The South Asian Counterpoint
Critic Geeta Kapur has defined Indian and other Asian societies as ‘a civil society, in huge ferment, a political society whose constituencies are redefining the meaning of democracy and a demographic scale that defies simple theories of hegemony’. It can be said that this idea of the ‘society’ resonates with the practice of South Asian art.
Artists can display the values and aspirations of their own societies as well as humanity through their works. While some react with cynicism and even despair, others produce an art of resistance. Over the past decade, many artists in the Asia-Pacific region have protested against colonialism and neocolonialism, global environmental degradation, cultural loss, illness due to poverty, sexual exploitation, social and political injustice, war, violence and racism. In confronting such issues, artists have addressed their art to and involved whole communities in order to help them confront poverty and trauma (caused by both natural and man-made disasters) and preserve traditions and values. In other words, their art contributes to the survival of culture.
The global geopolitical shifts, with the turn of the century, registered an astonishing and defining change in the balance of power towards Asia — military as well as economic. This dramatic turn of events suspended the domination by the First World, driven initially by Europe, then by the United States of America. The South Asian regions have experienced years of colonial subjugation, resulting in a fragmented discourse of history, linguistics, politics, ethnicity, economy and society. The art narrative, therefore, emerging from these regions were highly driven by the colonial thought pattern. The early years of the new millennium have put global relationships, transformed majorly owing to globalisation and more recently by the ‘war of terror’, under scrutiny. The geopolitical and economic transformations have also led to a socioeconomic and cultural upliftment of the region through newly introduced educational patterns and financial scopes.
Biennales To The Rescue
South Asian art produced from Bangladesh, Afghanistan, Bhutan, India, Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka, in the recent five decades, has thus started engaging itself in an alternative thought. This reflects and mirrors the various geopolitical and economic ups and downs and shifts experienced by the region in the past and now.
For instance, Hit Man Gurung, a multimedia artist based in Kathmandu, who has been a part of the travelling group exhibition Dissensus, curated by Gallery Latitude 28 last year, addresses pressing sociopolitical issues of his country through his works. His work, We Are In War Without Enemies, comments on the rather hypocritical behaviour of the Nepal government on rebuilding homes and resettling the earthquake victims of 2014 and the consequent helplessness of the victims who continue to live in harsh conditions. This work encapsulates the complexity of the prominent fault lines: destruction, censorship, money, religion and more. The first Kathmandu Triennale held in 2017 exhibited Hitman as well as other artists (including Sheelasha Rajbhandari, Kailash K. Shrestha and Karan Shrestha, Subas Tamang, Sujan Chitrakar) from the region whose works deal with contemporary sociopolitical contexts and who are all pushing the envelope in terms of scale and concept. The Dhaka Art Summit began in 2012 as a research platform and a forum for artists from South Asia to come together within the region. Its initial goal, according to its founding artistic director, Diana Campbell Betancourt, was “to create a united and dedicated platform to highlight art from the region without any commercial agendas which can often limit the type of work that can be shown, despite the large interest in South Asian art globally.”
There has been an explosion of biennales and other such recurring exhibitions in the Asia-Pacific region, particularly in the past 10 years. Three of the earliest, beginning before 1990, were the Triennale — India, the Asian Art Biennale Bangladesh and the Fukuoka Asian Art exhibitions in Japan. Most include international art along with Asian art; few, such as Fukuoka, the Pacific Arts Festival and the Asia-Pacific Triennial in Brisbane, Australia, are defined by their specific focus on the region. All provide a forum and space for artists from these regions.
The Asia-Pacific Triennial, which began in 1993, is a very good example of the development of a regional consciousness that encompasses countries such as Australia and New Zealand. Zhang Qing, one of the curators of the 2000 Shanghai Biennale, wrote in the catalogue of the exhibition: ‘Art exhibitions are springing up everywhere: Yokohama Triennale, Gwangju Biennale, Asia Pacific Triennial of Contemporary Art (i.e. Brisbane), Singapore Biennale, Taipei Biennial, opening up new possibilities on the international stage. Each show, with a very unique perspective and approach, vigorously examines the status quo and discusses in an interesting way the future of Asia-Pacific culture.’
Another step in this direction is the Platform section of the India Art Fair that has a special focus on South- Asian Art and has showcased art from the Nepal Art Council, Theertha Artists Collective (Sri Lanka), Taseer Art Gallery (Pakistan) and Britto Arts Trust (Bangladesh).
Lahore Biennale (LB01), which was inaugurated this year, saw the participation of over 50 artists from all over South Asia. Amar Kanwar’s video installation Such A Morning was included in the biennale. Kanwar’s work examines power and resistance. The artist experiments with archival footage to explore the hidden dimensions of personal encounters with history and violence, unveiling a critical perspective on reality. His use of documentary footage raises questions about the way stories of war and liberation are told. Another project, Postcards from Home, an ongoing photo project by Manisha Gera Baswani, probes into roots and childhood with an Indo-Pak connect. The photo project, a set of 47 postcards — 25 by Indian and 22 by Pakistani artists — was etched with fond memories of a childhood or youth spent in one’s ancestral land.
As you teach, so shall you reap!
A major contribution to this growth of South Asian art is also the evolution of the art school culture, where teachers and students are ready to explore and experiment more than ever before. Waseem Ahmed, who was a student of the National College of Arts in Lahore, where he was trained in miniature painting, uses his art to explore politically charged issues. His works are critical of the current times and the media’s caricaturing of Islamic identity. He frequently and deliberately uses Islamic imagery, depicting mullahs and the burka to evoke the feeling of discomfort and fear that is already prevalent in our society. Another one of his aims is to represent the contradiction which lies between our life of desires and the transiency of life.
The other notable artists from NCA are Aisha Khalid, Rashid Rana, Imran Qureshi, Mohammad Ali Talpur and Khadim Ali. Khadim was born in 1978 in Quetta (Pakistan) as an Afgan refugee. His family fled Afghanistan to escape the Taliban persecution. The artist studied mural painting and calligraphy in Tehran, Iran and earned his BFA in 2003 from NCA. He later moved to Sydney in 2010 and earned an MFA from the University of New South Wales in 2012. Forlorn Foe, a series of works that were part of Khadim’s solo show at Gallery Latitude 28, takes up the 11th-century Persian epic Shahnameh, where he delivers a complicated narrative of the characters, thus revitalising literature, tradition and history though his art.
Evidently, artists from South Asia are continuing to develop projects and learn and practise new skills. This tends to construct encounters between the (uncomfortable) past and present, as well as provide insights into what the future may hold.