Children’s author Nicola Davies, heard about a child turning up at a school near a refugee camp and being turned away because there was no chair for her. The girl came back the next day with a broken chair and asked again, but the school refused admission. Davies responded to the event by inviting people to join on Twitter with a sketch of chair for #3000chairs. Chilean poet Raul Zurita, created “Sea of Pain”, at Kochi Biennale, moved by the picture of 3-year-old Galip Kurdi’s dead body that was thrown to the shore by the sea, as though unable to bear its pain.
Living through perpetual partitions of the land and identities in the times of global political chaos, artists respond, react and express responsibility in multiple ways to the world, losing its fabric of humanity. Violence, displacement, migration, and experiencing “otherness” dominate the works of art. The displacements make an artist assimilate the experience deeper and at multiple levels—not just political—but other injustices—of gender, religion, class, caste and conflicts between east and west, right and left—seep in.
To live like a nomad in one’s own country, to witness and live through fragmentations of the land and hearts, offer a vantage point to artists like Veer Munshi. And, in a way, make him feel “responsible” for the many exoduses. “I’m both the terrorist and the refugee, the outsider and the insider, the political and the artistic, the oppressor and the victimised,” says Munshi. He has been trying to grapple with the philosophy of war humanity has been waging against itself. The war— outside and within— Munshi was displaced from his home, in Srinagar, Kashmir.
Munshi is not alone in this quest. A recently concluded travelling exhibition titled “Dissensus” brought together works of eight artists who have been witness to ongoing socio-political and territorial conflict — Nepal, Afghanistan, Iran, Taiwan, Bangladesh, Kashmir in India, and Pakistan. The exhibition travelled from Delhi to Chandigarh in November, presented by Punjab Lalit Kala Akademi, in collaboration with gallery Latitude 28, New Delhi. Showcased at Punjab Kala Bhavan, Chandigarh, it drew diverse groups of people for its contemporary relevance. Another added attraction was a talk and slide show by artist Veer Munshi, who later gave a guided tour of the exhibition, to offer fresh insights in works of art of complex political connotations.
The artists Fay Ku, Gazi Nafis Ahmed, Hit Man Gurung, Khadim Ali, Neda Tavallee, Priyanka D’Souza, Veer Munshi and Waseem Ahmed, draw their narratives from immediate, everyday contexts of displacement, violence, aggression, inequalities, distortions of history and markers of cultural identities to construct a quiet dissent, but not without employing aesthetic. Their intimate testimonies, borne by ordinary men and women and overlooked by political figureheads and mainstream media, create a delicate world of narratives. Several artists use the subtlety of miniature tradition to voice their politics. The scale and detail evoke marginal locations of their themes. The works need to be seen in their multiple layerings, like the gauzed face of Hit Man Gurung’s work. Most artists carry multiple identities in true sense of global citizenship, their works reflect multiple histories and traditions, at times with contemporary twist. At other, in conflict with each other. Australia-based artist Khadim Ali, who was recently featured in Art Asia Pacific’s list of top 40 artists under 40 in the Asia Pacific region, revisits Ferdowsi’s “Shahnameh”, he looks at it as more of a story of failure, than a saga of heroic enterprise. “If we consider Shahnameh to be tales of killings in a future past, it becomes aligned with the contemporary geopolitics. The Islamic world today, just as the Persian world, is drowning in the Killing(s) of future. A brutal past is destroying the heart of the present,” he rues.
Waseem Ahmed, acclaimed contemporary miniature artist from Pakistan, whose works are based on contemporary political issues, portrays religion as the base of all conflicts. Images from the past are juxtaposed with the contemporary; the pious and the profane, religion and violence, the ugly and aesthetic bleed into each other. His burka-clad figure, seem to give the lie to the bullet-proof invincibility of the veil, by presenting a horrifying scene where certain bodies can be hurt, raped and silenced with impunity. The multiplication of images hinting at the prevalence.
Among the senior, established artists, Priyanka D’Souza, a young MSU Baroda trained artist, was introduced with her deeply sensitive take on the contemporary political and social issues through work that is inspired by Mughal miniatures. She addresses the ongoing language politics, responding to Manash Firaq Bhattacharjee’s poem, No Urdu In Dilli, Mian, playing delicately with the idea of the walls, scripts and “writing on the wall.”
“Offering” by Fay Ku, a Taiwanese- American artist, creates the magical shadows of histories—both Eastern and Western—incorporating the primal and universal in a quasi religious tableau. In her work, the distinction between the man and the beast seem to merge, the reducibility of the human to a bare life banned and removed from the citizenry, employed by sovereignty to fix and reinforce its own power and prerogatives evoke complex notions of the sacrifice at altar. She uses Chinese gongbi and xieyi in addition to Indian and Persian miniaturist styles to weave a micro-poetics of contemporary concerns.
Iranian artist Neda Tavallaee, shows for the first time in India, her work tells a tale of formalised censorship of women's bodies in the Middle East, the strictures imposed on their autonomy and leisure, and the general accrual of mystery by these bodies when seen through a veil. These bodies have been ordered to the veil, both literally and symbolically, forcing them to seek new alliances and latitude within the extant configuration. Through her works, Tavallaee attempts to make visible these alternate economies and the beauty therein, as well as their struggles and predicament. The series entitled About Havva (Havva being the Islamic name for Eve) is dedicated to an episode from 2016 that witnessed the unwarranted detainment of some Iranian fashion models active on Instagram.
The photographer Gazi Nafis Ahmed’s works document exploitation and violence meted out to various minorities in Bangladesh. Series such as Puran Dhaka affords the viewer a rare peek into the tough life characterizing the streets of Old Dhaka, locking her in an intimate yet troubling encounter with the tenacious faces that have come to call it their home. Earlier works such as Inner Face present a humanizing document of lives lived under the ban, the malefic penal code 377 that decrees out ‘unnatural’ sexual activities and continues to loom as a hanging sword and an open alibi for discrimination against LGBTQ community.
Hit Man Gurung’s work, a large canvas, from the series ‘This is My Home, My Land and My Country...’ entitled We are in war without enemies...indexes the tardy pace of rehabilitation work undertaken by the government as well as the mismanagement and embezzling of relief funds post 2015 floods.
For his series “Relics from Lost Paradise” Veer Munshi, worked closely with the craftsmen of Kashmir. The skeletons in the casket decorated in papier mache, belong to both the victim and the victimiser. His work is a tribute to the dead, either declared a martyr or for maintaining peace or for retaining the rich heritage of Kashmir. “ The craft is the skin of the work”, he says. His work also places the rich crafts at the centre stage in the times of conflict, by developing a language of art that represents all classes—their concerns, loss and pain. working with craftsmen also gives him an opportunity to go back home, he says. Munshi had to leave Kashmir in 1990, along with thousands of Kashmiri Pandits. His home, like many others, was burnt. The photographs of the deserted houses, Munshi showed in a slide show, speak silently of the pain and loss of displaced inhabitants, universally.