United in scale

Five women artists highlight the diverse ways in which their work engages with history, politics, and societal concerns

November 05, 2019 08:07 pm | Updated 08:07 pm IST

Fabric and panels: Anju Dodiya’s Rehearsal for an Apocalypse

Fabric and panels: Anju Dodiya’s Rehearsal for an Apocalypse

Chemould Prescott Road’s exhibition, 5 Artists | 5 Projects features artworks by Reena Kallat, Archana Hande, Mithu Sen, Anju Dodiya, and Nilima Sheikh. While the artists’ “ideas, forms, and material may not necessarily speak a similar language,” as the gallery’s press note suggests, the works are united by their scale. With the exception of Hande’s arrangeyourownmarriage.com that was displayed at the gallery in 2005, this is the first time that these works are being showcased in Mumbai, providing viewers the rare opportunity to see them in person. While viewers are encouraged to look at the works without forcefully searching for conceptual linkages between them, the exhibition highlights the diverse ways in which art engages thoughtfully with historical, political, and societal concerns. The artworks are as personal or autobiographical as they are successful in encouraging viewers to engage with our times. The show successfully provides a range of perspectives towards contemporary times, while enabling viewers to engage closely with the artists’ recent practices.

Historical hostility

Entering the gallery, one encounters Reena Kallat’s 2019 Enemy Properties, a four-channel video which depicts structures that belonged to individuals who moved to Pakistan during Partition. After the 1965 Indo-Pakistani war, these buildings were classified as ‘enemy properties.’ These include Mohammad Ali Jinnah’s former home and actress Hamida Begum’s Kishori Court in Mumbai, as well as Butler House in Lucknow and Mahmudabad Kothi that were commissioned by the rulers of an estate in Awadh. In the projections, the buildings represented by dots appear like stars, emerging and dissolving slowly. The transient images symbolise, “the physical disintegration of the buildings and the fading memories of Partition that underlie contemporary life in both India and Pakistan.” The videos are accompanied by relief sculptures alongside which the artist has placed sheets of paper on which viewers can trace the buildings. Engaging with the architecture of these innocuous structures helps reveal the absurdity of their association with antagonism. Kallat’s long-term engagement with Partition is intensely personal as she grew up hearing about her own family members who were displaced to India in 1947. It’s through her visually enticing and interactive work that, Kallat reflects on how history and memory are manipulated by bureaucracy.

Challenging norms

Archana Hande’s arrangeyourownmarriage.com employs tongue-in-cheek humour to dismantle the construct of marriage in India. The work stems from Hande’s exposure to societal pressure and issues surrounding gender and caste while she was considered of ‘eligible age.’ She juxtaposes objects and images of honeymoon destinations, items that form a trousseau, calendar art, and posters referring to bizarre rituals in relation to marriage. Her works in the space address questions such as “What are aphrodisiacs? What is sex? What is the excitement of that one month that people spend almost a year preparing for?,” she suggests. The project’s titular website that can be accessed on a computer in a gallery, enables viewers to create their own marriage profile by answering personal and mildly-invasive questions. Hande creates this fictional world, punctuated with irony, to shatter illusory and romantic ideas associated with arranged marriage, exposing the prejudices that the system is premised upon, legally and socially.

Mithu Sen’s Mouth to Myself coalesces her performative and video works to negotiate the construction of an artistic self-identity. Sen places different moments of her career into “an animated dialogue, lapsing, looping, and bending temporal convention.” One can view documentations of her projects such as I am a poet and Aphasia that are meshed together in a formulaic manner suggested by mathematical symbols, to create a new piece projected on a wall. Consistent with Sen’s practice, the language in her films is rendered indecipherable to challenge conventional forms of meaning-making. A mask displayed at the top right corner of the projection alludes to “secrets and self-censorship, betrayals of subconscious glitch, and playful irreverence.” The work compels viewers to consider how their own ways of being are tethered to hegemonic structures.

Anticipating catastrophe

Exhibited at Kochi Biennale, 2018-19, Anju Dodiya's Rehearsal for an Apocalypse is large-scale painting on five panels of fabric combine stretched on ply-board. Dodiya contemplates the end of the world by anachronistically juxtaposing references from European medieval paintings, Cranach’s biblical representations the apocalypse, and 19th century Ukiyo-e-prints that depict samurais engaging in a battle of pencil spears, with real world tragedies such as the fall of the twin towers and the nuclear bombings. “The current global political climate with its constant harping on the dangers of our time and Kochi itself, with its history of visiting traders and Christian missionaries, allowed me to enter this subject-matter,” Dodiya states in her note. Against the drama of the trans-historical anticipation of catastrophe, Dodiya renders herself in the painting, as an actor who, “stands back and marvels at the tragic and the heroic.” Through her use of irony, the work evokes a consideration of how the impending end of time influences the way we organise our present.

Empathy and accountability

Nilima Sheikh’s Salam Chechi, a large-scale painting on wooden panels, was also showcased at Kochi Biennale, 2018. The work celebrates Malayalee nurses “who are sisters to all, and their natural affinity towards one of the most laborious and indispensable roles in the world.” It is likely that most people have been treated by nurses from Kerala who travel away from home and their families to take on nurturing roles, while living in poor conditions. Sheikh’s work documents the tribulations that these nurses face across the world despite their arduous and important work. By honouring these workers whose labour goes unnoticed, the artist characteristically evokes a sense of compassion and consideration towards communities who are rendered invisible.

5 Artists | 5 Projects is ongoing at Chemould Prescott Road, until November 9.

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