Answers from South Asia

A New York exhibition of South Asian diaspora art teases out some important revelations and some trivialities

July 29, 2017 04:15 pm | Updated 10:06 pm IST

The World is Yours, The World is Mine (2014) by Shahzia Sikander.

The World is Yours, The World is Mine (2014) by Shahzia Sikander.

What, if anything, unites the work of contemporary artists from the South Asian diaspora? Is there some thematic similarity? An affective continuum? Or is geography just a convenient rubric to organise an exhibition around? These are some questions raised by ‘Lucid Dreams and Distant Visions’, an exhibition of ‘South Asian Art in the Diaspora’, currently on display at New York’s Asia Society. The show provides useful answers, but they must be teased out.

The first thing to say about ‘Lucid Dreams’ is that it’s an ad hoc affair. There’s work from Afghanistan but not Sri Lanka, Tibet but not Bhutan. There’s much video art, installation, and painting, but little photography or sculpture. As for the term ‘contemporary’, the youngest artist, Palden Weinreb, was born in 1982; the oldest, Zarina, in 1937. The range of quality—more on this later—is similarly wide.

These differences are both more and less important than they seem. On the one hand, almost all the featured artists are concerned with their country’s unique recent histories; this makes it somewhat nonsensical to group them together (what do Afghanistan and South India really have in common?). On the other hand, their varying interests reveal a contrafactual similarity: none of them is entirely, or even especially, interested in a personal vision or subjectivity.

That second point is crucial if we are to define how their work is ‘diasporic’. “It is the dichotomy of my experience that holds the most fascination for me,” the great painter Shahzia Sikander has written. “It’s about how to find a space that’s not personal or cultural but contains both.” Sikander, who grew up in Lahore and now lives in Brooklyn, could be speaking for all the artists on display.

Finding a voice

Her remark points towards a fissure that is also an opening. To migrate is to lose one’s cultural context. For an artist, this makes it difficult to find a resonant and confident personal voice. From the outside, however, an artist can see her context, and how it shaped her, very clearly—far more clearly than she could from within. This is a revelation in itself, and it’s worth artistic enquiry.

The enquiry can take many forms. At its most trivial, the dialectic of self and culture becomes a sort of cultural studies drama. Unhappily, this is true of several works on display. Mequitta Ahuja, for example, has painted a self-portrait that shows her sitting in her studio, nude, inspecting two images that are meant to ‘represent’ the different traditions that inspire her (one is an Egyptian print, the other a Ravi Varma). It’s an interesting idea, I suppose, but absolutely no formal work has been done to give it an artistic existence. Ahuja’s figural skills are trivial; and her brushstrokes have a rather awkward bulletin-board effect. All this makes her reference to Courbet—her painting is titled A Real Allegory of Her Studio (2015)—both obnoxious and embarrassing. Works by Jaret Vadera, Gautam Kansara, and Jaishri Abichandani are similarly weighed down by their didacticism.

Ruby Chishti’s The Present is a Ruin Without the People, 2016.

Ruby Chishti’s The Present is a Ruin Without the People, 2016.

Annu Palakunnathu Matthew’s Anirudh (2006) is more subtle. Part of her series ‘The Virtual Immigrant’, it’s a lenticular surface with two superimposed images (something like a special Pokémon card). One image shows Anirudh, a call centre worker, dressed in standard western clothes; in the other, he is striking a Kathakali pose wearing a dhoti. The abrupt transition between cultures is moving; by speeding up Westernisation, Matthew throws some of its strangeness and melancholy into relief. Yet, the two-culture dichotomy simplifies what is in fact a more ambivalent phenomenon. One wishes that Matthew inhabited a consciousness in transition between cultures, rather that summarised that journey.

Erasing the past

That said, her work points towards a rich subject, the psychology of erasure and concealment, which is taken up, brilliantly, by two video artists, Naeem Mohaiemen and Mariam Ghani. Mohaiemen, whose family hails from Bangladesh, is at work on a large multi-disciplinary project, Young Man Was, that uses film, essay and installation to explore the forgotten history of his country’s revolutionary left. Abu Ammar is Coming (2016) is part of this project.

A six-minute video, it narrates the story of a few Bangladeshi fighters who joined the PLO and were parachuted into Lebanon to die in a senseless battle there. Actually, it’s less about this story than about the story’s erasure, and Mohaiemen’s attempt to piece it together.

In the video, Mohaiemen’s gloved hands parse through evidence on a table: photographs, news clippings, postcards. He narrates over the footage, and his voice is spliced with a haunting Bengali folk song about Arafat. Hybrid art can often feel mechanical, but Mohaiemen’s short video retains its emotion and gravitas throughout.

Following his reflections, our thoughts inevitably turn to other historical events that have been erased from collective memory. The mood is somewhat like an Alexander Kluge or Sebald (though Mohaiemen has a way to go if he wants to match their work).

Ghani, a Brooklyn-based artist, approaches erasure from the opposite direction. Her video installation, Kabul 2,3,4 (2007), consists of three parallel screens that run footage shot from Kabul, in 2002, 2003, and 2004, respectively. All three videos depict the exact same car journey. Together, they are a sort of post-invasion palimpsest.

But the two-culture dichotomy simplifies a rather more ambivalent phenomenon.

Kabul in 2002 looks like a real war zone. There are very few concrete structures, most buildings are emptied out, hardly anyone is around. Shockingly, you even see an abandoned, broken airplane chassis on an empty plot by the road. By 2003, construction is everywhere: no big houses or anything, but large piles of mud, garbage dumps, vegetable markets (foreign aid money?). Kabul in 2004 could be any small town in India. It’s still shabby, but commerce has grown rapaciously. There are petrol stations, garish clothing shops; even a modern, chic office complex.

Moving between the videos, you have the odd sensation that Kabul’s landscape is somehow forgetting or erasing the invasion. Perhaps that’s Ghani’s double-edged point. Development effaces the past. But the past lives within human memory. By giving shape to this disparity, her video opens a space for commemoration.

Kabul’s bombed-out buildings also echo another work, Ruby Chishti’s The Present is a Ruin Without People (2016). A wall installation of found textiles mounted on a chicken-wire frame, The Present resembles an exposed cross-section of miniature caves or rooms. The whole system is loosely shaped like a bird with outstretched wings—a striking metaphor for the vulnerability of citizens caught in the crossfire. Chishti instils this idea with uncanny, warped realism by plugging some of the caves/ rooms with tiny broken windows. From a distance, they look just like the houses on Kabul’s foothills.

Sikander is by far the most technically accomplished artist on display. As an undergraduate, she trained in miniature painting at the National College of Arts in Lahore, and her work conveys the hard-won affective powers of a tradition. Sikander’s subject matter, however, is anything but traditional. Many Faces of Islam, the most straightforward of her paintings, is like a giant game board with the faces of different men and women—Ayatollah Khomeini, King Fasial, Jinnah, Anna Jahangir—that have at one time or another claimed to represent ‘Islam’. Her portraits are naturalistic and exquisite, yet they exude an acid sarcasm. You don’t know what ideology she subscribes to, or if she subscribes to any. She handles matters of life and death with a light touch.

The writer wishes he was a visual artist instead.

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