations and race.
The juxtaposition of the Ti–khor with the tigon is an intriguing comment by the artist on the meeting of the Museum’s past with her own utopian dream for the future. Kallat says:
It was wonderful to be at the Manchester Museum with my works in dialogue with the exhibits on location. In a way, it was like creating a museum within a museum with my imagined species of hybrids having found their home here. An onlooker might see them in the context as a species that either existed in the past or a proposition for a future – where indeed they may reunite.
It is from this series that Kallat has gone on to produce Cleft (2017), a new work commissioned by the Manchester Museum, where her hybrid fantastical species roam the earth’s geographies of conflict, through intersecting wires made of cables representing the cross-purposes of communication lines and barbed-wired fences – the former bringing us together and the latter keeping us apart.
The cables, a recurring motif in the artist’s practice also appear in Garden of Forking Paths (2016), a panoramic view of a desolate landscape inhabited by the same conjoined species, and in Anatomy of Distance (2014) and Half Oxygen (2014), both of which represent the barriers that we construct in the Indian subcontinent, despite our shared histories. Kallat follows through with her theme of convergence and unification in the newly commissioned sound sculpture Chorus (2017), which has been modelled on pre-radar acoustic devices used during World War II. Viewers are invited to step between the large dishes to hear the national birds of border-sharing countries singing in unison.
A pensive explorer of human existence
It is interesting how the diversity and multiplicity that has existed in Kallat’s own practice, from materials and media to ideas and meanings, is also evident in both the Museum’s centuries-old exhibits as well as the artist’s works on display – thereby making “Earth Families” a befitting stage to showcase the oeuvre of one of India’s most significant contemporary artists, whose work is part of several public and private collections across the world.
Kallat (b. 1973) graduated from the Sir J.J. School of Art, Mumbai in 1996 with a BFA in painting and her practice has spanned drawing, photography, sculpture and video by engaging diverse materials while communicating thought-provoking concepts and ideas.
She has widely exhibited at institutions worldwide such as Museum of Modern Art (MOMA), New York; Mori Art Museum, Tokyo; Vancouver Art Gallery; Saatchi Gallery, London; National Taiwan Museum of Fine Arts; Tel Aviv Museum of Art, Israel; National Museum of Contemporary Art, Seoul; ZKM Karlsruhe in Germany; and Museum of Contemporary Art, Shanghai amongst many others. Her works are currently on show in “Asymmetrical Objects” at the Dr Bhau Daji Lad City Museum, “India Re-Worlded: Seventy Years of Investigating a Nation” curated by Dr Arshiya Lokhandwala at Gallery Odyssey and The Sculpture Park at the Madhavendra Palace, Jaipur. Some of her key upcoming exhibitions in 2018 are at various international locations, including Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney; Kunstmuseum Wolfsburg, Germany; Tate Exchange, London; and City University of Hong Kong amongst others.
Kallat is interested in the role that memory plays, in not only what we choose to remember but also how we think of the past. Kallat has often used in her work several motifs that have characterised her practice – from rubber stamps signifying bureaucratic apparatus to electrical cables that morph into barbed wires. In many of her current artworks, she uses salt as a medium to explore the relationship between the body and the oceans, while highlighting the fragility and unpredictability of existence.
Speaking about the evolution of her practice, Kallat tells Art Radar:
A turning point for me was when I was invited to be a part of ‘The River Biennale’ at the Campbelltown Art Centre in Sydney in 2010. The River Indus and its multiple tributaries was once the centre of the Indus Valley Civilization and an important trading route in the centuries that followed. Today by partitioning the waters of the Indus into India and Pakistan, we are ruling over these rivers, controlling them. Despite this difference, the waters, the sounds the rivers make and their basic characteristics are the same. I collected audio clips from the rivers at various places to highlight this similitude. This started my interest in shared histories that are at the core of my current work.
“Earth families” by Reena Saini Kallat is on view from 30 September 2017 to 25 February 2018 at the Manchester Museum, The University of Manchester, Oxford Road, Manchester M13 9PL.
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