Placemaking for the Subaltern
Placemaking for the Subaltern

Shahzia Sikander’s recent installation of sculptures titled Hawah …to breathe, air, life, stands in Madison Square Park (Witness) and the Supreme Court (NOW) in New York— with this comes the honor of being the first artist of Pakistani origin to exhibit art at these sites. The larger-than-life sculptures of the female figure also mark a de-colonial moment for women, the displaced, and the disenfranchised. The allegorical figure, (NOW, 2023) stands tall on the rooftop of the courthouse, embodying the act of reclaiming history; the first woman, among nine male figures including Confucius, Justinian and Moses whose canonical edicts narrowed space for women for centuries. The artist states: “If we use art, media, and culture to reverse stereotypes about gender, race, immigrants, and the unfamiliar, the beliefs we pass on to future generations reflect the complex and dynamic world we live in.”

Another history altering public art exhibition is emerging at the National Mall in Washington DC as I write this, it has been organized by Monument Lab under the rubric, Beyond Granite: Pulling Together. The six art installations by artists Derrick Adams, Tiffany Chung, Ashon Crawley, Vanessa German, Raul Ramirez Jonas and Wendy Red Star will be adding chapters from a forgotten history to provoke public memory on issues like land dispossession of the first nations, enslavement on which the economy was built, the brutality and indignity of segregation.

This summer, Royal Ontario Museum (ROM) is having its own celebration of the marginalized with the art of twenty-five women artists, titled Being and Belonging: Contemporary Women Artists from the Islamic World and Beyond; the list includes three artists of Pakistani origin, Shahzia Sikander, Sumaira Tazeen and Tazeen Qayyum. Dr Silvia Forni, the co-curator explained the enthusiasm around this groundbreaking show “It is exciting to have these amazing works in dialogue. The artists in the show confront important issues of our time from war, migration, gender discrimination, racism, and globalization, to spirituality from a critical and personal standpoint. It is a chorus of powerful women inviting us to reflect on the complexity of our contemporary world.”

The Art Gallery of Ontario has also opened its doors to the first ever retrospective of a woman artist of South Asian origin, Sarinder Dhaliwal. Her narrative, built around personal symbols of loss and new roots, is also significant for its representation of the collective memory of re-location and alienation for immigrant women of different generations. The movement to decolonize the public space gained momentum, and men— of once undisputed power — lost their monuments; Egerton Ryerson was one of them. His stature was persistently defaced and toppled in protest against the architect of the infamous Canadian residential school system for the indigenous communities that led to the maltreatment and death of hundreds of indigenous children, recently found in unmarked graves. Not only was the statue removed but the name of the Ryerson University was changed to Toronto Metropolitan University in triumphant respect of people’s will.

Retrospective of Sarinder Dhaliwal at AGO, 2023. Image Credit: Niilofur Farrukh

A case of censorship led to the sacking of Sandip Luis, a senior researcher at Kiran Nader Museum in Delhi. The dismissal resulted due to his criticism of the instrumentalization of art by the State. This happened when India’s Ministry of Culture, in collaboration with the National Gallery of Modern Art (NGMA), held an exhibition to celebrate the 100th episode of a radio show hosted by India’s prime minister Narendra Modi. Luis, in his social media post, expressed his concern around the complicity of the participating artists, curators, and the patron Kiran Nadar (who was also the advisor of the exhibition) were allowing contemporary art to be used for state propaganda. This came against the backdrop of Modi’s government’s extremist policies that have led to the erasure of history in school textbooks, and exclusion of dissident authors from university curricula to bolster his ideological ambitions. A widespread condemnation by advocates of freedom of speech and support for reinstating Luis has come from all quarters.

In the midst of political upheaval and violence in Pakistan, the news of Sheema Kirmani being awarded the prestigious Pride of Performance on 14th August, 2023 was heartwarming. The word ‘performance’ however was ironic, as for 40 years, the very Establishment that has bestowed this honor, crafted draconian laws to ban dancers like her, from public performances. Against the repression, Sheema struggled relentlessly to keep classical dance alive. This history of stigmatization of classical dance and the unexpected award makes one pause and hope, that this recognition will herald a constructive attitude towards both classical dance and gender justice — that Sheema stands for.

Being and Belonging show at the ROM, 2023. Image Credit: Niilofur Farrukh

How should we read this uncertain and uneven cultural rights landscape? One can witness an acknowledgement of cultural complexity, and a desire to be inclusive (by museums in North America) but will this lead to an expansion of their mandate? Past experience has made one cynical about public accolades and endorsement of public exhibitions in South Asia, where patronage of culture is more about appeasement and politics, than markers of a progressive policy. The only truth that persists is the power of art; whatever their ideology, political leaders continue to use art to seek legitimacy with the people. However authoritarian their political agenda, they still want to be seen endorsing art shows, and recognizing artists to escape the label of Philistinism. Collectively we need to learn to read and resist the patterns of deception; but today let’s celebrate small victories for marginalized voices and placemaking for the subaltern.

Meanwhile heed the prophetic verses of Faiz, the revolutionary poet.

Abhi garaani-e-shab mein kami nahin aayi

The heaviness of the night has yet to lift

Chale chalo ki woh manzil abhi nahin aayihe

Let us keep walking, as we have yet to reach our destination.

Title image: Retrospective of Sarinder Dhaliwal at AGO, 2023. Image credit: Niilofur Farrukh

Niilofur Farrukh is a Karachi based art interventionist whose seminal initiatives have expanded the space for art publication, curation and public art in Pakistan. Her primary interest lies in issues of decolonization and as a writer/curator her focus has been on the excavation of lost interdisciplinary connections within the cultural matrix. She has several books to her credit and has been a columnist with Dawn and Newsline. The cornerstone of her curatorial practice underlines a more inclusive social dialogue through art in public spaces, something she is fully committed to as the CEO of the Karachi Biennale.

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