From ‘India and the World’, a gallery tour of masterpieces on 200-year-old freedom struggles

 

Ankush Arora

An oil painting by Amrita Sher-Gil, recently mounted at New Delhi’s National Museum, showed a confident-looking European girl with a comparatively demure Indian. The European, painted in bright yellow, had her arm around the shoulders of the visibly dark Indian girl. While the painting has been interpreted as an exploration of the artist’s mixed identity (she was born to a Sikh father and a Jewish-Hungarian mother) and her corresponding artistic influences, it also deals with a transforming social and political landscape.

‘Two Girls’ was painted by Sher-Gil during her brief visit to Budapest in 1939, around the time Europe witnessed the rise in fascism, and India a nationalist, anti-colonialism struggle against the British rule. The artwork, by one of the greatest avant-garde artists of the 20thcentury, was part of a large-scale, transcontinental collaboration that offers a unique perspective on India’s history by placing it in a parallel global context.

 

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Two-Girls, Amrita Sher-Gil, Oil on Canvas, 1939, Budapest, Hungary, Private Collection. Image: National Museum

 

Titled ‘India and the World: A History in Nine Stories’, the exhibition brought together nearly 200 iconic objects from New Delhi’s National Museum, Mumbai’s Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya (CSMVS), London’s British Museum, other Indian museums as well as private collectors. Inaugurated at the Mumbai museum late last year, the exhibition was open for public viewing at the National Museum until June 30.

Spread across nine galleries, each section juxtaposed masterpieces from India and rest of the world through different themes focusing on—the beginning of time; the emergence of first cities; empires; the relationship between state and religion; divinity; trade; court cultures; struggle for freedom; and the representation of time in art.

Sher-Gil’s figurative painting belonged to the ‘Quest for Freedom’ gallery, which told the story of different kinds of freedoms—from slavery, imperial rule and patriarchy—covering a period of more than 200 years. The timeliness of this particular gallery, with its wide array of paintings, photographs, posters, everyday objects and contemporary artworks, is significant as the entire exhibition was launched ahead of the seventy-year celebrations of Indian independence.

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Page from a slave register, Paper, 1871, Manatí, Puerto Rico, The British Museum. Image: National Museum

 

It is a well-known fact that India was the one of the first countries to gain independence from European imperialism. The freedom gallery charted a timeline of India’s story through a series of landmark events, such as the colonial masters’ discovery of the country’s history and art; the 1857 revolt; swadeshi movement; the adoption of Indian constitution; launch of the first currency notes; universal adult suffrage; and the contemporary project of digitally mapping populations.

One of the biggest draws of this exhibition was an original copy of the Indian constitution, designed by a team of Bengal’s Santiniketan artists led by Nandalal Bose, and calligrapher Prem Behari Narain Raizada. According to exhibition co-curator Naman P Ahuja, “The constitution is not just an important piece of legal document, it is also extremely beautiful and aesthetic. It brings together a variety of Indian art styles and episodes from Indian history, mythology into a united modern Indian art style.”

In India, Mahatma Gandhi’s charkha, or the spinning wheel, became the rallying point for freedom from British exploitation of Indian raw material, and eventually from their rule. The advent of indigenous textile mills in India, presented in the exhibition through a 20th century advertisement, found resonances in the African artworks made of cotton which celebrated freedom from colonialism and male domination.

The ‘Quest for Freedom’ gallery dramatically recorded the scale of violence involved in the freedom struggle, particularly in the Indian context. For instance, a photograph taken by famous war photographer Felice Beato, known for re-staging conflicts in order to document them, re-constructed the devastation of a building and loss of life during the 1857 revolt. Another image showed two Indians, identified as mutineers, hanging from the gallows.

