Uniting artists from three nations, Homelands: Art from Bangladesh, India and Pakistan was inaugurated at Kettle’s Yard, University of Cambridge, UK, on November 12, 2019. The exhibition, a collaboration between the University of Cambridge and Durjoy Bangladesh Foundation (DBF), was curated by Devika Singh with Amy Tobin and Grace Storey, and dealt with the topic of migration and resettlement in South Asia through photography, sculpture, painting, performance, film and installation.
Kettle’s Yard is one of Britain’s best galleries – a beautiful and unique house with a distinctive modern and contemporary art collection. Its values reflect Kettle’s Yard’s creator Jim Ede’s support for artists and art’s power to make and change how we act in the world.
A museum exhibition in the UK devoted to contemporary South Asian art is a rare thing. Although London’s Victoria and Albert Museum has one of the largest collections of South Asian art in the world amassed during the time of the British Empire, few of the works were made after the British colonies in the region were liberated. Current political tensions in South Asia often work as a barrier for contemporary artists, preventing them from gaining well-deserved international exposure and recognition. They are even often barred from full freedom of expression. The exhibition, a timely undertaking, helped overcome all such obstacles for both promising and prominent artists.
The exposition engaged with displacement and the transitory notion of home in a region marked by the repercussions of the Partition of India and Pakistan in 1947, and the independence of Bangladesh in 1971 – both of which resulted in mass violence and dislocation, and contemporary instability of home and nationality due to migration in and from South Asia. Responding to the present climate of intense nationalism, the participating artists deliberately engaged with both intimate and political histories, to contest borders and explore the common histories in their works, and questioned common pasts, imagining new futures.
Eleven artists rooted in the culture and history of the Indian subcontinent looked back at the region’s complex history and the ways in which it chimed with contemporary concerns, especially migration and populism. Artworks by Iftikhar Dadi and Elizabeth Dadi, Desmond Lazaro, Seher Shah, Sohrab Hura, Yasmin Jahan Nupur, Munem Wasif, as well as a newly conceived performance by Nikhil Chopra, were on display at the event. The exhibition also showcased works by Bani Abidi, Shilpa Gupta, and Zarina Hashmi.
The highlighted works from the exhibition included a new photographic project titled ‘Spring Song’ (2019) by Munem Wasif. The works record objects that migrated to Bangladesh in the hand of the Rohingya people when forced into exile by Myanmar’s military dictatorship. Collected from Cox’s Bazar refugee camps, the displayed objects range from roughly assembled toys to precious family documents and photographs. Photographed individually against monochromatic backgrounds, these mundane objects took on monumental significance. However, the people they belong to remained absent.
Seher Shah’s photography series ‘Argument from Silence’ (2019) reworked glimpses of ancient Gandhara sculptures housed in the Le Corbusier designed Government Museum and Art Gallery in Chandigarh, India. Ownership of these sculptures originating from the modern-day border between Afghanistan, Pakistan and India was disputed between India and Pakistan at the time of partition. Shah’s series questioned the physical place of the sculptures in this museum context and their meaning for contemporary audiences.
A new series of paintings by Desmond Lazaro, conceived during a residency at Kettle’s Yard and King’s College and created in partnership with individuals who have resettled in Cambridge, was also on display. These hand-painted works represented Cambridge families’ experiences of migration and displacement. It was the first time Lazaro worked with family archives other than his own. Lazaro’s biographical Cini Films series (2015–2016), documenting his Indian-origin family’s life after they relocated from Yangon in Myanmar to Leeds, was also displayed alongside these new works.
Nikhil Chopra’s live art of the projection of a tree painted with lipstick, during his performance at Kettle’s Yard on December 3, mesmerised many. The exhibition also included the shelter Chopra occupied for his durational performance at Havana Biennial in 2015, as well as drawings he made on this occasion.
Shilpa Gupta presented ‘Untitled’ (2008–9) – a signage board reminiscent of those found in train stations and airports. The board marks not only arrivals and departures, but also figures of migration and loss, referencing the mass killings of train passengers as they attempted to resettle at the time of partition. Gupta’s ‘Blame’ (2002) was a poster depicting a bright red fire extinguisher bearing the word ‘blame’. It was created as part of a 2002 project in which 10 artists from India and Pakistan (then, as now, in conflict over the region of Kashmir) emailed images to each other for pacifist posters that they pasted along the streets of Karachi and Mumbai. In turn, the artists were accused of terrorist activity.
Sohrab Hura represented 27 photographs taken from the series ‘Snow’ (2014–ongoing), created over the course of several prolonged trips to the contested region of Kashmir. Loosely arranged into spring, summer, autumn and winter, the series focused on the people of Kashmir through Hura’s own subjective view as an outsider. He captured moments of humour and wonder in daily life, showing a different side of the region, which is currently undergoing major tensions.
Iftikhar Dadi and Elizabeth Dadi’s bright neon sculpture of Bangladesh’s National Flower ‘Shapla’ (2019), from their ‘Efflorescence’ series (2013–ongoing), was prominently displayed at the exhibition. Drawing inspiration from the popular and informal urban cultures of South Asia, the artist couple’s sculptures questioned the contradiction of using flowers as national symbols, when flower species are not confined to geographical areas. This new work, commissioned by Durjoy Bangladesh Foundation, took the shape of Bangladesh’s National flower – a large sculpture of the flower that stood at the centre of Shapla Square in Dhaka on the site of a mass grave from the 1971 Liberation War. In the cityscape of Dhaka, the flower therefore indirectly referenced the memory of large-scale violence that was intrinsically connected to the birth of Bangladesh. Three other masterpieces by the duo, showcasing spectacular neon sculptures of national flowers from the artists’ ongoing ‘Efflorescence’ series, poke fun at the hyperbole of patriotic pageantry.
