Tarika Agarwal of Saffronart discusses the impact of a Mobile Art Library in Sri Lanka
Open Edit: Mobile Library at Seva Christa Ashram, Jaffna, Sri Lanka, 2013. Exhibition view. Photo: Courtesy Raking Leaves
Mumbai: ‘Open Edit: Mobile Library’ is a traveling archive of contemporary art books drawn from the collection of Hong Kong based Asia Art Archive. The books will travel to locations around Asia, making it possible for broader audiences to access and interact with this unique learning resource beyond Hong Kong.
Preparations for opening of Open Edit: Mobile Library at Seva Christa Ashram, Jaffna, Sri Lanka, 2013. Photo: Courtesy Raking Leaves
Following its first edition in Ho Chi Minh City in 2011, starting mid March all the way till early July, the library travels to Sri Lanka, making its first appearance in South Asia. When it was decided that the location would be Sri Lanka, Raking Leaves, an organization that commissions and publishes contemporary art projects was invited to act as its host.
It all begins in Jaffna, where the books will be housed at Christa Seva Ashram for three months, while the University of Jaffna’s Fine Arts (Art History) and Art & Design departments will integrate the library and its materials into their day-to-day curriculum activities. The project will be accompanied by a series of programs targeting artists, students, creative professionals, teachers, and academics. The project will also invite students and teachers from the Eastern University in Batticoloa and the Visual and Performing Arts University, Colombo, to utilize the rich array of materials in the archive.
Opening of Open Edit: Mobile Library at Seva Christa Ashram, Jaffna, Sri Lanka, 2013. Photo: Courtesy Raking Leaves
The opening of the Mobile Library was held outside the Ashram between the many trees on the ashram’s grounds. There were roughly 300 people who attended the event; a lot of them were students who were very excited with this opportunity that has presented itself to them. A lot of the people are still surprised with the idea that Jaffna could be a place where people or things of any importance come.
When the library moves on, and all the books disappear, its true impact will take time to register. Some of the books among the 400 titles that make up this‘Mobile Library’ are Faith and the City: A Survey of Contemporary Filipino Art; A Strange Heaven: Contemporary Chinese Photography; The Geeta Kapur Reader; editions of Yishu; China Post–1989; Currents in Korean Contemporary Art; six years worth of Art Asia Pacific’s“Almanacs” and 10 Years of Video Art in Indonesia 2000–2010. By the time the library closes and the books are returned to AAA Hong Kong, it is anticipated that the collection will have been seen by over 1,500 art and design students, art professionals, teachers and of course the members of the Sri Lankan public.
New York: The exhibition, No Country: Contemporary Art from South and South East Asia represents the diversity of contemporary artistic practice from the region by way of a selection of work by twenty-two cross-generational artists. “No Country” implies borderlessness and that is the very essence of this show. In recent years, we have seen American museums such as the Rubin Museum of Art and the Asia Society host surveys of art from specific regions, whether it is modern and contemporary Indian art or Pakistani art, but this is probably the first time an American museum is showcasing a collective survey of South and South East Asian art . It facilitates a new way of seeing South and South East Asian art as an important part of and within the larger international contemporary art scene.
The curator of the show, June Yap, in her introductory note stresses on the choice of title adapted from a W.B. Yeats poem, a phrase that reads “No Country for Old Men” the show’s purpose, “to propose an understanding of regions that transcends physical and political boundaries”, and its outcome, “…it confirms that South Asia’s contemporary art is multifarious and highly evocative.”
It is noteworthy that the works in the show are part of a larger body of work acquired by the museum through funds made available by the Swiss bank, UBS, the main sponsor of the MAP initiative. The museum itself is representing a strong pan-Asian focus with its Manhattan flagship currently peppered with exhibitions of artists from the region. Of a total of six shows currently on view, four center around Asia – a retrospective of Gutai, Japan’s most influential avant-garde post-war collective, a solo show of New York based artist of Indian origin, Zarina Hashmi, an installation by Danh Vo, a Vietnamese artist living in Denmark, and the No Country exhibit. More so, the museum has recently announced the inauguration of another initiative to further the discourse on contemporary Chinese art. The Guggenheim is joined by other museums in New York to focus on contemporary art from Asia, most noteworthy among which are of course the Rubin Museum and the Asia Society and more recently the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The Met has roped in noted Pakistani contemporary artist, Imran Qureshi to create a site-specific work atop its Iris and B. Gerald Cantor Roof Garden (which has previously hosted works of international contemporary artists such as Tomas Saraceno). Such initiatives speak volumes about where the attention of the international art world is. Economics, of course has played a prominent role in defining this focus. But it is not limited to that. South and South East Asian Nation States have been challenging the western world’s monopoly in many disciplines, as is illustrated in the international art market in recent years.
