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INDIA/PAKISTAN: Artists Take On Post-Colonial Partitions

Beena Sarwar

KARACHI, Feb 5 2009 (IPS) - With national boundaries continually being redrawn in the post-colonial world, it’s time to deal with the reality of partitions and find a way "to make peace with our partitioned selves", contends international banker-turned-art curator Hammad Nasar.

Naeem Mohaiemen's 'Kazi in Nomansland' underlines how India, Pakistan and Bangladesh have each tried to 'own' the poet Kazi Nazrul Islam. Credit: Jamal Ashiquain/IPS

Naeem Mohaiemen's 'Kazi in Nomansland' underlines how India, Pakistan and Bangladesh have each tried to 'own' the poet Kazi Nazrul Islam. Credit: Jamal Ashiquain/IPS

Some 15 million refugees were created and between one and two million people were killed during the traumatic Partition of the subcontinent into predominantly Hindu India and predominantly Muslim Pakistan.

"Why is there no memorial?" asks Nasar. "People tell me that’s not our culture. But there are mausoleums for various saints from Kutch to Khyber, we garland graves and photographs, and commemorate death anniversaries."

Over the last 30 years, holocaust museums have been built around the world but until 2007, Partition was not taught as history to British states. "The 9/11 monument museum is already up in New York. When I asked the director why they put it up so quickly, he said memorials are a promise from the past to the future about the present."

The difference, comments the prominent Karachi-based writer and editor Muniza Shamsie, "is that holocaust had clear cut perpetuators and victims. With India and Pakistan, it is not so clear. We have a collective guilt and a collective anger."

Through his work, and struck by "how little the shadow of Partition has impacted our visual culture," Nasar is attempting to address these issues.


"Visual artists help us to understand on a deep level where words fail us," he told IPS at the opening of the ‘Lines of Control’ exhibition in Karachi at the VM Rangoonwalla Art Gallery (Jan. 28 – Feb. 28).

The show is organised by Green Cardamom (www. greencardamom.org) a London-based arts organisation that the Pakistan-born Nasar and his journalist wife Anita Dawood Nasar co-founded in 2004. It develops and runs visual arts projects informed by a South Asian cultural perspective but in an international context.

Originally launched in 2007, ‘Lines of Control’ features exhibitions, talks, films and a publication, exploring what Nasar calls the "productive spaces" beyond partitions.

It is currently also showing in Dubai (The Third Line, Jan.15 – Feb. 8) and will open in London at Green Cardamom’s own space on Feb. 18.

The process began with a two-day symposium that Green Cardamom organised in December 2005 at the Royal Geographical Society, London, with artists, filmmakers, and historians.

"We wanted to think ahead to 2007, to commemorating 60 years of Independence [from British colonial rule] and Partition with a big India-Pakistan show. Then we agreed not to ‘fetishise’ that moment," said Nasar. "We ended up several small things that continue to build on each other like a constellation".

The initial activities included a series of talks by young Indian and Pakistani artists. Nasar interviewed the Indian filmmaker Amar Kanwar, whose impressionistic 1997 "A Season Outside" commemorating 50 years of India’s independence and partition is part of the ongoing exhibition at the VM Gallery.

"Much of Amar’s work is about failure, failure to understand, failure to govern," said Nasar. "It’s very poetic, very searching."

The film uses introspective narration in English (another colonial legacy) over black and white footage of the 1947 Partition of India interspersed with modern footage evoking the continuing shadow of Partition over the present.

In one instance, the camera dwells on the recurring pattern of feet belonging to the barefoot or poorly shod ‘coolies’ (manual labourers) from either side meeting at the line that demarcates the Wagah check post on the border between Pakistan and India, as they transfer heavy bags of wheat or onions to each other’s heads.

The narrative raises the issue of ‘being armed with your truth’ versus ‘arming your truth’ as Kanwar explores issues of violence and nationalism. There are no answers, just many questions as the camera focuses on a duel between two massively horned rams and the faces of the men watching the fight.

The only Bangladeshi in the show, Naeem Mohaiemen, has a three-edition series at all three venues. His ‘Kazi in Nomansland’ digital prints series combines words and images to underline how nations appropriate histories.

The narrative focuses on the attempts of Pakistan, India and Bangladesh to ‘own’ the poet Kazi Nazrul Islam – the only person represented on postage stamps in all three countries. Ironically, the poet himself always resisted being bound by narrow nationalist identities.

"I am really startled by how little I really know of our history," commented a middle-aged viewer, reading Mohaiemen’s commentary below digital prints of the poet’s eyes.

The exhibition includes an intriguing installation by the Dutch video artist Sophie Ernst who developed it from a series of film clips of the Indian artist Nalini Malani and her mother that Ernst shot over several days for the 2007 launch.

The final installation, "Home" (2008), uses film clips of Malani’s hands sketching her mother’s old house over an architectural model, their conversation accessible through headphones.

The Dubai show includes a few huge pieces, says the show’s co-curator Nada Raza, showing images of it on her laptop computer.

Among them is the young New York-based Pakistani artist Seher Shah’s 5’x10’ piece ‘Monumental Fantasies – Impermanence I’ including archives from her Indian husband’s family. "He is [iconic Indian writer] Khushwant Singh’s grand nephew," explained Raza.

In 1997, the Pakistani visual artist Iftikhar Dadi, who now teaches art history at Cornell University in the United States, collaborated with the Indian artist Nalini Malani to create ‘Bloodlines’, a large piece using sequins. They have a re-imagined version of it in the Dubai show.

Green Cardamom plans to eventually bring all three shows together in museum spaces looking at the global issue of partition, including in India, although taking art works in and out of India is "very difficult," Raza told IPS.

It was also difficult in the current post-Mumbai tensions to bring the Indian artists over to Karachi for an accompanying symposium and dialogue that had been planned.

"There was an incredible amount of enthusiasm, they really wanted to come," said Nasar. "But it’s an ongoing project, so we hope to bring them over another time."

 
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