Virginia Whiles reviews five different exhibitions held across Manchester to mark the 70th anniversary of the South Asian Holocaust and the Independence of India, Pakistan and later Bangladesh.
Spanning across four Manchester museums, eight exhibitions celebrate the 70th anniversary of India, Pakistan and later Bangladesh’s independence. It was commissioned by the New North and South network of ten arts organisations from South Asia and the North of England, with the British Council. As the first of a three year programme of cultural exchanges between cities of the north in England and South Asia, including Colombo, Dhaka, Lahore, Karachi and Kochi, does this spectacular show manage to recognise the heavy heritage of the Partition, so hideously handled by the Colonial Raj in 1947?
The western audience’s common image of Partition is that of trains crossing the Wagah border heaped with bodies, dead and alive. This is the theme selected by Nikhil Chopra for his 48 hour performance in the impressive Museum of Science and Industry. Entitled The Blackening:3157, Chopra’s plan was to set up camp with his Dad in a small tent and draw outlines of bodies in charcoal onto a vast scroll of canvas that he would then cut out and drape as a shroud over the magnificent red hulk of the steam Locomotive 3157. Built by the British in 1911, it was exported to serve on the North Western Railway of India until Partition when it was shunted into use by the Pakistan Railways (curiously returned to Britain as a ‘diplomatic’ gift from Pakistan during the Afghan war). Such stories suit Chopra’s mix of secular and sacred; his practice uses duration to explore the inter-action of everyday rituals and metaphysical reflection involving theatrical transfer, improvisation and humour. Chopra’s performance was the closest to the theme that resisted direct treatment by most of the artists but may well be addressed in future events.
Such manoeuvres to celebrate the ‘Independence’ of India, Pakistan and Bangladesh pose awkward questions. Particularly within the current climate of ethnic tensions when the need still presses for a shared reflection on the trauma caused by the ‘fateful decision’ taken by the British to partition India along allegedly religious lines.
The nightmare slaughter of a million innocent Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs as overnight 17 million refugees fled across the virtual ‘Radcliffe Line’ has been evoked in South Asian literature but rarely in the visual arts, apart from a few exhibitions including Mappings (1998), Lines of Control (2007) and Part Narratives (2017).
This exhibition would seem to treat the Partition as an event to celebrate with as little polemic as possible in order to sustain the myth of its ‘shared heritage across continents’ as a vehicle of cultural exchange through two Arts Council projects with heady titles: ‘Ambition for Excellence’ and ‘Re-Imagine India’…titles that echo a neo-colonialist and Orientalist subtext.
Five artists show in the Manchester Art Gallery
Risham Syed’s works reveal the diversity of her practice, from miniature scale paintings to textile interventions to in-situ installations. Syed sites her works with politicised contextualisation. Her theme is the imperial relationship between Manchester and Lahore’s industrial history in the mid -19th century, at a time when both Marx and Engels were studying in Chatham Library.
Her selected images and materials are markers of the ongoing divide between rich and poor created by the power of money and class politics. In contrast to the elegant architecture depicted in traditional miniature painting, Syed’s small and exquisite paintings portray the ugly villas of the sprawling urbanisation around Lahore. In the splendid galleries housing the Pre-Raphaelite collection, Syed has intervened with provocative juxtapositions such as: History as Past (2014), a finely painted acrylic copy of part of Gerome’s The Great Bath at Bursa (1833) posing black and white women in a Hammam. The oily sexism of this work, exoticising nudity through a racist fetishism honoured as Orientalism, is neatly wiped dry by Syed’s suspended bath towel. Several other installations are performed with a balanced fusion of cheek and grace. Syed’s work subtly extols on the rapport, made explicit by John Berger, between capitalism and oil painting, yet ironically, art collecting remains a crucial status symbol in both Lahore and Manchester today.
Mehreen Murtaza has created a small garden of paradise blooming with exotic plants that seem to sing to the viewer through the magic of electro-magnetic waves attracting plant synergy. The content of her work has moved on from earlier Dadaist digital collage to futurist sci-fi scenarios, multi-layered through a palimpsest of serious research and provocative interventions. Earlier titles such as The Dubious Point of Geography (2012) hint at an ironic approach that barely veils an undertext of profound anxiety, yet this garden has an Arcadian aura that suggests Kew and Monet rather than nanotechnology and nuclear fission.
Waqas Khan is a magician with line and dots: the basics of miniature painting. Paradoxically this was not his major field at the celebrated department of miniature painting at the NCA in Lahore, he chose to study printmaking and no doubt this has inspired his preference for using a radiograph pen rather than the traditional qalam. With no hint of a narrative, his images open onto a floating world where cosmic particles hum in space and magnetic waves slant in chorus lines. Not for him the social flux of the contemporary miniature, his matter is closer to the Sufi raqs of meditation on the void, yet his vocabulary is his own, found through practice rather than texts. His gestural drawing is yogic through the need to unite mind and body through breathing. A gentle giant with huge hands, it is difficult to imagine how Khan handles his tools with such delicacy and stillness. From small to vast sheets of wasli presented at an angle as in album format, his images perform as texts that suggest reading content into the abstract calligraphy. They recall the minimal works of Lala Rukh, the Lahori feminist artist whose production shared a preference for reticence and repetition with Nasreen Mohamedi.
