The term “intersectionality” was introduced by lawyer, activist and scholar Kimberlé Crenshaw in her 1989 essay “Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex: A Black Feminist Critique of Antidiscrimination Doctrine, Feminist Theory and Antiracist Politics”. Taking several case studies of black women, she shows how the focus on the most privileged group marginalizes the experiences of those who are burdened across several axes of discrimination, often in this manner erasing the multiple dimensions of their experiences. In order to readdress this erasure, she argues for embracing the intersectionality of these identities, “to centre on the life chances and life situations of people who should be cared about without regard to the source of their difficulties.”  Taking this understanding as its point of entry into gender, the recent exhibition All Canaries Bear Watching brings works by several artists from across India into conversation with one another.
Curated by Premjish Achari, the exhibition borrows its title from the book The Miner’s Canary: Enlisting Race, Resisting Power, Transforming Democracy by Lani Guinier and Gerald Torres. Here, the authors reference the miners who carry a canary along with them into the mine to assess its conditions. If the conditions are untenable, the fragile lungs of the canary collapse. When the canary stops singing, the miners become aware of the imminent danger to their own lives. The canary’s life is thus sacrificed for the sake of the miners. The authors develop an analogy where the canary stands for the experiences of the marginalized and, like the canary, these identities become beacons of distress when social conditions are hazardous. Inspired by this metaphor, Achari’s curatorial vision aims to propose intersectional solutions against systems of oppression, as it is driven by a need to actively resist and challenge all forms of misrepresentation, exploitation and erasure. The show includes an extensive range of media forms, moving from the traditional pattachitras of Bengal and Mithila paintings of Bihar to graphic narratives, photography and video works, along with sculpture and even documentation videos made for the project.
Two pattachitras by Dukhushyam Chitrakar and Lutfa Chitrakar, titled “Corona Pat” (2020) and “Ramayana Pat” (2021) respectively, hang together and encourage a reading of time in multiple ways, as it exists simultaneously and playfully in different forms of storytelling. Much in the way the Ramayana unfolds in episodes, we see the pandemic unfold in episodes as people wash hands, wear masks and are house-bound while demon-faced Corona atoms smile menacingly. Another work by Dukhushyam that is on display is the “Maccher Biye/Wedding of Fishes Pat” (2018). Here, fishes painted in deep rich brown hues gather to sing and dance. In a parallel painting, other creatures congregate with their mouths open. In fact, several paintings in this show are populated with animal life and nature, including cows, elephants, deer, etc., apart from the metaphor of the canary that forms the overarching theme. These depictions point to a preoccupation with ecological concerns, as questions of sustainability emerge from the experiences of the participating artists.
The brown ocean world of “Maccher Biye” is placed adjacent to Rakhi Peswani’s “Inflections (Reflections of Land)” (2019), which consists of two pencil drawings dominated by brown colour in the form of blood as it surrounds the figures. The burden placed on women as mothers/child-bearers/receptacles of family honour is brought to mind. The reference to land in the title of the work also conjures up the ways in which women, along with nature, are often the first to bear the brunt of violence when it comes to conflict and control.
The question of land also makes its way to Shilpa Gupta’s “Map Tracing #1-N” (2018-ongoing) which presents a sculpture in the form of an outline of India. One imagines the ways in which the shadows thrown by the wire sculpture might change through the day, hinting at the porosities of borders. The outline of India as an image is also echoed in Ita Mehrotra’s panels from Shaheen Bagh: A Graphic Recollection (2021) as we see the drawing of the vast hoarding in the shape of the country which reads “We the people of India reject CAA, NRC, NPR” that was part of the protests against the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) that took place in Shaheen Bagh, New Delhi, from December 2019 to March 2020. In another panel, a student from Jamia Millia Islamia is seen with her hands in the air as she exclaims “Today it is us, tomorrow it will be the WHOLE COUNTRY!”, bringing us back to the metaphor of the canary as a warning sign.
