Contemporary Arts Production in Times of Unrest: Protest Art in Indian Metropolises

About the Modern is a four-part series by Sumitra Sunder that traces the evolution of contemporary art in India’s metropolitan cities and how the movement has flourished outside the traditional spaces of museums and galleries.

In part two of this series, the author highlights opinions of select theoreticians on how contemporary socio-political arts deals with subjects such as environmental degradation, street protests, tectonic urban migrations, and other socially relevant issues in the metropolises. Read part one here.

In engaging with social change, arts practice and those who have written about the same, often dwell on the socio-political climate of creation. Here, I have used the term ‘creation’ to articulate what the creative process produces. Artists can, through their work, reflect the values and aspirations of their immediate milieu, the community at large, or the challenges of the human condition. While some react with cynicism and even despair, others produce an art of resistance (Turner, 2005).

A part of my doctoral work involves reading shifts in the nature of arts practice; more than ever before, artists today are exploring work in the area of social justice. There is also a clearer association with social justice groups as opposed to being political through an ideological model. An example can be made of the Progressive Artists Group active in the then Bombay in the second half of the 20th century. It was also the dawn of a budding theatre movement seen through the works of spaces like SAHMAT and Jan Natya Manch that articulated their work through affiliation with the political Left. Theirs is a work of resistance.

City of Pieces: an urban festival of creative practices as part of the annual October Jam

City of Pieces: Maraa’s urban festival of creative practices as part of their annual October Jam. Picture courtesy Maraa.

And when you get into the nuances, there is resistance to the dominant narrative that often tends to suppress the voices of those who contribute something equally significant to the larger canvas of creative practice.

The term resistance is also interesting when it comes to creative practice. What is being resisted? There are different ways to approach this. A very broad reading is a resistance to older forms and practices. Resistance to continue using ‘designated’ spaces for work that goes beyond the installation and becomes ephemeral and performative.

There is also a move towards involving communities in arts practice. In confronting issues, artists have addressed their art to, and involved, whole communities in order to help them confront poverty and trauma (caused by both natural and human disasters) and preserve traditions and values: in other words, their art contributes to cultural survival (Turner, 2005). There is a resistance to the idea of ‘othering’ a community’s sense of identity.

Chinese artist Wenda Gu's project United Nations seeks to evoke thoughts of human identity and unity.

Image: United Nations – China Monument: Temple of Heaven; Wenda Gu, 1998, China, Medium: installation, mixed media (human hair, wood chairs,…) 13x52x20 feet. Museum/Collection: Permanent Collection of Hong Kong Museum of Art.

To quote some examples of work from Asian countries, there’s the work of Chinese artist Wenda Gu commenting on international communications. The work, United Nations, which has been in display across various venues since 1993, is a site specific installation, with screens made of human hair and pseudo characters in Chinese, Hindi and Arabic. To date, 30 national monuments have been completed and 1.5 million people have donated hair.

The featured image on this post, ‘Pisupo lua afe’ is a work by Michael Tuffery, a New Zealand-based artist of mixed Pacific Island heritage. His work is performance based and uses flattened cans of pisupo (corned beef) as a metaphor. “The work combines the art of recycling with a light-hearted and ironic comment on the value of colonial economics.” Says Tuffery, ‘My corned beef bullock talks about the impact of global trade and colonial economies on Pacific Island cultures.  Specifically it comments on how an imported commodity has become an integral part of the Polynesian customs of feasting and gift giving.’ – Source.

Closer home, the Bangalore-based group Maraa has been working in the city since 2009. Their work began with putting together community radio shows and is now about responding to specific issues that plague urban life. It is a response to public spaces becoming more restrictive. They use the festival model, which curates themes around the struggles of the city. Some of their works, such as City of Pieces and Out of Focus festivals, are examples of the way they structure protest.

City of pieces is a nine day festival that interrogates the violence of the everyday transformation of the city from the perspective of creative practice.

Image: Maraa’s work speaks to the idea of reclaiming public spaces for the arts. Picture courtesy Maraa.

