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Loss and regeneration through memory

  • A curator reflects on what goes into creating an exhibition
- Kurchi Dasgupta

Apr 9, 2017-Things Lost/Remembering the Future is a pan-South Asian exhibition currently on show at Kolkata’s Ganges Art Gallery. When Kala Bhavan alumna Amritah Sen and I met after a decade to catch up on our lives over tea during the first week of January, we had no idea that our idle chatter would soon materialise into an art show that the city of Kolkata had never experienced before. International art shows are not rare any more, even in this part of the world. The ongoing Kathmandu Triennale does a fine job of it, and on a much larger scale of course. 

But when we discussed the current art scene in the region, we felt that large scale art events with their necessary dependencies big budgets and sponsors were perhaps drawing too much attention to bigger, more accessible issues and readymade artistic oeuvres. While the small scale ones reeked of provincialism and lacked vision. And what we felt lacking was an immediate context for the work we were ourselves doing, a context we knew was very much there in the region’s art but one that was hardly ever given much attention to. The study of the many elements that make up cultural memory, and its ongoing processes as it is shapes itself into recorded history, are vital to our practice. Sen addresses it through her focus on the personal, I do it through drawing attention to the larger, global flow of history that is necessarily based on the local and the regional. And it was more than obvious to us that a lot of artists, whether it is in Afghanistan or Myanmar, Maldives or Nepal, were doing the same. And Things Lost/Remembering the Future was born.

We shot off emails to about ten artists within days, artists whose work we had been following for years and we knew that any contribution from them would bring in unforeseen perspectives. Pakistan came on board within days, followed by Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Nepal. Then began the hard work of tracking artists in Afghanistan, Myanmar, Maldives and Bhutan. Though we were very sure that we did not want to attach ourselves to any official definition of the region, we were also very sure that we wanted to play around with the available concept of border and nationality, differences and resonances in a region whose history has shaped our psyche. 

Things Lost/Remembering the Future explores the ideas of loss, being and regeneration through the lens of personal and public memory. Ashmina Ranjit and Sunil Sigdel’s works represent Nepal in the first edition. Ranjit’s 15-minute long, single channel video work, Same River-But Water? (2016), documents a metaphor that has been visualised and performed, one that captures what Things Lost/Remembering the Future is invested in—silenced or lost memories, the personal and the small, and the many processes through which mainstream history emerges. The video recants a 12-kilometer performance artist Ranjit took in March, 2016, where he returned to where she spent her childhood, walking each step in reverse-as a metaphor of a return to her personal journely and to the history of her land. 

Our one definite aim is to open new channels of communication, and understanding, of the region’s unique political and historical reality and its cultural sub-texts. And the focus is essentially on the small, the forgotten, the mis-represented as opposed to the official and the monumental. We are trying to look upon the present from both the past and the future and investigate the processes through which historical narratives habitually emerge. And Sunil Sigdel’s diptych painted on plywood, Blue Slavery in Golden Construction (2016), explores this with aplomb. His work statement reads : “Nepal is considered a source, transit and destination country for men, women and children in modern slavery in the form of forced labor. Caste system, poverty, traditional farming system, illiteracy, child marriage and political instability are some of the key factors that pull people into modern day slavery...This work ‘Blue Slavery in Golden Construction’ is an offering to those workers, who are labouring at the construction of the magnificent infrastructure and stadium for the upcoming 2022 world cup. This work portrays the dark underside of the golden football ground of 2022 World Cup. The 11 painted gestures represent the workers as a football team that has lost the World Cup even before it has started off in Qatar.”

That, I believe, says it all for why we selected this particular work. Also why we requested the Consul General of Nepal to co-inaugurate the show, who readily complied. 

This is possibly the first exhibition in Kolkata that brings together 14 artists from eight South Asian countries on one platform. The works were selected with an eye on the unexpected in terms of media and content. Some of the artists are globally established names, some are comparatively new, and a few are fresh graduates. The artist list includes, for this edition alone, David Alesworth (Pakistan), Maimoona Hussain (Maldives), Rahraw Omarzad (Afghanistan), Tayeba Begum Lipi and Mustafa Zaman (Bangladesh), among others.

Some of the works were of particular interest to viewers and collectors, some incited return visits that are quite unheard of. Having Mamoona’s work was a great joy as Maldives has barely ever been represented in India. Afghanistan’s Omarzad’s video brought in the added edge of being a Documenta 13 commissioned work being shown for the first time in this region. Both Zaman and Lipi of Bangladesh are currently showing in Kathmandu Triennale, and their works in the Kolkata showing have been intensely responded to. My own artwork, Blocakde, interrogates an issue Mekh Limbu handles in the Triennale. For Blockade I wrote, “In 2015, the earthquakes hit Nepal. The same year, when the country was still trying to get back on its broken feet, a neighbouring country blockaded its southern border and its access to the Kolkata port for nearly six months. Nepal ran out of fuel, basic essentials, medications, everything within a few months. The international community and media, for some inscrutable reason, kept mum on this act of undeclared but very real war. I ran out of painting materials as well as food and fuel. And so I decided to put together whatever canvas scraps I had in my studio and began stitching together surfaces for painting.’ I shall let it rest here.

Our aim as curators was to magnify those rare, incisive voices that are consciously commenting on, critiquing and resisting the xenophobic and gender-biased, mainstream idea of the region’s history. The other was to give space to the forgotten and the personal, hoping this would evolve into an inclusive identity map that differs from the currently available version. Also, we hoped that it will allow an alternative perception of history to spill through, one that links the South Asian experience to the larger, Global South. A specific, long term aim is to present rigorously curated shows on the theme in each of the involved countries, facilitating a dedicated exchange between cities and cultures, artists and institutions, ideas and viewers, the loaded present and an anthropocenic future. 

The show is on till April 20.

- Kurchi Dasgupta

Published: 09-04-2017 10:28

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