What strikes most about the exhibition is the innovative selection of artists, more biennial regulars that art market favorites. It is a surprising selection but a very refreshing one. The twenty-two artists are from the length and breadth of the region including India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Indonesia, Myanmar, Thailand, the Philippines, Malaysia and Vietnam. The works largely address effects of colonization and globalization on national identity. Many of these nations have similar pasts, as a result of which, all the works speak to each other in a collective way.
Among the works that stood out for me were Navin Rawanchaikul’s 2009 canvas titled “Places of Rebirth” and Bani Abidi’s“The boy who got tired of posing”. Rawanchaikul is a Thai artist whose ancestral roots are in the Hindu-Punjabi communities of present day Pakistan. He holds a Japanese permanent resident status. In this iconic canvas rendered in quintessential Bollywood hand-painted hoarding style, the artist explores his personal identity. The canvas reads “A lonesome son of Hindu Punjabi diaspora and product of cross-cultural negotiation….From remote villages of Punjab to Northern Thailand…then a return after 60 years of wonder.” In the center, one sees the artist himself, with his Japanese wife and daughter riding the Tuk Tuk (ubiquitous Thai taxi and important symbol of the country’s tourism). The vehicle bears all three flags of the artist’s identity- India, Pakistan and Thailand. The Tuk-Tuk driver wears a cap “anywhere, anynavin” evocative of the impact of migration, colonization on individuals alike. This is a documentation of the artist’s first trip to Pakistan since his family moved out. The panoramic canvas is a humorous cinematic tale infused with symbolism from the history of India and Pakistan and the relationship of the two nations. You thus see pictorial anecdotes such as Khushwant’s Singh famous book on the partition of India, “Train to Pakistan”, a guard from the “lowering of the flags ceremony” at Wagah border, Pakistani truck art etc. At the center of most Rawanchaikul’s works is the notion of collaboration which we see here as well in the form of credits in the lower half of the canvas. The title points to the artist’s attempt to reconstruct the place where he is now as a site of rebirth.
Bani Abidi’s “The boy who got tired of posing” is a three – part photo and video installation centered around an eighth century Arab war hero, Mohammad Bin Qasim, credited to be the first colonial founder of Pakistan owing to his victorious invasion of Sind in 711 CE. The video has humorous undertones. Through three imagined narratives – a series of studio photographs of a young boy posing as Bin Qasim, a video clipping of a TV drama on in Qasim’s conquest of the Sindh telecast in 1993, and present day photographs of a young man believing himself to be Bin Qasim – Abidi presents her take on the ‘Arabization’ of religious and cultural identity in Pakistan. A Pakistani artist based in Karachi and Delhi, Abidi usually deals with the political and cultural tension between India and Pakistan in her work. In an interview with Nafas Art Magazine, Abidi explains, “by presenting exaggerated scenarios of a nation that takes refuge in a selected glorious past, I hope to engage viewers in questions about the need or the extent to which we limit our identities.”
Other interesting works included Bangladeshi artist, Tayeba Begum Lipi’s Love Bed, a stainless steel structure composed of razor blades and paper clips, exhibited last at the 2012 Dhaka Art Summit; Shilpa Gupta’s 1:14:9, a sculptural piece documenting the numerical data about the fenced border between India and Pakistan; and Filipino artist, Norberto Rolden’s diptych canvas showing an F-16 fighter jet flying over Afghanistan on one side, and a quote by former US president, William McKinley on the other. The work is a commentary on the politics around the colonization of Philippines. Another notable inclusion is a group of three contemporary miniature paintings by Pakistani artist, Khadim Ali.
Complimenting the exhibition is a series of 5 videos/films which are on view on all days except Friday when the New Media Theatre plays host to a special educational film program. I missed this but will definitely go back for these works. Holland Cotter’s review in The New York Times also lists Amar Kanwar’s work as worth seeking out.
