Tucked away in the Art Gallery of New South Wales' Upper Asian gallery space, Fearless: contemporary South Asian art, is the museum's first endeavour in curating a show consisting of only women - more specifically, women artists with ties to South Asia.
Navigating across issues of politics, nationalism, and shifting borders between South Asian countries, these female artists draw upon their individual experiences of the world and interrogate the historical and current events that continue to shape the cultural relations between different geographic regions. Varying in style and artistic practice, the works respond to histories of their nation’s people and their ideas from the beginning of 1991 till present.
"The Warrior" from the series Mubarizun - no more (2014) by Adeela Suleman. Image Courtesy of the Artist.
Upon entering the exhibition space, the first work that meets the eye is Reena Saini Kallat's Woven Chronicle (2018). Consisting of an intricate web of electrical wires and circuit boards, the work drapes across the lofty wall and creates a distant, yet strangely familiar image. Upon closer inspection - encouraged by the faint sounds emitting from the work, it is evident the work is made in the image of a world map. In previous iterations, the work had always been north-up orientated, however, for this specific installation, Kallat decided to create a south-up orientated map to suit its location of being installed in Australia. She states that by reorientating the traditional world map, it enables discussion about discarding "culturally biased perceptions" and ultimately "altering our understanding through a shift in perspective" (from AGNSW's artist statement about her work). In particular, the artist is refering to the way in which countries situated in the northern hemisphere are considered to be more elite in aspects of culture, economics, education and politics. However, this outlook is highly problematic and Kallat seeks to modify such attitudes. Giving a voice to those who are labourers, settlers, contract and professional workers, asylum seekers and refugees, Woven Chronicle traces the movement of these migrants across soverign nations and politically charged borders. Symbolising the energy and connections between these people, Kallat's use of differently coloured electrical wires also reflect the fencing materials used to contain and obstruct free movement of people across the globe. Furthermore, the faint overlaying of factory sirens, ship horns, phone signals and other unsettling noises related to migration adds to the pulse of migratory movements.
"Woven Chronicle" (2018) by Reena Saini Kallat. Image Courtesy of the Artist.
The exhibition resembles a maze-like structure, with towering walls intersecting the space and obstructing the viewer from seeing all the works at once - allowing them to fully take in each work at a time. Next to Kallat's work is Adeela Suleman's steel installation of bird-like creatures - After all it's always someone else who dies (2017). Suspended high from the ceiling, the large-scale hanging work is comprised of tiny birds that make up a larger flock. Reminiscent of the migratory patterns of birds, these creatures are also commonly associated with freedom. However, Suleman's systematic formation of a grid-like pattern and the use of steel to fashion these birds makes them seem unlike their natural appearance - light and free. Instead, each bird (upon closer inspection) reveals that their bodies are made of revolver handles. Thus, transforming the entire subject of the work. Symbols of power, violence, and corruption become apparent.
"After all it's always someone else who dies" (2017) by Adeela Suleman.
Close-up of "After all it's always someone else who dies" (2017) by Adeela Suleman. Image Courtesy of Kai Wasikowski.
Turning around the corner, a long hallway emerges with an array of works lined up against the wall from Pushpamala N and Clare Arni's photographs to Shilpa Gupta's wall drawing of a flag created with self-adhesive tape. Imitatingbarricade tapes used by police during crime scenarios, Untitled (There is no boarder here) toys with abstract ideas about national borders/ boundaries and its constantly fluctuating state. Drawing upon several narratives from the border between India and Bangledesh, Gupta's work traces the occurences of violence and segragation between these two nations and creates a work that invites moments of reflection through its textual narrative.
"Untitled (There is no border here)" (2005-06) by Shilpa Gupta. Image Courtesy of Vadehra Art Gallery.
Located in a darkened knook on an adjacent wall, another work by Gupta is displayed. 100 Hand-drawn maps of India (2007-08) is a single channel video projected onto a table-like structure. Again, playing with the man-made boundaries existing between nations, Gupta combines the illustrations of 100 anonymous Indian illustrators, who drew from memory their impression of India's geographical outline. Commenting on the way map lines have not always been the way that they are now, Gupta is interested in how "people place themselves - because it is very relative; how do they zoom in and zoom out of their locations?" (wall text excerpt from the artist’s statement accompanying the work). No two lines and shapes are the same from an individual’s perspective of a place, yet the construction of borders on national world maps is how it is officially recognised by the state.
"100 hand-drawn maps of India" (2007-08) by Shilpa Gupta. Image courtesy of the artist.
At the centre of the exhibition space, is Nalini Malani's video work - Mother India: Transactions in the Construction of Pain (2005). Deliberately engulfing the viewer, the work is projected onto three large screens with different videos playing at the same time. Enclosed in a darkened space, the work was inspired by an essay written by Veena Das in 1996 (Language and Body: Transactions in the Construction of Pain), which discusses the violence inflicted upon women in India. Taking footage of women spinning yarn, moving images of people during the Partition of India in 1947, and recent map pictures showcasing the division between India and Pakistan, Malani superimposes these images onto the bodies of women. The artist is perhaps reflecting upon the status of being a women in an unenlightened 21st century, where rioting and devastation wreak havoc between nations in South Asia and how this affects one's experience of the world.
"Mother India: Transactions in the Construction of Pain" (2005) by Nalini Malani. Image Courtesy of Artist.
Overall, Fearless seeks to give a voice to contemporary women artists with ties to South Asia. Showcasing their varied art practices, the artists explore their complex cultural, political, and personal conflicts through an exhibition that has brought cultural diversity to the attention of those residing in Australia.
Curated by Natalie Seiz, Fearless contemporary South Asian art is on view at the Art Gallery of New South Wales, Australia till 13 Jan 2019.
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