Reviewed by Payel Majumdar
What is modern? And why must modern always be perceived as superior when compared to the ‘ignorant’ past? Ever since the Western modern school of thought brushed aside the feudal, agrarian ethic that valued traditions and structures of past times, contemporary schools of thought are encouraged in place of any remnants of the past, whether of a tangential nature or even non-tangential practices and moralities.
Past Tradition, a group exhibition by artists across the MENASA region (Middle East, North Africa, South Asia) attempts to push the idea of the closeted past into a more dynamic, active realm where traditions are not another word for the decadent or the regressive. The participating artists in the exhibition are Faig Ahmed from Azerbaijan, Iranian artist Afruz Amighi, Kamrooz Aram, Vibha Galhotra, Waqas Khan from Lahore, Nepalese artist Tsherin Sherpa, Naseer Al Salem and Pakistani artist Shazia Sikander. In a scattered variety of media (perhaps chosen by the curator Diana Campbell Betancourt to make a historicist point about how tat times raditions varied over regions in the same period, and were therefore fluid unlike the rigidity with which they’re perceived when no longer contemporary), the exhibition is luxuriously spread across the spaces of Exhibit 320, a Vibha Galhotra creation here, an Afruz Amighi installation hanging there.
Owing to the scattered use of media in the exhibit, at first impression, it is difficult to take all of it in as one thought process. But as you go through the works it is this very variety that reveals the multiple layers of thought behind Diana’s curation which gathers all the artists and their works.
Take for instance, Tsherin Sherpa’s Nepalese paintings after the thangka tradition, juxtaposed with Pakistani artist Shazia Sikander’s contemporary art that draws inspiration from miniature art. While at first sight, they are too varied to draw any sort of relative comparison, on second thoughts, it is each artists’ origin and background that drives their art, and their cosmopolitan influences that emerge through their creations. Tsherin Sherpa’s works Spirit duo (photograph below) is a depiction of the deities undertaking a journey from Nepal to secular spaces of California, the artist’s current residence. The Americanised knickers on the deity spirits, the simplistic skulls smiling (as though an emoticon) over the arched headdresses of the deities are brought together as perfectly as if it were metaphysical conceit in poetry. The artistic temperament often displays wit in unexpected quarters, freeing the artwork from the perceived burden of history.
Shahzia Sikander’s works deals with this differently. Her work Mirror Plane, for instance, a Colour Direct Gravure Print, consciously moves away from the syntax of miniature painting, while retaining its elements. You have the calligraphy, the detailing, the patterns, the flattened multiple layers which are then turned around to depict different elements of the artwork in each layer. Indigenous techniques of block printing on textiles are visually referenced in the negative sketches of the patterns on the overall print.
Naseer Al Salem’s displayed art work with its maze-like parallel rectangles which can be seen merging with equilateral triangles and giving into more geometrical shapes, is a form that represents the meaning of religious texts and is to be interpreted to evoke as much. The artist plays around with symmetry, giving the whole artwork a symmetrical form which he takes away from in the same work, by adding asymmetrical details. Symmetry also needs to be factored in by context, or in this case, perspective, the work of art becoming a philosophical take on the need for perfection.
Baku artist Faig Ahmed’s artwork is perhaps the most dramatic as he undertakes the task of displacement of traditional art forms with contemporary techniques. A sheer block of yellow drips into his Persian patterned woolen carpet from Azerbaijan. Faig uses the traditional space of the carpet as a canvas for relating dreams and for story-telling by evoking surrealism into it. Kamrooz Aram, Iranian artist based out of New York, has a display of aluminium chains dangling from the ceiling, a metaphor for the dual nature of nationalism, which while resembling a cage for some, for others it is a thing of beauty to be preserved. Faig also provokes a debate about what high art is, putting delicate graphic patterns prevalent in commercial art and putting them to use in his sculpture.
The sole artist from India, Vibha Galhotra also had a sprawling installation made of her trademark ghungroos, coiled and travelling snake like from ceiling to floor as a metaphor for tribal histories that migrate and morph forms, and often get lost as the civilization travels farther from its roots.
Therefore, coming back to the premise, what is modern, and what is tradition? Past Tradition, the exhibition attempts to synergize a whole, a bridge between the past and the present. The roots of the past in the present, the influences – the obvious and subconscious ones on the one hand, and the morphed, evolved practices and structures of the ‘Past’ in the ‘Present’ all come together in this exhibition. This project may be described as a behind-the-scenes look into the effect of modernism, providing us a glimpse of the past viewed through a modern perspective, a journey of recovery and commemoration back to the origin of modern structures. While the past and the present may look alien with respect to each other, they can be brought together in the highest expression of harmony, which is art.
Past Traditions is on view at gallery Exhibit 320 in Lado Sarai, New Delhi till May 14, 2014.