The father of the Indian Constitution, Dr B.R. Ambedkar, appears as a portrait in Malvika Raj’s work. Rendered in blue and black-and-white in the Madhubani style, “Quantum Leap” (2020) comments on the ways in which Babasaheb’s vision for equality is yet to be achieved. A dream of an equal world is still inaccessible as societal and institutional infrastructures continue to fail. Dr Ambedkar also appears in the songs of Malti Rao, through a documentary video in the form of an interview with Rao in which she talks about her journey to spread the mission and message of Babasaheb through her art and activism.
The documentation of songs is also a crucial part of the Tandel Fund of Archives’ “Dhavlarines: Koli (Fisherfolk) Songstresses of Mobai/Mumbai” which annotates the gradually disappearing wedding songs sung by the Dhavlarines. Pushpa Bhagirath Thanekar sings five such songs, which are accompanied by images in a slide-show format that show the various rituals of the community described in the lyrics. The Tandel Fund of Archives have also mounted a sculptural piece made up of blouses called “The Blouse Tax of Mobai” (2021). Using snippets from an oral history tradition, the accompanying text refers to the tax that was imposed by the Portuguese on Koli women who began wearing blouses, in their attempt to proselytize the locals through dress and its forms of control.
Another work that uses fabric is Ranjeeta Kumari’s “Portraits of Women (Poetry of Resistance)” (2018-21). An evocative installation piece, it consists of 40 saris mounted on wooden frames. Collected from women in Bihar, each sari invokes the story of its owner and wearer. The work highlights their labour in the everyday, which is often taken for granted and invisibilized. Taken together, the piece brings to mind a landscape and cartography mapped through cloth, with intersecting lines and patterns referencing identities and experiences. It conjures up the bodies that are absent, highlighting their commonality as well as individuality.
The theme of family and community is another point of entry to the exhibition. Sudharak Olwe’s black-and-white images are stark, intimate portraits of the lives of Dalit families.Dayanita Singh’s “Myself Mona Ahmed” (2022) presents a montage of black-and-white photographs accompanied by text of and by Mona Ahmed, a person belonging to the third gender, and her relationship to her daughter, Ayesha. Another kind of family space is explored in “I have only one language, it is not mine” (2014) by Mithu Sen where she enters the space of a care home for orphans and children who have suffered abuse. Embedded in her practice of exploring the radical potential of nonsense, Sen posits herself as a being from another world called Mago who is a non-language speaker. The reactions of the inhabitants of the home to Mago offer telling insights into how an interaction with the Other generates forms of inclusion and exclusion.
Currently on view at the School of Arts and Aesthetics, Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), New Delhi, this exhibition is an outcome of a larger project called Gender and Intersectionality on India and its Diasporas (GRID) Heritage with institutional partners such as the ICHR, AHRC, JNU and the University of Sussex among others. As the works open up varied worldviews and engagements with reality through the individual artists’ perspectives, the diversity of experiences communicates a multiplicity of affect. Apart from issues related to discrimination and exclusion, the artists speak of hope, resistance and ways of being that are empowering. Achari reiterates that the exhibition is a work-in-progress, as mounting a physical exhibition in pandemic times is influenced by multiple factors. However, the space for conversation that the exhibition and project creates is extremely necessary. This dialogue will continue to be a work-in-progress for us as a society, as we return to Guinier and Torres’ statement: “All Canaries Bear Watching. Our democratic future depends on it.” 
The exhibition “All Canaries Bear Watching” is on view till March 27, 2022, at the gallery space in the School of Arts and Aesthetics, Jawaharlal Nehru University.
1. Kimberlé Crenshaw, “Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex: A Black Feminist Critique of Antidiscrimination Doctrine, Feminist Theory and Antiracist Politics,” University of Chicago Legal Forum, Vol. 1989, Issue 1, Article 8, 156, , accessed January 24, 2022.
2. Lani Guinier and Gerald Torres, The Miners Canary: Enlisting Race, Resisting Power, Transforming Democracy (Harvard: Harvard University Press, 2002).