we were one
Erasing Borders 2008: Passport to Contemporary Indian Art of the Diaspora
by Swapna Vora
May 02, 2008
(click on the small image for full screen image with captions.)
The fine sieve of memory: What actually happened and what became the accepted, somewhat final version of that occurrence are trailed by hesitant gaps in memories and warps of shadowy, embroidered experience. Today South Asians, often in the suburbs of America's art world, are mixing in various media, others' reminiscences with their own dreams and histories. Indians think fondly of a time when Bharat (or Hindustan) was one. Political borders come and go and people, in succession, learn to consider themselves: Bharatiya, then Hindustani, then Pakistani, then Bangladeshi and today American, Trinidadian, or Kenyan. Boundaries shift but recollections of ancient inheritances, colonial occupation and modern prejudice remain. In America and Britain, Indians have reached out to fellow South Asians, those who used to be 'apna' (ours), and asked to see their art.
Reaching across today's political boundaries, the Indo-American Arts Council's indefatigable Aroon Shivdasani has launched her annual exhibition, 'Erasing Borders'. Aroon comes from Sindh, a part of India which went to Pakistan. However from Sindh also came Sindhbad's stories and here we see artists and inheritors of these lands crossing political limitations and religion, erasing border histories, and converging on common beloved experiences to tell us travelers' tales. This migration carries stories of what used to be and of partition, divorced borders, marriages across faiths, across class. They originate from lands overwhelmed with art and hence it was just a blip of time before this brimming energy exploded across canvas, clay and film. These artworks of the diaspora, some simple, some highly accomplished, were chosen with one criterion: Do they erase borders between India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka…?
Laughter, irony, mockery and anguish are there, especially after 9/11, after Iraq, after racial profiling. Youngsters who had basked in the suburban wealth created by their adventurous parents, now knew they were not simply American but brown and Asian. Race, color, religion had again become major parameters to measure humankind. How did they see their world and how would they depict it? 'Erasing Borders' provides some doorways, some glimpses. While somewhat unrelated Sanskrit or Islamic symbols do lurk, the show represents now: people who belong together, who officials term 'South Asian', a term unknown in the Indian subcontinent.
And so Siona Benjamin, Indian Bene Israeli, draws fine pictures of Leah and Rachel with Krishna's luminous dark blue skin. Coming from the only Jews in the world who have always known safety, Siona said her childhood was never discolored with prejudice or ripped by Europe's bloody Holocaust. The Indian Benes were free, never 'the other', never accused of killing a reincarnated middle-eastern deity. These are her worlds of similarities, 'Tikkun' she reiterates, detailed like miniatures but with the spare spaces and emptiness of modern experiences.
There is a smoke and light filled picture of Kathak dancers by New Yorker Veru Narula. Kathak was danced while worshiping Krishna but later was truly loved by Muslim rulers. Here dancers in gorgeous, bright tradition continue undaunted amidst poisonous fumes from an explosion in a temple. They continue dancing but wear gas masks.
Amina Ahmed, 'Root #1' shows a long hank of hair, heavy with tales of social attitudes. Long hair is admired and both Islam and Sikhism have so many standards defining who should cover their hair, to what degree, how it should be grown, who must sport it on faces and who must remove it. Wispy tangles of hair, religions, regions....
Indian galleries in America are businesses that often emphasize established artists popular with rich doctors and lawyers. Here, these new artists located in Los Angeles, Chicago or Houston, are free to remember countries and times they never knew except through sighs and stories in languages they do not really speak. They glance out of their windows and see Brooklyn or Devon Street and so we see depictions of Hindi movies, mangos, miniatures, Urdu fonts, Hebrew words, a garam masala of worlds.
Fariba Alam's striking 'The Night Journey', with its dark, poignant and mysterious tiles, speaks of lovely old mosques and shows females without faces looking up at Urdu fonts. However Bangladeshi women were often feisty feminists who made sure that society respected them! Shelly Bahl's 'Karma Chameleon', plays on Boy George's song and shows the fine art of drawing with playful karaoke-like images and manga figures with lucid, beautifully delineated expressions. Anna Indumati Bhushan's 'Untitled' is figurative with delicate precise details in paint and fine dot work of 'personal tales from non-personal themes'.
The torn, scattered maps in Bushra Chaudry's, ' Broken Borders VIII', speak of unspeakable politics, of grief and loss and the ever present, imminent possibility of the demolition of this world. Suhas Tavkar's craft shows a rare relationship between the human form and the human touch that created it. He uses his nails on card paper to create slow, painful art that permits no mistake, there is no going back. For Indians, the Golden Age is the Gupta period and here he recreates it. In 'Everything in between,' Niema S. Khan-Qureshi shows the mirrors of dangling memory and pinching pictures, filled with dadis, didis, (relatives), and babies.
The teacher and printmaker, Vijay Kumar, curated this exhibition with its silvery breathing ball, temple dancers, dusty manuscripts, one Alice in Wonderland (or is it two?), yantra pathways, jute bags in which refugees carried a life, politics and depictions of god's many arms, names and hijabs.
Erasing Borders 2008: Passport to Contemporary Indian Art of the Diaspora will travel until Oct 2008. Amina Ahmed is the Director of this Exhibition.