Closer home, the Bangalore-based group Maraa has been working in the city since 2009. Their work began with putting together community radio shows and is now about responding to specific issues that plague urban life. It is a response to public spaces becoming more restrictive. They use the festival model, which curates themes around the struggles of the city. Some of their works, such as City of Pieces and Out of Focus festivals, are examples of the way they structure protest.

What City of Pieces tried to do was use creative practice to question the violent ways in which the city is transforming, in the backdrop of the Bangalore Metro construction. Speakers and practitioners underlined the importance of removing oneself from a privileged perspective to understand how certain transformations can seem violent to others. Out of Focus was dedicated to labor in the film industry and was a shout out to what is not tangible in cinema: the stories of poets, lyricists, composers, and writers. It interrogates the ways in which the shift from analogue to digital has affected the livelihood of these ‘invisible’ workers of the industry. In a way, Maraa attempts to question the idea of violence and also brings to light how shifts in cultural practice and technology can affect different communities. Their work reflects the larger changes in South Asian cities.

"Second Skin: Elastic Dress" Through the dress, the artist, Anoli Perera discusses the ‘being’ of a woman constantly in the state of flux

Image: “Second Skin: Elastic Dress” Through the dress, the artist, Anoli Perera discusses the ‘being’ of a woman constantly in the state of flux

]One specific moment in the history of contemporary art in this region was the artist led initiatives in India (Khoj), Sri Lanka (Teertha), Bangladesh (Britto Arts Trust) and Pakistan (Vasl).

Further south, in Sri Lanka creative practice begins to wriggle out of its modernist folds in the 1990s through work that resonated with the prevailing chaos. Jagath Weerasinghe, in an essay about contemporary art in Sri Lanka, talks about the temporal nature of the artist’s work as located in the here and now: A majority of contemporary artists show a common conviction in their artistic efforts by necessarily placing themselves and their creative energies within the ‘current cultural moment’ and within its immediacy, and less frequently in the distant past.

These practices highlight the range of issues that artists are grappling with and addressing. In a world where there is no lack of access to information, or the consumption of it, creative practice can be read as a process of taking a moment and thinking about this intake. Commentaries on the ways in which colonization has affected communication, and the ways in which the old power structures used language to communicate are all forms of resistance. I bring up the context of information as it is important for us to reflect on this massive amount of information available. At earlier points in history, information was available to the public in fewer modes, in lesser volume. Has this created a climate for a sharper sense of articulation?

Students of Brushman’s School of Arts, Kannur, 2012, Kochi - Muziris BiennaleCanal By the Sea, M.C. Srijith and students of Brushman’s School of Arts, Kannur, 2012, Kochi – Muziris Biennale.

This can bring us back to the nature of arts or creative practice in our cities today. As I have mentioned earlier, my work tries to look at changes in the process and output of creative practice and one noticeable change is the shift towards recurring/annual festivals or the biennale. Since 1990, there is the Indian Triennale, the Bangladesh Asian Art Biennale, Fukuoka Asian Art exhibitions in Japan, and most recently, the Kochi-Muziris Biennale. In my first blog post, I made a reference to the arts festival model as an illustration of arts practice in flux in Indian cities. But what does this mean for the museum? Stay tuned for the third part in this series to find out.

Part Three: If the museum is imagined as a space that showcases and preserves ‘art history’ in some sense, then can these recurring exhibitions be grounds for the imagination of a new kind of museum? Can the museum engage with the contemporary in different ways than just a physical space?

About the Author

Sumitra SunderSumitra Sunder is a PhD scholar, currently working on contemporary urban arts practice at the National Institute of Advanced Studies in Bangalore. The main focus of her work is to locate contemporary models of creative process and practice in the larger fabric of the history of art. Before commencing doctoral work reluctantly, she has worked with IGNCA, Khoj International Artists Association and Eka Cultural Resources and Research in Delhi and Apparao Galleries in Chennai. Follow her on Twitter.

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