Homelands – Art from Bangladesh, India and Pakistan
Kettle’s Yard, Cambridge
12 November 2019 – 2 February 2020
The borders demarcating India, Pakistan and Bangladesh are amongst the most heavily militarised in the world, cleft by the clumsy Partition of British dominions in 1947. In South Asia, Independence Day is celebrated with military parades and paper flags. Every mid-August, when the anniversaries roll around, the British media focus on individual recollections from cultural figures of South Asian descent; Salman Rushdie and others contribute personal anecdotes, exchange Raj tales. Why aren’t we angrier? Why are we polite, eager to participate, willing to tell our stories in a few rooms, a few column inches? Why don’t we make louder noises? I ask this question of myself and of my colleagues, as we occupy narrow but hard-won space within South Asia departments and research centres.
Curated by Dr Devika Singh at Kettle’s Yard, Homelands – Art from Bangladesh, India and Pakistan, avoids surveying a historic moment; eschewing grand narratives, the project links artists focussed on complex micro-histories. Nevertheless, this concise exhibition attending to nation in South Asia has to think along the messy borderline. ‘The plain historical fact that the emergence of post-colonial nationhood was determined by prevailing arrangements of colonial power – the dismantling of empire – is frequently played down.’ The straightforward title, Homelands, is in fact an epistemic clue, referencing seminal texts of postcolonial theory and literary criticism by Homi Bhabha and his contemporaries – Imagined Communities (1983) by Benedict Anderson and Rushdie’s Imaginary Homelands (1991) – on the construction of nation and formation of identity.
Kettle’s Yard, the exhibition venue, was a bequest of the collector Jim Ede (1895–1990), who left the Tate to travel, returning to establish a collection in his Cambridge home. In a parallel archive exhibition curated by Alina Khakoo, a letter Ede wrote while on a tour of duty in Kashmir describes ‘a land of beauty and joy’. Downstairs, photographs by Sohrab Hura and an installation and performative drawing by Nikhil Chopra express Kashmir’s traumatic present, endless fear and repression due to a turf war between two heavily militarised nations. Hura quotes his Kashmiri friend Sajad in the catalogue, ‘Rivers of blood would flow here’. Chopra’s costumed alter ego, Yog Raj Chitrakar, renders drawings in the style of Victorian plein-air sketches onto the museum wall in lipstick and kohl, shedding the tailored waistcoat and stockings of a Victorian dandy, his performance perhaps the clearest allusion to the double bind of the postcolonial subject. What transformed Kashmir? Who is responsible? Who drew this line that turned joy to blood?
Neon flowers, Efflorescence (2015) by Iftikhar Dadi and Elizabeth Dadi, lead in from the street and greet us at the door. The flower as national emblem seems benign, even quaint – but given the trenchant populism and religious jingoism of recent times, the reference to the bloom of disease warns against the seductive appeal of ethno-nationalism. Bani Abidi finds humour in the Indo-Pak rivalry over music and mangoes, differences constructed and upheld by state-run media. Her videos from 1999 to 2001 feel charmingly innocent in a present where private news and social media have transformed propaganda into entertainment and zealous patriots into trolls. Zarina Hashmi’s prints These Cities Blotted into the Wilderness (Adrienne Rich after Ghalib) (2003) mark the emergence of ‘Muslim’ as marker of identity post-9/11 and catalogue the cities where Muslims were affected by conflict – Grozny, Baghdad, Kabul, Sarajevo.
Invited to document the Rohingya at Cox’s Bazaar in Bangladesh (the world’s largest refugee camp) within a few short years of the conflict in Myanmar that forced this Muslim population to flee, Munem Wasif resisted the demand to exploit individual human stories – instead cataloguing the few objects they had carried: a phone, a homemade torch, cosmetics, photos. Reticence is resistance in Seher Shah’s prints Arguments from Silence (2019), which reference Gandhara sculptures in Chandigarh, half of the collection divvied up after independence, haunted by multiple presences; of historic disruption and the slow disappearance of a civilization that bridged Asia; the archaeologists that extracted artefacts from sites across North India into Kipling’s Lahore Museum; the aspirations of Mulk Raj Anand and Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, who invited Le Corbusier to design the modern museum where they are now housed; Shah herself, witnessing the spectacular collapse of secular India. In contrast to the silence of stone sculptures, Shilpa Gupta’s mechanised sculpture Song of the Ground (2017) is made of two river stones from the Teesta river on the border of Bangladesh, which thwack loudly together in a clap that echoes loudly in the gallery. I appreciate the startling noise.
I worked with Hammad Nasar on the exhibition Lines of Control: Partition as a Productive Space from 2008–2012, an opportunity to bring artists from South Asia together. The bloodshed, lost homes, broken histories and bonds, the very idea that this ugly history could be rendered productive was unsettling. ‘Productive’ did not encompass ritual humiliation at immigration counters, the loss and horror, my yearning. I felt a twinge of that familiar discomfort at Kettle’s Yard. Many of these artists were familiar from my previous research, and the conference organised around the show in January, where both Nasar and I were invited to speak, was also a warm reunion. Ironically, we cannot easily meet in India, or Pakistan, or Bangladesh, so it is precisely through these exhibition platforms that South Asian artists and researchers are allowed limited contact. Is that why we keep making them? I remember watching the play Drawing the Line at the Hampstead theatre a few years ago, which portrayed Sir Cyril Radcliffe drinking whiskey as he clumsily carved up my homeland, floodlit bright lines that can be seen from space. I see images of statuary falling, and the metal box that has been raised to protect Robert Clive’s statue at Whitehall. It is not just the bronzes and the biased and incomplete histories that are troubling, but also the inherent institutional complicity which only hints at but holds back from directly confronting precisely how the waters of paradise were turned to blood. After all, we are guests in Ede’s home.
Nada Raza is Curatorial Advisor to the Alserkal Arts Foundation and a doctoral candidate at The Courtauld Institute of Art. She was the founding Artistic Director of the Ishara Art Foundation in Dubai, where she curated Altered Inheritance: Home is a Foreign Place with Shilpa Gupta and Zarina Hashmi, and Body Building, a thematic exhibition of lens-based work, both in 2019. Raza was previously Research Curator at Tate Research Centre: Asia, with a particular focus on South Asia. She previously worked at the Institute for International Visual Art (Iniva) and at Green Cardamom in London.