Art as a socio political statement -Things Lost, Remembering the Future

Sunil Blue Slavery

Things Lost, Remembering the Future is the title of an unique art exhibition held in Kolkata curated by Nepal-based artist Kurchi Dasgupta and Amritah Sen of Kolkata.

According to Dasgupta and Sen, this art exhibition focuses essentially on the small, the forgotten, the mis-represented as opposed to the official and the monumental. It looks upon the present from both the past and the future and investigates the processes through which historical narratives habitually emerge.”

They go on to add “This is possibly the first exhibition in Kolkata that brings together 14 artists from eight South Asian countries (Afghanistan, Bangladesh, India, Maldives, Myanmar, Nepal, Pakistan, Sri Lanka) 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 fresh graduates. Our one aim 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.”

As one walks through the gallery on the ground floor and first floor, Kurchi suggests that the viewer interprets and perceives rather than be taken by the explanations that run alongside the displays, one is amazed at how these works of art, through different subjects, media, conceived and executed by different creative artists, define diverse socio-political statements unto themselves ranging from Karl Marx’s theory of Labour through gender statements against child trafficking through a series of photographs or a video installation that shows the artist walking back into a time and place she belonged to and came from.

It could be a critique on globalization focussed on a painting of the almost obsolete candy-floss seller posing for the art work holding balls of candy floss in his hand.

Displaced Kurchi Dasgupta

The artist (Kurchi Dasgupta) freezes this candy-floss seller, a marginalized man almost erased from our culture in time by framing him in a painting and placing him as an exhibit on the wall of a gallery, as a celebratory tribute. Is this ‘celebratory”? Or, is this yet another way of wiping him out of our memories by investing him with a ‘once-upon-a-time’ story? It is left to the observer to decide. The artiste calls her work “displaced” which is an apt title.

Davis Record room

Some of the works are drawn from intimate and personal memories and experiences while some memories are individual but the creative comments have a collective impact. For example, there was one work by the Nepal-based performance artist, Sunil Sigdel. According to his own statement on “Blue Slavery in Golden Construction” “it is an offering to those workers, who are labouring at the construction of the magnificent infrastructure and stadium for the upcoming 2022 world cup. Recently, I did a performance on the subject in Moesgaard Museum, Denmark. I wore a labourer’s used, blue uniform and hooked a gold painted iron hammer (symbol of the World Cup Gold) that weighed 6 kgs on the back of my uniform. My body was bent backward and I was in physical pain.”

The eleven men dressed in blue workman’s overalls, without heads, bent differently across the canvas, with their backs stapled with golden pins stand out as a scathing indictment on the 2022 World Cup. It is a collage that “represents the workers as a football team that has lost the World Cup even before it has started off in Qatar.” It is a diptych. The entire work is adapted from the artiste’s personal performance and the missing heads reflect how the brains of the workers are chewed away, turning them not only into slaves but to human machines doctored to do as told.

Thisath How tall we are

How Tall We Were, How Tall We Are is a beautiful installation by Thisath Thoradeniya from Sri Lanka. It is a pigment print done on archival canvas which offers a digitalised aerial view of the city of Bengaluru. This map is overlaid with 13 iron chisels of different kinds placed in an organized line on top of this map. This is one realisation of the idea of being trapped in a time-warp with the map of one of the most modernised South Asian cities of the world on the one hand and the ancient tools that made this city happen on the other. The tools are erased from human memory but the beauty of the cityscape caught in aerial view remains. In one sense therefore, it is a critical political statement on what “development”, “urbanisation” and “beautification” truly mean gained at the heavy cost of labourers who have used these tools to make it happen.

Thyitar from Myanmar exhibited her works entitled Self-Labelled comprised of a series of performance photographs in colour that freezes in time, different expressions of a burkha-clad woman in different stages. The photographs are based on the artiste’s own performance to depict the constraints Islamic women have to live within and asked a friend of hers to click those photographs. The hands are instrumental in carrying the messages of confinement in different forms. But the burkha also tells its own story.

David Alesworth of Pakistan/UK presented a series of four huge photographs under the title Record Room Series where we are witness to history in one sense and displacement in another sense. The photographs are placed corner-wise in the gallery where the viewer feels a sense of being suffocated by piles and piles of papers, records, files and so on, put together any which way, some threatening to fall over others, representing the disorganized and fractured image of a record room that exists only in name today and no one really needs to enter it any more. On the other hand, it is soon to become a part of fossilised history because digitization, the computerised way of maintaining records is rapidly pushing these record rooms to extinction.

Kurchi Dasgupta’s Blockade (Oil on Canvas) is an excellent collage of footprints in red, some faded, many overlapping one another aimlessly moving without direction in a rambling manner. It is as if people are trying to escape from somewhere to somewhere else, jostling and being jostled. The footprints are in different degrees of lucidity placed in stitched-over pieces of canvas with the stitches sticking out. One footprint has been smudged out explained by the artist as having begun on an inspiration from a Frida Kahlo painting which she late smudged out because she wanted the work to be completely independent of influences. This painting lends itself to an international interpretation of the threat of refuges in flight not only from Syria but from all over the world.

India Kurchi Dasgupta

Dasgupta however, says, the painting is her personal reaction to what happened following the series of earthquakes that hit Nepal in 2015. 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. Says Dasgupta, “Blockade materially documents the shortage, the scarcities, the trauma we all went through in 2015; it is hopefully made visible through every stitch I have put in place on this canvas.” In this, as in all the other works displayed, the personal evolves into the political and the social. “Things Lost” but be found and refound and reinstated, in different ways such as works of art and performance and literature and poetry. Then and only then will it be possible for entire humanity across time and space, to “remember the future.” It would indeed be interesting to find out what these works of art would have stood for minus the graphic explanations that ran alongside the works!

  • Written byShoma A. Chattterji

    Dr. Shoma A. Chatterji is a freelance journalist, film scholar and author based in Kolkata. She has 20 published titles, has won the National Award twice and the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Rotary Club of Kolkata Metro. She has done her post-doctoral research on cinema and has juried at national and international film festivals over time


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