All the works in the show are juxtaposed with interpretative captions for the global audience which sometimes leave you asking for more, especially in the context of specific regional references, unknown to an American audience. The exhibition is scheduled to travel to Singapore and the Asia Society in Hong Kong wherein the Guggenheim team will collaborate with curators at these venues to adapt the display to the audiences there. It will be interesting to see how and whether the interpretive materials are transformed for the Asian venues, where the audience is most likely to be more familiar with the histories and references than their American counterparts.
The overall reception of the exhibit is best summarized in this reaction from an American woman viewing the show: “Thank God! No Al Qaeda!” The exhibition, though small, has moved beyond the cliches that have shadowed the region.
Manjari Sihare recommends a short essay on the revival of miniature painting tradition in contemporary Pakistan
New York: Contemporary Pakistani art can be credited for the revival of the age-old miniature painting tradition. Pakistani artist and academic researcher, Murad Khan Mumtaz traces the history of this art form back to Mughal India and shares insights on its evolution. This essay was commissioned by the Guggenheim UBS MAP Initiative.
Imran Qureshi, Moderate Enlightenment (detail), 2007. Gouache on paper, 9 x 7 inches. Photo: Courtesy Aicon Gallery, New York. Image credit: Guggenheim Museum
Despite its strong association with the modern nation of Pakistan, the genre of contemporary miniature painting belongs to a larger history of Indian art. In terms of technique, it is closely linked to the age-old tradition of Indian miniature painting, and specifically to Mughal painting, known locally as musawwari. Both musawwari (which after the colonial period was known as “miniature painting”) and its modern derivative share a penchant for naturalism that is rooted in European influences. During the Mughal era, royal patrons encouraged their painters to assimilate aesthetic principles from the illusionistic vocabulary of Renaissance art. The new emphasis on linear perspective, naturalistic modeling, and individual portraiture was a direct result of the encounter between east and west. However, Mughal artists maintained a strong sense of continuity with the Indian tradition in terms of both form and content.
In the golden age of the Mughal Empire, from 1556 to 1658, painting was an art of the book. Favorite projects included the fanciful illustration of popular romances, royal histories, Hindu and Muslim mythologies, morality tales, and mystical poetry. Also popular were folios recording court life, royal portraits, exotic flora and fauna, and hunting and garden scenes. Under the later Mughals, painting followed similar models but became more static, losing some of the innovative spontaneity that characterized the classical Mughal sensibility.
The British, who succeeded the Mughals as rulers of India, introduced an alien set of values that privileged the western conception of “fine art” over “applied art.” As a result of the new hierarchy, traditional painting and most other indigenous art forms were relegated to the level of craft. The history of contemporary miniature painting is thus rooted in the history of colonialism in India. In 1872, the British founded the Mayo School of Industrial Arts in Lahore in order to stimulate the production of local crafts for the purpose of international trade. Under British patronage, miniature painting was viewed as yet another exotic product; local artists were encouraged to copy portraits of the Great Mughals alongside dancing girls with hookahs and other stereotypical scenes of the decadent east.
After the partition of India and Pakistan, the Mayo School was reorganized as the National College of Arts (NCA). As it remodeled itself according to a modern, European paradigm, the traditional art forms previously taught at the school disappeared, with miniature painting barely subsisting. In 1982, Bashir Ahmad, a student of one of the last traditional master miniaturists in the country, succeeded in introducing it as a major subject in the fine art department. Over the last two decades, the program has become the most successful in the school, and the work of graduating students remains in demand from international dealers and collectors.
Murad Khan Mumtaz’s studio in Charlottesville, Virginia, January 2013. Photo: Murad Khan Mumtaz
However, in order to survive within a contemporary art institution, miniature painting had to be modified and “modernized.” Consequently, the traditional master-disciple relationship has been sacrificed. Instead, the intensive apprenticeship that formerly unfolded over decades has been condensed into two to four academic years. On one hand, the academic format in Pakistan has allowed miniature painting to survive and evolve; on the other hand, students of the practice can hope to build only a superficial understanding of the tradition.
