The Sahmat Collective, an Indian art exhibition touring the U.S., is a striking representation of communal dynamics.

“That’s an auto-rickshaw,” a local woman said matter-of-factly to her companions pointing to the three-wheeler parked inside the Smart Museum of Art at the University of Chicago. Shiny red rather than dusty black and yellow, the authentic Bajaj auto-rickshaw came from nearby Wisconsin to help tell Sahmat’s story. The exhibition — The Sahmat Collective: Art and Activism in India Since 1989 — was in Chicago from February until early June and travels to museums at the University of North Carolina and then the University of California at Los Angeles.

The first image in the exhibition is ‘Safdar Hashmi’s Funeral Procession (1989)’, a large black and white print of a photograph taken by Ram Rahman. The photo shows Hashmi’s corpse covered with a hammer-and-sickle flag and surrounded by a packed procession of mourners. Thirty-four-year-old Hashmi was assassinated while leading a pro-labour street theatre performance in an industrial area outside Delhi. His family, friends, and fellow travellers formed Sahmat (Safdar Hashmi Memorial Trust) in the aftermath of this unprecedented onslaught on artist-activists.

The flag signals Hashmi’s party affiliation and Sahmat’s leftist politics. A Bangladeshi man viewing the exhibition told me that Sahmat is a front organisation for the CPI (M). However, Prabhat Patnaik’s essay in the impressive exhibition catalogue describes a more complex and nuanced relationship. The rapidity of Sahmat’s responses to the 1992 destruction of the Babri Masjid and the 2002 attacks on Muslims in Gujarat suggest that it is neither stymied nor stalled by party politics and bureaucracy.

Smart Museum curator Jessica Moss organised the exhibition with Delhi-based co-curator and Sahmat founding member Ram Rahman. Moss first heard about Sahmat several years ago when visiting Delhi with her husband Kavi Gupta, owner of contemporary art galleries in Chicago and Berlin. She was “struck by how the group could galvanise around issues and how little Sahmat was known outside of India.” And thus began her quest to bring Sahmat to the U.S.

Anthony Hirschel, the Smart Museum director, describes the museum’s impetus for organising the exhibit: “India now occupies such a large place in our understanding of the world, it seemed entirely the right time for the Smart Museum to devote a major exhibition to the work of some of its leading artists.” Both Hirschel and Moss also spoke about how Sahmat meshes with two key Smart interests — contemporary art from Asia and ways that artists engage with current social and political issues through their work. Moss added that the exhibition provides a context for more deeply understanding and appreciating works made by India’s “global art stars.”

Sahmat has a rich archive of diverse projects spanning over two decades of activism. Abundance and historical-cultural specificity pose challenges for creating an exhibition accessible to non-Indian audiences. But Moss and Rahman deftly responded by organising the exhibition into case studies. This approach highlights the innovative ways that the trust involves artists and designers to join forces with musicians, poets, dancers, and scholars. It also shows how Sahmat mobilises its resources to reach out to multiple publics and promote secular Indian nationalism and freedom of expression.

The case studies are grouped by theme in Smart’s galleries: Sahmat’s Beginnings; Janotsav (People’s Festival); Children’s Books; Artists Against Communalism; Ayodhya: Demolition of the Babri Masjid and After; Tributes to Gandhi; Gift for India; Art on the Move; Ways of Resisting; Reasserting Secularism; and Free Speech and Defending Husain. The final gallery billows with colourful Sahmat signs and screens a video compilation of excerpts from performances at the annual Safdar Hashmi Memorial and other Sahmat events.

Through the loosely chronological presentation, the artwork, artefacts, and accompanying text offer excellent primary sources on recent Indian history. Unfortunately, most audiences in art museums do not take the time to digest wall-text and captions. The difficulty of engaging with politically imbued art in the museum setting is multiplied when the work is displayed so far from its “native” context.

So despite several carefully worded definitions, the exhibition’s heavy use of the commonplace Indian term “communalism” confounded many non-Indian viewers. Communalism is not used in American political discourse. It doesn’t connote violence or struggle; much less inter-religious strife or religious nationalism. Fortunately, many pieces in the Sahmat show do not require background knowledge or expertise. Instead they rely on art’s power to convey ideas and evoke emotion and experience even when meaning isn’t readily discernible.

The exhibition offers no shortage of works that prompt return for repeated savouring. Gargi Raina and Gigi Scaria contributed two of the many striking works in the 2007 exhibition — Making History Our Own — which marked the 60th anniversary of India’s independence and the 150th anniversary of the 1857 Uprising. Raina’s austere yet visceral ‘The Scattering (Zafran)’ is a set of six prints on paper each arrayed with varying densities of delicate wisps of blood. Scaria’s ‘Details of a Personal History’, digital print of a black and white photograph, evokes the formal calm of a still life. It invites the viewer to visually ponder this workers’ way station — a store showroom under construction with clothes hanging on nails, a bamboo ladder diagonally bisecting half the room, and a patch of marble floor in the foreground gleaming through dust and debris.

M.F. Husain is revered by Sahmat and art lovers across the world as a giant of modern art. Sahmat has organised symposia, publications, and exhibitions to honour him and protest his persecution by Hindutva forces. Like other Sahmat projects with a shared theme, works in its 2009 exhibition celebrating Husain on his 94th birthday display a lively diversity. Pushpamala N. conveys incisive self-assertion in her tableau-like ‘Motherland with Om Flag and Trishul’ while Sudhir Patwardhan combines tenderness and wit in his drawing that gives Husain an extra pair of arms.

In addition to its filial devotion to M.F. Husain, Sahmat organised projects to revive the memory of Mahatma Gandhi.

This reminder of Hindutva’s viciousness is grimly echoed in Vivan Sundaram’s ‘Memorial: Burial 1, 2, and 6’ and ‘Memorial: Iron Pyre (1993)’. These post-Ayodhya works stopped Chicago-based photographer and geography professor David Solzman and me in our tracks. Dr. Solzman gravely pronounced, “This guy doesn’t take any prisoners. His work deals with savagery and god-awful waste.”