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Execution of mutineers from the album of Canon Richard Warner of Lincoln, Photograph by Felice Beato, 1858, The Alkazi Foundation for the Arts, New Delhi. Image: National Museum

 

Parallel histories, war and reconciliation

Viewed together, the gallery’s various artefacts attempt to stitch together a web of trans-border histories, through paintings, sculptures, archival documents and textile material. A grand self-portrait by German artist Johann Zoffany, who lived in British India during the latter half of 18th century, is placed close to a Nigerian wooden sculpture of Queen Victoria, the symbol of British imperial domination.

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Johann Zofanny with Colonel Polier, Claude Martin and John Wombwell, Johann Zofanny, Oil on Canvas, About 1786-87, Victoria Memory Hall, Kolkata. Image: National Museum

 

The theme of slavery, which was abolished in the 19thcentury, was explored through a Puerto Rican slave register, containing details about a twenty-five-year-old slave. In another artwork, a striking Tanzania-made kanga (East African garment) celebrates the victory of Barack Obama as the first African American to hold U.S. presidency.

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Barack Obama, Kanga, Printed Cotton, 2008, Made in Tanzania, found in Nairobi, Kenya, The British Museum. Image: National Museum

 

In the end, the exhibition curators could not have thought of a more befitting way of rounding off the Freedom gallery tour, showcasing objects representing peace and reconciliation.

A Mozambican throne, made by welding together pieces of decommissioned civil war weapons, became the symbol of hope and transformation in post-war Mozambique, which is still suffering from the effects of a 16-year war that ended in 1992. The context behind this installation is the country’s post-civil war project that encouraged people to exchange weapons for agricultural, domestic and construction tools.

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Throne of Weapons, Cristóvão Canhavato (Kester), Metal, wood and plastic, 2001, Maputo, Mozambique, The British Museum. Image: National Museum

 

Complimentary to this installation was a bronze sculpture by Colombian artist Alex Sastoque, who has modified the barrel of an AK-47s rifle into a cultivation tool, while retaining the rest of the weapon. The object is titled ‘Metamorphosis – A Symbol of Peace.’

 


276520d7-6209-4f19-a17e-7e4d98264b55Ankush began his career as a journalist in 2008, and has since covered multiple stints in print, television and digital media in India. In 2016, he took up a communications and outreach assignment for an American social innovation organisation, which works with the Tata Trusts in India. He is currently working, in Delhi, as a media publicist for art practitioners. He tweets @artandculturediary, and shares his photography on Instagram.

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The Curator #5

In the last few issues we had introduced you to few important exhibitions and the curators of those shows. If you notice in the recent times the word curator and its usage has become very democratic. There are curated food festivals, music nights, books readings, curated trips, and so on. In all these cases the term curator is used to refer the act of selecting, excluding and making it consumable for an audience. Very much allied to its original meaning. But is that all curating about? What about the most important “taking care” part? Though one is happy to see the expanded usage of the term, one is also alarmed at how the usage is based on a selected reading of its function.
Then the important question to raise is how does one become a curator? Most of the senior and active curators in India have not done a course in curating. Most of them are art historians, artists, or have a background in literature. But their consistent engagement with the art world, their historical knowledge, exposure to exhibition practices, etc. played an important role in foestering their growth. Despite the strong presence of important exhibitions and shows curation has not been part of a full fledged academic program in India. It is very recently that certain art institutes have started offering programs on curation. Unfortunately these are not a masters level program, but runs through a semester and helps students to get an experience in curating a show. This issue of Art1st’s “The Curator” is about such an initiative. This post is about the “Where in the World” exhibition at Devi Art Foundation curated by the students of School ofArts and Aesthetics along with the faculty members Kavita Singh, Naman P. Ahuja and Shukla Sawant.

The Curator #5
Exhibition: Where in the World
Curators: Students of School of Arts and Aesthetics, JNU and Professor Kavita Singh, Professor Naman P Ahuja, Professor Shukla Sawant.

