A little over seven decades after the Indian subcontinent attained freedom, this exhibition showcases the work of 17 artists of South Asian descent living in the United State.
Art Radar also talks to Dr Arshiya Lokhandwala, an art historian, curator and founding director of Lakeeren Gallery in Mumbai, who has brought together this exhibition at the Dr Bhau Daji Lad Mumbai City Museum, in collaboration with The Raza Foundation.
Beyond conventional notions of home, nation and belonging
In 1947 there were two significant events that transformed the political, social and economic landscape of South Asia – independence from British colonial rule and the partition of India and Pakistan. The transformative environment that was created as a result of these tumultuous, historic moments, was witness to artists from the subcontinent striving to express their new nation states in a visual language that was progressive, modern and free from the shackles of colonialism. That was then.
Now 70 years later, the paradigm has shifted, with the conventional notions of home, nation and belonging taking on an entire new meaning and relevance with South Asian artists asserting themselves on an international stage. It is only fitting therefore that – in this era of globalisation in which migration is under such scrutiny, debate and politicisation – “Beyond Transnationalism: The Legacy of Post Independent Art from South Asia”, and exhibition seeking to understand the many positions of artists of South Asian descent living in the United States, is undertaken.
The exhibition curated by Dr Arshiya Lokhandwala displays the works of 17 artists at a unique location, the 160-year old Dr Bhau Daji Lad Museum, Mumbai’s oldest museum and an important part of its colonial heritage. The erstwhile Victoria and Albert Museum, it not only showcases the city’s artistic and cultural past through a rare collection of fine and decorative arts that highlight early modern art practices, but it also hosts contemporary art exhibitions. “Beyond Transnationalism” is in collaboration with The Raza Foundation, which was established by the master of Indian modern art Sayed Haider Raza (1922-2016) and which has been instrumental in developing new artistic talent in the country as well as funding research into the work of the masters.
The artists whose works are on display include eminent personalities like Aligarh (Uttar Pradesh)-born Zarina Hashmi (b. 1937) and Chitoor (Andhra Pradesh)-born Krishna Reddy (b. 1925), both of whom live and practice in New York City. Also featured are photographer Annu Palakunnathu Matthew, East-Africa-born Kutchi–Turk Indian artist Amina Ahmed, multimedia visual artist Chitra Ganesh, New York-based Afghan artist Mariam Ghani and Pakistani-American contemporary artist Shahzia Sikander.
A striking installation is Zarina Hashmi’s Home Is a Foreign Place (1999) consisting of 36 woodblock prints, each of which presents a geometric monochromatic design, composed of Urdu calligraphic renderings of words that she considers meaningful, such as “axis”, “distance”, “road” and “wall”. The resultant images serve as a visual vocabulary to express feelings of home, memory, and loss and as the artist says:
I understood from a very early age that home is not necessarily a permanent place. It is an idea we carry with us wherever we go. We are our homes.”
On another wall of the exhibition is Brooklyn-based artist and textile designer Vandana Jain’s Fortune (2012), which features a corporate logo mandala of the top 100 global companies as ranked by total revenue by Fortune magazine in 2011. Jain’s work usually explores a cross-section of patterns, symbolism and consumerism, and in Fortune she comments on the interplay of spirituality with capitalism, globalisation and consumerism.
The son of Indian immigrant parents, Canadian artist Jaret Vadera works across print, video and installation to explore the poetics of translation and the politics of vision. On display in “Beyond Transnationalism” is No Country’(2014), a work from his “Pangea series” in which he examines the relationships between representation, power, violence and territory. Also on view is Vadera’s digital video installation On Kings and Elephants (2015), in which a robotic narrator reads different English translations of the story of the Four Blind Men and the Elephant at the heart of which lies an enduring warning against the trappings of ego, religion and certainty.
Her works originate from encounters and experiences – an image, icon or gesture – that are manipulated by the artist transforming its scale, function or medium. In the last few years, Abbas’s primary investigation has been to employ the visual language of religion and contemporary acts of devotion to addressing transformation and individual experience within a changing society.
It is this personal exploration of the past in the contemporary context of home, family, religion, nation, identity and belonging that is evident in the works of all 17 artists that are on display at “Beyond Transnationalism”.
Art Radar spoke to author, art historian and curator Dr Arshiya Lokhandwala about the conceptualisation of the exhibition and her own vision in its implementation.
“Beyond Transnationalism” celebrates the work of 17 artists of South Asian descent living in the United States and attempts to understand their many positions. What was the genesis of the exhibition?
I was approached by the Raza Foundation to curate a show for ‘Raza Utsav’ to take place in February 2018. Having curated “India Re-Worlded: Seventy Years of Investigating a Nation”, I proposed doing a show of artists of US origin and their relationship with India. Tasneem Mehta, the director of the Dr Bhau Daji Lad City Museum, on seeing the exhibition invited me to present at the museum. I was able to expand the exhibition and include the work of Shazia Sikander, Mariam Ghani and Rina Banerjee.
You mention in your curatorial note that “Beyond Transnationalism” “doesn’t seek to answer, but rather to ask timely questions” (PDF download). What are these questions and why do you feel it is critical to ask them in today’s context?