Collaborating moments of humour, Bani Abidi’s video diptych ‘The News’ (2001), featuring two TV anchors delivering the same absurd news bulletin about an incident involving the theft of an egg, stole the show. One anchor is dressed in an Indian saree and speaks Hindi, while the other wears a Pakistani dupatta and speaks Urdu. Both roles are performed identically by the artist herself, illustrating what the postcolonial theorist Homi Bhabha terms the ‘nearness of difference’.
While the works were on display, an international symposium titled ‘Homelands: Art, conflict and displacement in art from Bangladesh, India and Pakistan’ was held on January 18, exploring unique themes of the exhibition. The symposium highlighted works from the exhibition with presentations from artists, writers, researchers and scholars. It concluded the complementary public programming, hosted by Durjoy Bangladesh Foundation, which had begun in November 2019. “DBF is committed to promoting the engagement and accessibility of South Asian artists around the world, and I am delighted for the foundation to be a part of the exhibition,” said Durjoy Rahman, the founder of DBF. “Through this nice collaboration, we mark an important moment to strengthen the bridges of cultural and creative exchange between the United Kingdom and South Asia.” The symposium alongside various other programmes of the exhibition has been supported by DBF.
Former Dhaka Art Summit curator Dr Devika Singh’s work focuses on modern and contemporary art and architecture in South Asia and the global history of modernism. She is an affiliated scholar at the Centre of South Asian Studies of the University of Cambridge. She holds a PhD from the same university, and was a fellow at the ‘Centre allemand d’histoire de l’art’ in Paris. She was a visiting fellow at the French Academy at Rome, the Freie Universität, Berlin, and the Kluge Center of the Library of Congress, Washington D.C.
Referencing the powerful visuals and arts exhibited in different parts of the world by the artists of South-Asian origin, several prominent scholars, curators and art practitioners like Syed Manzoorul Islam, Devika Singh, Iftikhar Dadi, Bani Abidi, Hammad Nasar, Sophie Ernst, Nada Raza, Zehra Jumabhoy, Yasmin Jahan Nupur and Alina Khakoo presented papers and moderated the three sessions of the symposium.
Kettle’s Yard Curatorial Assistant Alina Khakoo shed light on the ‘Tour of Jim Ede and India’ at Edlis Neeson Research Space while Kettle’s Yard Director Andrew Nairne delivered the daylong symposium’s opening remarks.
Moderated by eminent academic, writer and critic Professor Syed Manzoorul Islam, the first session of the symposium focused on art, the everyday and the nation. Professor Iftikhar Dadi (of Cornell University, New York) presented the keynote titled ‘Borders and the Everyday’ with visual presentation of his artworks created and exhibited over the years. Noted curator Dr Zehra Jumabhoy (of Courtauld Institute of Art, London) presented her keynote ‘The Indian Moderns after Midnight’ in the session. The curator’s tour of Homelands at the two exhibition galleries followed.
The more engaging second session, moderated by Dr Devika Singh, was titled ‘On home and belonging’. Joining through Skype from Dhaka, artist Yasmin Jahan Nupur elaborated on her ongoing art project called ‘On Home’ (2019). Berlin-based Pakistani artist Bani Abidi presented her interesting keynote ‘PLEASE DON’T HONK, THIS NATION IS SLEEPING’ with her amazing visual arts in the session. Renowned curator Nada Raza of Courtauld Institute of Art shed light on the paper ‘Unhomely Futures: Altered Inheritance – Home is a Foreign Place with Shilpa Gupta, Zarina Hashmi and Sophie Ernst’.
In this richly polyphonic exhibition, there is no single unifying approach, and no solitary definition of ‘home’. As per their interviews in the catalogue, the artists variously characterise it as ‘a transient dwelling,’ ‘an ongoing process,’ and ‘other people,’ making visitors reflect on their own definition of it.
The concluding session was titled ‘Performing Landscape/Curating Nation’. Berlin-based artist Dr Sophie Ernst and Hammad Nasar of Paul Mellon Centre, London first shared their individual presentations, and later performed in a conversation together with references, visuals and allusions, making the session more interactive. Every session of the symposium was followed by a vibrant Q&A session.
The exhibition, which concluded on February 2, 2020, was a rather difficult undertaking. The main challenge of organising such an exquisite event is finding a way to convey the political and cultural context of the artworks, while also allowing the artists to speak for themselves. In this elegantly curated show, the balance feels just right. The theme directly confronts the realities of ‘violence and dislocation’ that, in her introduction to the exhibition catalogue, curator Devika Singh describes as ‘constitutive experiences of modern South Asia.’ ‘Homeland’ is a fraught notion in countries still recovering from the 1947 Partition of India and Pakistan, which uprooted twelve million people, and the Bangladesh Liberation War of 1971 which displaced 9.5 million. The exhibition’s eleven artists, working in media ranging from painting to performance, explored the theme in a host of different ways that are by turns gut-wrenching, contemplative and amusing.
DBF promotes arts and artists from South Asia and beyond, internationally. It supports artists in creating new artworks with relevant exhibitions, publications and residencies. With offices in Berlin and Dhaka, DBF offers a conduit to connect art and artists between Asia, Europe and beyond.
Zahangir Alom is Staff Reporter, Arts and Entertainment, The Daily Star. He can be reached at email@example.com.