Even though the essential techniques of Mughal musawwari have been disseminated, material knowledge has undergone a process of abbreviation. For example, students are no longer taught the traditional way of preparing wasli paper; instead, cheap, mass-produced paper is used. Knowledge of pigment preparation has followed a similar course of departure from tradition. As well as zinc white—safaida—which continues to be used as the vehicle of opacity for all pigments, students rely on imported commercial watercolors. Current students’ lack of exposure to traditional material preparation has led to a marked indifference toward craft. Perhaps this is one reasons why it has been inevitable for NCA miniaturists to break from traditional models.
Partons’ recent focus on contemporary practice has also served to widen the gap between traditional practice and its current manifestations. In a global art economy, miniaturists are now encouraged to invoke “ethnic” aesthetics; however, paradoxically, they continue to be influenced by and judged according to an established European canon.
New York: A few weeks ago, I shared an article by Susan Hapgood on performance art in India commissioned for the Guggenheim’s UBS MAP Initiative on South East and South Asian Art. The exhibition, No Country: Contemporary Art for South and Southeast Asia, features works of some of the most compelling artists and collectives in South and South East Asia today. It is on view at the Guggenheim, New York, until May 22nd, after which it will travel to the Asia Society Center in Hong Kong followed by a venue in Singapore, details of which are yet to be confirmed. All the works in this exhibition have been acquired by the Museum for its permanent collection. The exhibition’s title is drawn from the opening line of the William Butler Yeat’s (one of the foremost figures of 20th century literature) poem “Sailing to Byzantium” (1928) that is referenced in the title of American novelist, Cormac McCarthy’s 2005 novel No Country for Old Men. The use of this title brings forth the concept of a culture without borders. The concept has been emulated on the exhibition webpage, which hosts a series of essays on the different facets of art creation from South and South East Asia. June Yap, Guggenheim UBS MAP Curator, South and Southeast Asia, introduces the project in this video. We are thankful to the Guggenheim Museum for sharing this content on our blog.
Here is an article by Mumbai based cultural theorist and curator, Nancy Adajania, discussing two Indian institutions who have largely facilitated the creation of cultural knowledge in post-colonial India, Gallery Chemould in Bombay (now Mumbai) and the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies (CSDS), New Delhi. In the coming weeks, we will be re-posting more essays from this series, and also a review. Stay tuned.
Nikolaus Hirsch and Michel Müller with Cybermohalla Ensemble, Bureau of Contemporary Jobs in the Cybermohalla Hub at Sarai Reader 09: The Exhibition, Devi Art Foundation, Gurgaon, 2012–2013. Photo: Shamsher Ali . Image credit: Guggenheim Museum
Rather than conduct a general survey of contemporary Indian art, I would like to draw attention to two major and formative histories of artistic production and the creation of an infrastructure of cultural knowledge in postcolonial India. These histories, which have not so far received the appropriate degree of critical attention in the Indian art world, were brought dramatically to light by two recent events: first, the death of Kekoo Gandhy, founder of Gallery Chemould, Bombay, one of India’s earliest commercial art galleries; and second, by the fiftieth-anniversary celebrations of the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies (CSDS), New Delhi, a transdisciplinary research institute devoted to the social sciences and humanities.
The Progressive Artists Group surrounded by supporters at the Bombay Art Society Salon. Photo: Courtesy Chemould Prescott Road, Mumbai. Image credit: Guggenheim Museum
Why link two institutions—Chemould and CSDS—that, at first glance, appear to have little in common? Both were founded in 1963 and embodied the impulses of a late Nehruvian modernity, with its simultaneous emphasis on a self-critical national renaissance and an internationalist expansion of horizons. Both institutions have made important contributions to the production and sustenance of a lively public sphere, building coherent communities around themselves: while Chemould was active in mobilizing both the art world and civil society, CSDS has worked in a hybrid space between scholarship and activism.
