Annually, when having to tell the story of the year gone by, I become half trusting of myself. My telling turns to a gathering of personal predilections, rather than an ordered recounting, stained by the very moment of teetering on the precipice of the year end, with the curious need to be urgent, discerning, contemporary and timeless all at once. A set of selections that look to announce participation, and perhaps even a viewpoint in cultural conversations. However, inevitably with the passing of time, those ideas and ideals are subject to elaborations, revisions and extensions. In the light of future days and afternoons, once dismissed experiences and works assume new kinds of import and prominence, calling for a rethink, allowing prior aesthetic judgments to be amended and expanded. It is under this projected spectre of the possible, provisional, variable and even arbitrary heart, resisting calcification, I offer some staccato notes from 2013, shuttling between a changing present and a shifting past.
Curated by Yaëlle Biro, ‘African Art, New York and the Avant-Garde’ at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Modern Art was a compelling show which in meticulous detail traced the journey of some 40 African artefacts in the 1910s and 1920s. Rustled up from French and Belgian colonies, congregated in Paris, these were then presented in New York to collectors and tastemakers where they were finally acquired. The show’s accomplishment lay not only in its evocation of the transnational character of the art world, in the opening decades of the 20th century, but also in the suggestion through the use of vintage photographs (by Charles Sheeler and Alfred Stieglitz, including a highly erotic image of a topless Georgia O’Keefe from 1918–19, posing with an anthropomorphic spoon from the Ivory Coast) which pictured these African objects in galleries and private homes, as to how they were actually being considered and understood at the time. Transnational networks of interaction were at the heart of another, slightly more empirical, but relevant show ‘Bauhaus in Calcutta: An Encounter of Cosmopolitan Avant-Gardes’, mounted at the Bauhaus campus in Dessau, Germany. The focus of this presentation was a reconstruction of an exhibition that took place in Calcutta in 1922, in which works by Bauhaus masters were shown alongside Indian artists at the invitation of Rabindranath Tagore. The proposition of these two shows, their precise inquiries, historical leanings, indicate the active unbinding of modernism as being exclusively the domain of the West, and the rightful recognition of it as always having been a global affair, one characterized by multiply flows and exchanges across borders, making room for re-imaginings of the international.
A carry over from 2012 (which I had the privilege of viewing for the first time in the context of the very engaging show ‘After Year Zero: Geographies of Collaboration since 1945’ curated by Annett Busch and Anslem Franke at the Haus der Kulturen der Welt, Berlin) is John Akomfrah’s mesmerizing and wholly affecting The Unfinished Conversation (2012). This three channel piece which takes cultural theorist Stuart Hall as it subject, simultaneously folds in images of significant events from the 20th century, set to a jazz score, plaintively asking how identities are formed, where they come from, how they interface with historical narratives and how these narratives are constructed. A story of identity is also at the core of Ketaki Sheth’s sensitive new book A Certain Grace: The Sidi, Indians of African Descent (Photoink, 2013). Yet, Sheth’s project is not to present a comprehensive study of a community of Indians of African descent in the state of Gujarat. Her images – all rendered in square format – are mostly quiet portraits of women, men and children looking directly at the camera, or averting their gaze, sometimes eyes cast down. Rory Bester in his afterword for the book describes the photographs as being ‘without a jealous desire for ‘African-ness’, for reminders and affirmations of physical likeness, cultural resemblance or ritual mirroring. But at the same time, they are never less than a buried sense of Africa, waiting if unknown, diffident if recognized. Sheth’s photography is intimate to the particular politics of acceptance that so often circumscribes a sense of home – one that for Indians of African descent is so distinct from movements and migrations to and from Africa.’
Living life is not easy: loss, fear, pain, doubt, ill health, disappointment and death are inescapable. Connecting with these emotions and psychological conditions was unavoidable at the profile on Luther Price organized with the artist by Light Industry’s Ed Halter, at the 59th International Short Film Festival Oberhausen. The programme consisted of three screenings, a mix of Super 8, 16mm and slide projections, the acme being a midnight screening of Clown (1991) in a disused part of Oberhausen train station, and a double projection of his infamous Sodom (1994). The most moving instant for me came in the form of a portrait of his mother, titled Mother (revised) (2002). A few months later, I was confronted with a personal loss that continues to overwhelm me. Now, still negotiating with the pain of that parting, and associated trauma, Price’s works, while reminding me of how excruciating it is to be alive, are also comforting in their eloquence, humanity, and honesty. Another invigorating experience was Sadler Well’s staging of Anne Teresa de Keersmaeker’s Drumming (1998). Raw and full of energy, conceived to a score by Steve Reich, the complex choreographic configurations were performed with incredible ease and grace by Rosas’s 12 dancers in strikingly understated white costumes. Simply astonishing. Gorgeous compositions of vastly different tenors, Hailu Mergia & His Classical Instrument: Shemonmuanaye (Awesome Tapes from Africa) and Raul Lovisoni and Fracesco Messina’s Prati Bagnati del Monte Analogo (Die Schachtel), both reissues, have helped me reflect, and also provided me with ample comfort.
