Fierce nationalism and inter-religious tension in South Asia have been a constant feature of the region’s modern history, a legacy of Partition in 1947 and the struggle for independence for Bangladesh in 1971. Millions of people were displaced and millions were killed either directly or through famine. The resultant instability of concepts like home and nationality is explored by 11 acclaimed artists in a new and stimulating exhibition at Cambridge’s Kettle’s Yard, curated by Dr Devika Singh, Curator of International Art at Tate Modern.
It’s a large show incorporating paintings, drawings, video, photography and installations. I’ve selected a few of the highlights.
The top shot is entitled Without Destination by the Indian artist Zarina who experienced Partition herself as a 10-year-old girl. The smell of rotting flesh from the dead bodies she witnessed on the road as she fled her home still haunts her. She has transposed the Plimsoll Line on the boat to a heart monitor, reflecting the trauma of those who are exiled from their homeland and bound for an unknown destination and future. Zarina spent 40 years in New York City. Home for her is a foreign place.
The same can be said of the Rohingya people who were recently forced in their thousands to flee Myanmar for resettlement camps in Bangladesh. Their plight is the focus for Bangladeshi photographer Munem Wasif in a series called Spring Song.
Overwhelmed by the magnitude of the refugees, he became interested in how they cope with being stateless in a makeshift camp in which they cannot work. Eschewing the typical images of suffering, he took a more subtle approach and started to interview the Rohingyas about how they organised their lives. He photographed objects they brought with them from Myanmar and asked what they meant to them and how they contributed to their sense of identity.
They included things like old family snaps and improvised toys as there is nothing to buy in the camps. Spring Song, above, is a skin lotion that was manufactured in Thailand but is no longer used there and has found its way to Bangladesh. It bursts with symbolism.
Snow isn’t something you immediately associate with South Asia. The image above, from the series Snow 2014-ongoing, was taken in Kashmir by Indian photographer and film-maker Sohrab Hura. Kashmir is a hotly disputed area in the region, controlled by India whose government has recently removed its semi-autonomy. In recent years, the area has seen a succession of atrocities including killings, torture and mass rape. It’s one of the most militarised places in the world.
Kashmir was always fabled for its beauty and a big tourist attraction. In his formative years, Hura believed the negative propaganda fed to him by his own government about Kashmiris. Yet successive visits as an outsider acquainted him with alternative narratives and huge complexities. “I started using snow as a metaphor for my denial,” he says. Much of his work is based on such metaphors. Other photographs in his series include blood-red rivers, and a woman with a bandage on her face, a reference to the blinding of civilians by the police using pellet guns.
Desmond Lazaro lives and works between Pondicherry and Melbourne, Australia. His contribution to Homelands comes in two parts. The first is his Cini Film drawings. Lazaro was born in Leeds. His parents emigrated to Britain via India and Myanmar (or Burma as it was then). To him, home is a concept in constant evolution, and migration, both physical and spiritual. It defines his work.
Recently, he discovered a cache of old colour cine films that his father had shot. “They really became an archive of my family growing up in Leeds”. Lazaro spent 12 years studying the Indian miniature painting tradition. So, he took stills from a number of the films and re-created them as miniature paintings.
The one you see above is of his younger brother Tony outside Buckingham Palace. He’s looking suspiciously back at the viewer. The piece questions the pomp and ceremony, and the power structures that led to colonialism.
The second part of his work comprises artworks that were inspired by interviews he made with migrants who had migrated to Cambridge. Once again, they revolve around often personal objects that they brought with them.
Seher Shah was born in Pakistan, lived for some time in New York City before moving to New Delhi. So home is once again a fluid concept to her. She studied Fine Art but later practised as an architect. The influence of architecture in her work is plain to see. Her contribution to the exhibition is a series entitled Argument from Silence, a phrase that describes an argument made in the absence of evidence.
Her works centre around the ancient Gandhara sculptures housed in the Government Museum and Art Gallery in Chandigarh. The siting of them there is political in itself as the museum owes its existence to Partition for its artefacts were originally in Lahore, the former Punjabi capital which became part of Pakistan. The 2nd century artworks were originally from an area now occupied by India, Pakistan and Afghanistan and each country claims ownership, each has rewritten its history.
The series consists of complex photogravures of sculptures that retain an architectural aesthetic but mix drawing, printmaking and photography. She deconstructs and transforms the space, focusing on empty spaces that symbolise what she calls “the erasures, ruptures and underlying violence in relationships between objects, history and architecture”.
Other artists featured are Iftikhar and Elizabeth Dadi, a duo whose neon sculptures of floral emblems claimed by India, Pakistan and Afghanistan play with ideas of identity. There are also works by Nikhil Chopra, Shilpa Gupta, Bani Abidi and Yasmin Jahan Nupur.
It’s one of those exhibitions that demands a certain amount of pre-knowledge of South Asian political history to appreciate the emotion and conflict inherent in it. Museum captions are sometimes a hindrance to enjoyment but in this case are extremely helpful. Above all, the exhibition tells a very human story of displacement, insecurity and the transitory notion of homeland for millions of people in the world.
Homelands: Art from Bangladesh, India and Pakistan is showing at Kettle’s Yard, Castle Street, Cambridge CB3 0AQ until 2 February 2020.
All images are courtesy of the artists and gallery.