As stated in my curatorial statement, the exhibition seeks to go beyond the label or term ‘diaspora’ (to disperse or to scatter its geography, or its complex geopolitics) as the artists in the exhibition no longer connected to it. Hence the show propositions geopolitical questions beyond the conventional notions of home, nations and belonging, as a palimpsest of varied lived experiences, interactions and relationships no longer unnecessarily tied only to nations. This exhibition is one of the first that seeks a new articulation that addresses these concerns, a shape-shifter and particularly of great historical value as it’s the first exhibition of its kind to show these artists, in this manner, in India.
As a writer who writes on feminism, amongst various other subject areas to do with the arts, is the choice of primarily women artists a deliberate one? Or do you feel that it is more important to use a female voice while exploring the experiences of those who have lived through multiple narratives?
No, as a curator, unless intended, I do not choose artists based on their gender. While doing the research, I choose artists whose works resonate with what I am trying to convey. It could have been that there were more women, but it was clearly because the work fit within my curatorial narrative.
Further to the previous question, how did your choice of artists and individual works come about?
New York City is a familiar place for me, having lived there during my PhD years. Furthermore, most of the artists are known to me and I am familiar with their practices. Nevertheless, I did come to NYC last year for a research trip for the show, during which I met and had long conversations with the artists. Earlier, when I began working on the show, I was viewing it as a diaspora exhibition. But after several conversations with them, it propelled me to take the discourse further, to proposition something along the lines of how they currently felt, given the shift in the world at large.
You also curated “India Re-Worlded” that recently concluded in Mumbai, which also commemorated 70 years of Independent India. Could you share with Art Radar readers what that show was about and how different was your curatorial intent there?
The reason “Beyond Transnationalism“ came about was as a result of me having curated “India Re-Worlded: Seventy Years of Investigating a Nation“. As the latter exhibition investigated how the Indian artist felt about India during the past 70 years, it made me curious to understand how artists based in the United States, of Indian, Pakistani and Afghani origin, felt about home and belonging and how these influences continue to be part of their practice.
With exhibitions such as “India Re-Worlded”, “Beyond Nationalism” and “After Midnight” (a 2015 exhibition that you curated in NYC) you seem to be drawn to the trajectory that Indian Modernism has taken post-Independence. Could you share with us why you feel so strongly that it is a story that needs telling?
As a curator, I feel strongly about my role as an investigator and I’m propelled to bring to the fore questions or juxtapositions that allow the production of new knowledge. While conceiving “After Midnight: Indian Modernism to Contemporary India 1947/1997” (PDF download) at the Queens Museum, I brought together two generations of artists who had not been in conversation with each other. The Progressives (those of whom I showed) who have a connection with New York, having being awarded the Rockefeller Scholarship, and the generation of artists post–1997 who are significantly influenced by globalisation. This juxtaposition worked and allowed the viewers to see India within these shifting paradigms.
As I had been closely examining this timeline within the Indian context of post-Independent India, I think “India Re-Worlded: Seventy Years of Investigating a Nation“ came as a natural step. The show unlike “After Midnight“ undertook to represent the entire historical canon of art, but in a way that had not been curated before, articulating each artist’s practice within a year – thereby inviting 70 artists to ascertain a timeline of the 70 post-Independence years.
The show was conceived within a postcolonial project, wherein I engaged Gayatri Spivak’s theorisation of “worlding”, in which Spivak proposes it as a process of violence that emerges during imperialism, in which the colonised territories get deemed as “worlded” once colonised. By extending Spivak’s provocation, I suggest that the Indian artists post-Independence have “de-worlded” themselves. That they have liberated themselves from earlier colonial positions, dismantling their British colonial legacy and choosing to be “re-worlded” within the postcolonial context – with their own sense of agency and renewed connection with the world at large.
“Beyond Transnationalism“ tells the flipside of this story, from other perspectives such as the positions adopted by US-based artists of Indian and Pakistani origin 70 years after the independence of India and its partition.
And finally, what can Art Radar readers look forward to in the events and exhibitions that you are curating in 2018?
There are several curatorial projects in the pipeline, but one that I am most excited to mention is the first exhibition ever held on the Indian Millennials, a generation born during the Internet era, which will highlight their relationship with art and technology.
“Beyond Transnationalism” is on view from 8 April to 19 June 2018 at the Dr Bhau Daji Lad Mumbai City Museum, 91-A, Rani Baug, Veer Mata JijabaiBhonsle Udyan, Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar Marg, Byculla East, Mumbai 400027.
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- “Asymmetrical Objects”: 10 contemporary Indian artists at Dr Bhau Daji Lad Mumbai City Museum – in conversation with the curators – March 2018 – “Asymmetrical Objects” explores the impact of Age of the Anthropocene on the environment and on biodiversity
- An exhibition of contemporary art acquisitions at Dr Bhau Daji Lad Mumbai City Museum – January 2018 – Dr Bhau Daji Lad Mumbai City Museum presents an exhibition of its contemporary Indian art acquisitions, the first of its kind at the Museum
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