Neha Choksi has a commissioned multi-channel film installation in the top space at the Manchester Art Gallery, a fabulously grand space that invites the viewer to drift from between seven screens since seven different editors have worked on the same footage for Faith in Friction(2017). It is about collaboration, working together with friends on the construction site of a new Jain ashram in India where situations are set up for improvised reactions that explore community tensions. The sonic and visual synchs added to the sense of zany free-wheeling.
Hilarity also envelops The Jump (2015) by Hetain Patel who, disguised as Spider-Man, leaps in slow-motion in front of 17 members of his family in the sitting room of his Grandma’s house in Bolton. Patel’spasticheof Hollywood style production and experimental viewpoints, using both sides of a large screen, might well serve as a metaphor for Partition.
The Whitworth's lavish setting seems to inspire germinal curating within its airy spaces, especially through the show put on by Raqs Media Collective: Twilight Language, their first major UK solo exhibition. The artists: Jeebesh Bagchi, Monica Narula and Shuddhabrata Sengupta have been described as ‘catalysts of cultural processes’. They are difficult artists in their demand for concentration, not so much on the void as on cosmic complexity and dystopian scenarios. Their media is multidimensional in terms of technique and terrain. They dare to ask big questions that defy easy answers and thus challenge preconceptions and provoke reflection. The heroic charge of intellectual effort is relieved by their underlying tendency towards satire, there is much here to entertain and amuse, especially in their play with language and form in such pieces as Planes of Emotion (2011)
The newly commissioned piece : Alive, with Cerussite and Peppered Moth is a stunning example of their elaborate collaboration with architects and software programmers. A vast sculpture conceived through 3D printing about geological and biological time concerning the shifts in colouring of a moth relating to environmental changes due to industrialisation in Lancashire around the manufacture of cotton. Lighter, more accessible and even chewable is the Communard Biscuits (2017) a 3D printed biscuit, borrowed from the People’ museum, scanned, printed and moulded from dough and baked, an iconic relic of the Paris Commune in 1871. The beauty of this exhibition transpires in its careful curation, the evidence of a strong collaboration between the collective and the curator Mary Griffiths is witnessed by her inventive catalogue text.
Upstairs is the small but fascinating show: South Asian Modernists 1953-63, co-curated by Amrita Jhaveri and including the Indian artists more familiar to a British public such as Avinash Chandra, Anwar Jalal Shemza, F.N Souza, Akbar Padamsee, SH Raza and M F Husain,as well as somewhat lesser known artists such as Paritosh Sen, Mohan Samant, Ram Kumar and Laxman Pai. Lacking any specific link to Partition apart from their shared anti-colonial resistance, the show marks the struggle of the Bombay Progressive Artists group as a pioneering movement in Modern Indian painting and their introduction to Britain by Victor Musgrave in his experimental Gallery One space. In 1958 he showed Seven Indian Painters in Europe: London, Paris, Rome. The paintings share a common thread of formalist abstraction, inspired by an international vocabulary linked to the Ecole de Paris since many of the artists spent time in European capitals. Here lies the core of the Progressive artists’ paradoxical search: to manifest a particularly Indian modernism that embraced internationalism. Most intriguing are the photographs by Ida Kar, taken whilst her studio was sited above Gallery One as she was partner to Musgrave at the time. Our limited knowledge of this period was opened up with Tate Britain’s Shemza show last year and will be extended with the 2018 show on The Progressives at the Asia Society. Ironic, in face of the artists’ earlier hard times, is their works’ current status as the hottest blue-chip chapatis in town, as demonstrated in successive editions of the India Art Fair.
Reena Saint Kallat at the Manchester Museum. Yet another jewel in Manchester’s crown of museums, it is the largest university museum with an incredible collection of no less than ‘about 4.5 million items from every continent’. In the light of the theme, such figures make the mind boggle over possible trophies from colonial encounters. The blurb continues to underline its ethnographic approach in its intercultural pedagogical programme. It is thus apt that Kallat’s multi-dimensional practice, including drawing, sculpture, photo and video, envelops the collection of ‘natural sciences and human cultures’. The context offers an ideal seedbed for raising issues of nationalism through symbolism, how cultural identity is forged or invented through imagery and propaganda. Kallat aims to describe how birds, animals, trees and flowers become the favourite images that she subverts by fusing them into hybrids in Hyphenated Lives (2015). Out of this complex has come Cleft (2017), a commissioned large scale wall-piece where the hybrid species fill a warped mandala crossed with wire cables. A sound sculpture Chorus (2017) in heavy metal, based on a pre-radar acoustic device used in WW2, invites the visitor to step between the large dishes and listen to the national birds singing in unison. Such literal transfers, so meticulously worked, evoke laborious homework.
The Tentative Collective, a Karachi based group that operates in public space around social issues such as migrant life, was refused a visa to participate by the British Government. To mark their absence, they left a poster stating: The North and South are STILL divided.