Back home in India, across the year, unexpectedly, to my delight, a series of shows elected to mine neglected material histories and marginalized artistic practices. ‘Between the Lines: Identity, Place and Power’ curated by Lina Vincent Sunish at the National Gallery of Modern Art, Mumbai showcased the artist and photographer Waswo X. Waswo’s collection of Indian prints. The exhibition drew attention to a history of printmaking on the subcontinent, largely regarded as a lesser art form. This was followed up by a much over due retrospective of pioneering printmaker Krishna Reddy at the Sir J.J. School of Art, Mumbai, co-curated by Professor Anant Nikam and Zasha Colah and Sumesh Sharma of The Clark House Initiative, Mumbai. Serendipitously, two shows on collage in the Indian context, stretching from the 1930s to the present, found themselves in conversation with one another, Jhaveri Contemporary’s ‘Considering Collage’ and Chatterjee and Lal’s ‘Cut and Paste: Popular Mid 20th Century Art’. The Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya hosted a show of the forgotten painter Mohan Samant. Drawings by the overlooked Maharashtran painter Prabhakar Barwe were displayed at Percept Art, Mumbai. This exhibition was accompanied by the release of an English translation of his Marathi book Kora Canvas. Hopefully, this will prompt a closer consideration of his oeuvre.
In Delhi, it was the much acclaimed Nasreen Mohamedi retrospective at the Kiran Nadar Museum of Art, curated by Roobina Karoda that spanned the length of the entire year. Ram Rahman continued to edify, lecturing and curating on contemporary Indian photography. Last year, he shone a spotlight on the architectural photography of Madan Mahatta, and this year at the second edition of the United Art Fair he managed to do the same with J.H Thakker, Ram Dhaija and O.P. Sharma. Of his finds, and in my appreciation, the most beautiful is a theatrical studio portrait of the critic Geeta Kapur in 1963, by Sharma. Rahman, should also be credited for co-curating ‘The Sahmat Collective: Art and Activism in India since 1989’ at Chicago’s Smart Museum of Art, an exhibition that sought to highlight a history of contemporary artist led protest in India, promoting artistic freedom and celebrating secular, egalitarian values. Also, this year is one of remembrance, when two painters I admire immensely, were cosmically brought together; 2013 marks the ten-year anniversary of Bhupen Khakhar’s death, and is the centenary of Amrita Sher Gil’s birth. Their legacies are a constant inspiration.
The Indian show that towered over all was ‘The Body in Indian Art’ curated by Dr. Naman Ahuja at BOZAR, Centre for Fine Arts, Brussels as part of the Europalia International Arts Festival. Ambitious, impressive and motivating, not since the 1982 Hayward exhibition ‘In the Image of Man’ has such a vast array of Indian masterpieces been brought together, majority of which had been loaned from provincial museums across India. Knowing the agony of Indian bureaucracy, grim museum conditions, and outdated import-export laws, the ability to get these objects to Brussels was a triumph in itself. Ahuja’s exhibition did not directly concern itself with the physical, corporeal body, but instead fixated on a greater understanding of it within Indian culture, through death, the cosmic, the heroic, the ascetic, the supernatural, rebirth and finally rapture. Works from different time periods, religions, and geographical contexts were placed next to one another, across eight rooms, but with an acute awareness that did not collapse the distinctions between them, preventing a lapse into a homogenous view of India. The breadth of the show was dizzying, amongst the earliest material were intriguing copper anthropormorphic forms circa. 2nd-1st millennium BCE, ranging to powerful modern and contemporary pieces like Sheela Gowda’s Draupadi’s Vow (1997) and Mrinalini Mukherjee’s Basanti (1993). The show held many revelations for me, and was an immensely edifying experience.
In the last room of the show that elaborated on the body in states of rapture I chanced upon a work, The love play of Radha and Krsna (from Gita Govinda), ascribed to a master of the first generation after Nainsukh, c.1775-80 which reminded me of another miniature I saw during Asia week in New York, it was also of a Radha Krishna tryst in the moonlight. Similar, both were incredible in their sensuality. The image in the exhibition along with another image illustrated in the excellent catalogue where the lovers have exchanged their clothes, as well as body gestures and mannerism, alluding to the body’s possibility to completely lose the ‘self’ to the ‘other’, a transference enacted through rapturous love, are exhilarating. Amorphous desire is also at the heart of Alain Guiraudie’s thrilling film L’inconnu du lac (Stranger by the Lake, 2013). The entire movie unfolds at one location, a secluded lakeside in France, a gay cruising spot. Rarely, has a film lensed explicit sex and naked male bodies with such frankness. Gloriously shot in natural light, with a meaningful use of widescreen, precisely edited, Guiraudie engenders a tense atmosphere. Eroticism and danger, pain and pleasure, are made to mingle with one another, overlap and intertwine, with the results that are daring and riveting.
As for 2014, fashion already has me there: Miuccia Prada offers a most seductive vision, at her Spring/Summer menswear presentation, with a set named ‘Menacing Paradise’. Prada’s tropical ideal was a dark place, full of threat, pitched just as the sun goes down, and the lurid lurks amongst the palm trees. We have a love story: men and women with a hint of sweat stalked around in luscious tropical prints, silken blousons and generously tailored trousers, to excerpts from the Body Heat soundtrack, only to be interrupted by Tangerine Dream. Sultry and sexy, but probably the greatest provocation for the coming year, or rather for any year was rendered by the irrepressible Rei Kawakubo at Comme des Garçons during the women’s Spring/Summer 14 presentations. Of the show, Kawakubo’s husband Adrian Joffe explained, that she could not think of anything new, so she decided not to make any clothes. What audience members were left to mull was a series of elaborate creations, that walked down an elevated runway, under a swinging single spotlight, each to their own individual piece of music. Audacious, and extraordinary. Perhaps, every so often we need to clear the decks, to really challenge ourselves.