Khorshed, Shireen and Kekoo Gandhy outside Gallery Chemould, Mumbai. Photo: Courtesy Chemould Prescott Road, Mumbai. Image credit: Guggenheim Museum
Kekoo Gandhy (1920–2012) was a visionary and cultural catalyst who shaped the contours of Indian modernism by generating cultural infrastructure. His tenacious lobbying for private and state patronage resulted in the foundation of the Jehangir Art Gallery and the Bombay branch of the National Gallery of Modern Art. A cultural entrepreneur of great foresight, Gandhy first brought visibility to the works of modernists such as K. K. Hebbar, S. H. Raza, K. H. Ara, and M. F. Husain, exhibiting them at his framing shop, Chemould Frames, in the 1940s and ’50s. From the early ’60s onward, Gallery Chemould, which he cofounded with his wife Khorshed, was housed on the first floor of the Jehangir Art Gallery, Bombay’s first public gallery. Chemould’s small space, which hosted exhibitions of work by significant artists including Tyeb Mehta, Bhupen Khakhar, Nalini Malani, Vivan Sundaram, Atul and Anju Dodiya, and Jitish and Reena Saini Kallat, greeted the visitor with a table for conversation before curving away toward a wall of paintings. At this table, Gandhy shared his dreams of political and cultural freedom with artists, cultural producers, lawyers, and activists.
Gallery Chemould does not fit into a classical gallery ecology because Gandhy did not see the production of art as separate from larger political and cultural questions. During the Emergency (1975–77), when an authoritarian regime muzzled dissent and imprisoned those in opposition, the Gandhys sheltered activists in their home. During the 1992–93 riots in Bombay, when Hindu majoritarian militants targeted the city’s Muslim community, Gandhy contributed actively to the mohalla committees—neighborhood groups that promoted interreligious amity. Whether by presenting subaltern artists for the first time at his gallery (Warli artist Jivya Soma Mashe’s exhibition in 1975, for example) or by helping secure the secular ideals of the republic, Gandhy devoted his life to the pursuit of equity and justice.
Both Gandhy and CSDS (which was founded by political scientist Rajni Kothari and funded mainly by the Indian Council of Social Science Research) believed in sustaining and strengthening Indian democracy—still a work in progress. Early on, academics at CSDS polemicized Western theoretical models of modernity, instead advocating the approach of multiple modernities. After the Emergency, Lokayan, which was linked to CSDS, propagated non-party politics and worked with social movements at a grassroots level, nurturing civil-society activists such as the environmentalists Vandana Shiva and Medha Patkar, who would go on to develop and articulate alternative, sustainable models of development.
Sarai Reader 09, curated by the Raqs Media Collective, Devi Art Foundation, Gurgaon, 2012–2013. Photo: Shveta Sarda. Image credit: Guggenheim Museum
Academic research conducted at CSDS resonates in public life, particularly in debates conducted around policymaking and the transformation of the media. In 2000, CSDS’s Ravi Sundaram and Ravi Vasudevan launched the new media initiative Sarai, working in collaboration with Raqs Media Collective (artists Jeebesh Bagchi, Monica Narula, and Shuddhabrata Sengupta), to analyze critically the impact of emergent, informal, and independent media in the public domain. Sarai, true to its name, which is taken from a word for public resting place, has become a refuge and transit point for architects, filmmakers, writers, and artists, and has avoided a narrow academicization of knowledge by adopting multiple methodologies. As a Sarai-CSDS fellow myself in the early 2000s, I found the space to generate alternative contexts for new media art and to test out what Okwui Enwezor has called the “will to globality” expressed by subaltern media practitioners in a post-national context—one in which the old certitudes of nationalism have failed, but have yet to be replaced by new interpretative frameworks.
Sarai, along with the NGO Ankur, gave birth to the Cybermohalla project, which works in the interstices between legal and illegal domains, old and new media, creative pedagogy and art, in Delhi’s working-class neighborhoods. Participants in the Cybermohalla project are today published writers and established media practitioners in their own right. In an art world that tends to fetishize creative output as commodity rather than nurture it as conversation, Kekoo Gandhy and Sarai-CSDS (more informally in the former case and more programmatically in the latter) have attempted to produce new socialities in which the Gandhian, the Nehruvian, and the Marxist, the academy-trained artist and his or her subaltern rural/urban counterpart have generated a discourse through the alternately tight and loose weave of consensus and dissensus. Especially over the past decade, when all value seems to have been dictated by the market, it is important to flag alternative frameworks and platforms that have sustained significant forms of artistic articulation and critical inquiry in the Indian art world.
Nancy Adajania is a Bombay-based cultural theorist and independent curator. She was artistic codirector of the 2012 Gwangju Biennale.