Home does not necessarily constitute a geographical space; it can also be deemed an emotion that we as humans carry with us in our peripatetic journey of life. An emotion that we attach to materiality in pursuit of creating our own identities that are entangled within our histories. Through a postcolonial lens, Home Ground brings together four South Asian artists from the Neulinge Collective. Under the curatorial foresight of Noor Ahmed, the artists share ‘visual memoirs’ of their embodied experiences on displacement and diaspora, exploring the effects of displacement, cultural hybridity and transnationalism.
The four women artists, with their varying histories pertaining to the regions of Pakistan, India and Sri Lanka, tie together, and bring forth, their understanding of ‘geopolitical specificities’ of identity and heritage through the exhibition. Socio-cultural dislocation from modern colonialism— epitomizing the histories of oppression and the expulsion of indigenous people from their ancestral lands— is a trauma ingrained in the fabric of the people from the subcontinent. The artists delve into decontextualizing their histories by creating an altered, hybrid space for themselves and for women in and beyond the South Asian communities and the diasporic, breaking away from this foundation of oppression.
The artists Mariam M Habib, Chudamani Clowes, Divya Sharma and Mariam Hina Hasnain, transformed their experiences into vibrant, ground-breaking synergies, serving as a socio-political commentary, while paving way for a new sense of national belonging by transcending borders. This gave birth to the formation of a revolutionized space, which they could call their own— essentially an emancipated union of ‘being’.
Despite being a collective, each has a distinct voice in terms of materiality and visual expression. It is the narrative and conjoint context that brings them together. Pakistani artist, Mariam M Habib and Sri Lankan artist, Chudamani Clowes, chose ritualistic practices and object specificity to understand and share their renewed feelings of home. Ideas of self-representation, identity and selfhood are unpacked in these series of works.
Juloos pays homage to Muharram. Being a religious minority, there is almost this sense of recreating identity in the post-colonial country of a post-futuristic world, where this minority is viewed as violent and oppressive at the same time. Zuljana, the beloved horse of the revered historical figure, Imam Hussain, has a very important part to play for the Shia community. Habib, depicts a scene where Zuljana is being loved by devotees during a religious procession, thereby, respectfully reflecting and reminiscing on her identity by paying homage to these practices. In doing so, she changes the narrative of violence placed on Muharram.
Through The Unexpected Letter, Chudamani Clowes, depicts coral reefs painted on an army tent shaped as an aerogramme. In talking about the colonial past of Sri Lanka, choice of subject matter plays a vital and deliberate role in uncovering Clowes work, where it emphasizes notions of immigration and race, pertaining to the postcolonial discourse. Coral is seen as a life form that encroaches on its surroundings, spreading to form colonies of its own. Subconsciously, Clowes uses the coral to reference her own colonizers. In doing so, reflects on her own identity, while living away from her homeland. The aerogramme plays an important role in Clowes revival of culture and home, as she possesses one written by her mother, for her many years ago. It is the physical manifestation of home, a material memory with awakened emotion. This idea of diaspora, pertaining to human stories passed between generations is particularly striking for the artist. Both artists, with their varying mediums, weave a story of generational representation and a newly evolved notion of selfhood, whilst breaking free from the shackles of occupied land.
The curated works hang with no barriers between them and the audience, thereby encroaching on personal space and creating a highly emotive atmosphere at Art Chowk Gallery. The deliberate attempt at inclusion provides the viewers an arena to manifest real emotion; completely raw, unfinished and industrial. These are also qualities that the works themselves possess. It is gratifying to be emotionally awakened, as the world we live in is consumed by overriding politics and overstimulating power dynamics that choose to oppress all sense of being ‘human’.
Postcolonial, post-diasporic spaces can be governed by oppressive policies and political standpoints. Habib’s Far Away (Fifty-One Kilometers), a different visual narrative altogether from Juloos, paints a picture of a soothing landscape between Sindh and Baluchistan. What seems to be a serene fishing village is actually a byproduct of gentrification. Land mafia seeks to remove the indigenous fisherman community to replace them with modern structures, essentially working as a tool for modern-day colonialism. The sea is meant to connect individuals to the rest of the world, but in this case, power and politics are playing a dirty role in the removal of individuals from their home. Although the image exudes a calmer energy, as opposed to the highly charged, Juloos, ‘the message is one of trauma and tragedy’.
Mariam Hina Hasnain challenges notions of displacement through acts of demarcation. The interaction between the delicate tracing paper and dense quality of the inks creates displaced variations of mark-making. Cause and effect essentially breed an atmosphere of oppression. However, the metamorphosis creates a beautiful result; almost like hand-painted tapestry, as seen in Orientalism. The environment plays a similar role as an oppressor by manipulating the prints with the change of day and night. There is a power-play between the light as oppressor on the materiality being considered as the oppressed. There is reference to this idea of map-making, something to uncover, which helps in deconstructing political agendas. The Surveying and Mapping Act of 2014, states that unauthorized officials cannot create a map of a region without official consent. Therefore, indigenous communities that are not officially mapped may be poached by land-grabbing mafias. Hence, could be misrepresented on the official map of Pakistan. This completely changes the narrative of what home means for some at the hands of the powerful.
These artists being migratory in nature, share the same qualities with that of the surface of water, always in motion, glistening and gleaming with endless possibilities. Perhaps, this can also be considered as remnants of chaotic human life, depending on the subjective interpretation. Divya Sharma, with ‘The Shape of Identity’, references the Ganges and Indus to create a kinship between a subconscious space of memories and a physical space of home. This reflection brings an amalgamation of identities; some forgotten, like the stories of indigenous folklore. Popular Indian belief considers the Ganges as soul-cleansing. Rituals are performed in the river by devotees with the hopes of rejuvenating themselves. Sharma, much like the river, encroaches on the gallery space with her performative work. Jute and rope coupled together, meandering at varying degrees, present themselves as the multitude of identities that the artist grapples to understand. The material specificity allows Sharma to share her understanding of cultural hybridity. This led to the creation of a new self, a third space, as coined by influential cultural and post-colonial theorist Homi Bhabha.
The theory refers to the intersection between a liminal space, “which gives rise to something different, something new and unrecognizable, a new area of negotiation of meaning and representation”. This in between space, the ‘third space’, is where new identities may be reformed that are in a constant state of becoming. Ultimately, these artists entered into a third space with a creative edge that derived from a place of belonging— that simultaneously is, and is not, considered home. Bhabha contends that a new hybrid identity or subject-position emerges from the interweaving of elements of the colonizer and colonized challenging the validity and authenticity of any essentialist cultural identity.
This ‘third space’ within the walls of Art Chowk gallery, became a mode of articulation for these artists through the contextualization of their ideas. It was a way of describing a reflective and productive space of interrogation that engendered new possibilities for themselves and the audience. As you leave the space, you are left with unanswered questions which are meant for personal self-expression and growth. A means for which to understand what it means to be ‘home’ in the modern world. Whether one does find that space or not is dependent on them, but, the artists and curator have invited the audience into interrogating that state of consciousness.
‘The Neulinge Collective brings together four South Asian artists, who debate and highlight issues pertaining to global politics and its impact on women of colour’. Curated by Noor Ahmed, ‘Home Ground’ was showcased at the Art Chowk Gallery in Karachi, from the 11th of August until the 25th of August 2022
Title Image: Divya Sharma The Shape Of Identity, Textile and thread, 142 x 47 inches, 2022