This exhibition was part of a semester long course called “On Curating” offered by Prof. Kavita Singh. The course introduced students to the history of museum practices starting from its colonial roots, to nationalist appropriation and its contemporary resurgence. The course took these multiple directions and introduced students to the institution of museums, galleries, curatorial practices. This course also allowed students to interact with curators, designers, light and sound technicians. Devi Art Foundation which has a strong colleciton of contemporary Indian art was involved throughout the project and gave the responsibility to the students to select the artworks for the show. A collaborative effort was required in these efforts to jointly discuss and debate about the inclusion and exclusion of works. Students were also assigned different tasks related to writing texts for the catalog, publicity, exhibition design, conducting interviews with artists, etc. They were constantly in touch with the Foundation team and were able to develop an idea about the space. Besides this students were also offered visits to National Museum, Crafts Museum, etc.

The exhibition was one of the biggest and critically acclaimed shows on contemporary art. It included works by A Balasubramaniam, Atul Bhalla, C. Nannaiah, ShebaChhachhi, Krishnaraj Chonat, Nikhil Chopra, Atul Dodiya, Anita Dube, Nicola Durvasula, Sheela Gowda, Probir Gupta, Shilpa Gupta, Subodh Gupta, Sonia Jabbar,Bharti Kher, Sonia Khurana, Susanta Mandal, N. Pushpamala, Jeetander Ojha, JagannathPanda, Srinivasa Prasad, Ashim Purkayastha, Gigi Scaria, Mithu Sen, Tejal Shah, Sudarshan Shetty, T.V. Santhosh, and Navin Thomas.

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The central concern of the exhibition was to reflect on the contemporary art and its influences and response from/to globalisation. ‘Opening out’ to the world has brought a range of new influences, opportunities, audiences, forms of circulation and means of production to Indian art in the last ten or fifteen years. What does the new Indian art look like? Whom does it address? And how will we remember this era in the future? These were some of the key questions that this exhibition addressed through its four sections. The first section, ‘Export,’ traces the strategies used by artists asked to enact ‘Indian-ness’ in their work. The following sections, ‘Outraged’ and ‘Outrageous,’ examine the ways in which artists engage with issues and the larger public beyond the artworld. And finally, ‘Uncollectable’ considers the movements of objects through markets and into collections.

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This course and subsequent exhibition was an important experience in our academic life. We were not only exposed to the nomenclature “curator”, but also provided hands on experience in handling works, logistics, preparing texts, designing catalog, desigining exhibition layout, etc.

The exhibition images and texts are accessible through a beautifully designed catalog. Some images are available here in this link http://www.deviartfoundation.org/content/behind-scenes-where-world

Have a wonderful weekend. Please comment, share and discuss.

  • Premjish, Director, Outreach – Art1st

 

The Curator #1

Do you know that the word Curator means “a person who takes care of” or “the one who heals”? The primary task of a curator was to take care of a collection or a museum. But as times changed the practice of curating involved presenting a collection of works with an interesting theme or narrative. The practice also extended to works outside museums and institutions. Over the years curators have used collections to weave stories, re-define the idea of collections, present new art historical and visual possibilities to understand and see artworks. In this weekly series titled “The Curator”, updating every Saturday, we will introduce you to curators from India who are doing path-breaking works by using art collections and artworks to generate meaningful and participatory exhibitions.
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The Curator #1
Naman P Ahuja
Exhibition: Rupa-Pratirupa
The Body in Indian Art
Naman P Ahuja is the Professor of Ancient Indian Art and Architecture at Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. ‘The Body in Indian Art’ was a seminal show curated by him at Europalia in Brussels which later travelled to National Museum, Delhi. The show was important for the wide range of materials it brought together from different museums, galleries and collections across India (largest ever mounted at National Museum with over 350 objects) to address the complex idea about body referring to diverse Indian philosophies and spanning across many periods of history.
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It also foregrounded the plurality of our country by showcasing diverse views, beliefs and expressions in art on the idea of body. The exhibition was divided into eight thematic categories ranging from birth to death and also dealing with heroic bodies to ascetic bodies. Those who have missed the show could take a look at the catalog produced by National Museum which is also very affordable. It also comes with a CD featuring the exhibition music and soundtrack.
– Premjish, Outreach Director, Art1st