Worldtown via Londontown :: The Empire Strikes Back (Last Chance)
Charles Saatchi showcases thirty-five Indian and Pakistani artists dissecting the social and political processes around Indian politics and identity. Obscure, provocative and partly amateur though undoubtedly complex, The Empire Strikes Back intertwines medium and message for an unapologetic display of Indian Art today. The show runs at the Saatchi Gallery in London until May 7th.
There’s a line I recall from the Haiti Bienniale’s brochure that really struck me: “What happens, when first world art meets third world art? Does it bleed?” A piercing question that inverts narratives presenting the first world as a presumed, preemptive victim - too many threats, too many immigrants, too much pressure - but also challenges victimization narratives that are meant to portray the third world as constant suffererer, helpless, hopeless.
By this rectification, is the first world’s creative matter more fragile, vulnerable, readily injured? Is it lacking the same thick skin that surrounds third world beings, and by extension, their expression? I could not help but keep this visualization in mind as I stepped into the Empire Strikes Back exhibit on Indian Art Today. Thirty-five Indian and Pakistani artists boldly deliver their depictions - proverbially bloodying up the first world - or in this case, the inside of the Saatchi Gallery in Chelsea, London.
The works of art curated cover vast realms of political, personal and social complexity in installations that are redefining what Indian art means today. It’s not a new trend to know and be part of the Indian art scene, especially in the Empire. And new work by Indian artists that is “pushing boundaries”, “defining it’s confused society” is highly coveted by high society’s echelon in a paradoxical way. The new medium evokes conscientious uptaking - gone are stereotypical representations documenting oppressed subaltern females, or discarded slum children. These artists don’t cater to Western preoccupations with intricate motifs, or better yet, a romanticized reincarnation of the overzealous days of the Maharaja. Nor does it concentrate without nuance on glamorized rags to riches upheavals in a simplified glorification of India’s “growth” and “transformation”.
The artists centre their political messages on inequalities, and social and political processes plaguing internal and external relations of their home, avoiding simplistic or reductionist depiction of have and have-nots. In turn, this is a manifesto for consumers of the art to uncomfortably digest reality in larger than life image - even if it’s delivered to the art collectors disconnected from what the art represents. Nevertheless, there is something still very “eastern” about it. Very “third world” in it’s multilayered, resourceful and sharp stylistic overcoat.
Works like “Amnesia” by Chitra Ganesh creates alternative feminisms for her surrealist, feminist superhero - through unlikely narrative in comic book illustrations. This, in turn, takes a bite not only out of traditionalist ideas of women, but also the Western feminist’s positioning of “oppressed Eastern” female. Another work by Pushpamala N. and Claire Arni, charting ethnographic photography by British females delivers a similar counter attack to disavowed missionary views of the helpless Indian woman.
Chisms in internal politics and social disorder through film and installations challenge preconceived notions of art from the Subcontinent. “Death of Distance”, Jitish Kallat’s second piece, detail the contradictory experience of intertwined global relations and inaccess due to poverty. Playing on India’s role in the telecommunication revolution, the piece uses holograms to juxtapose the disproportionate expectations and material outcomes in Indian’s urban classes. Meanwhile, Pakistani artist Huma Mulji’s piece charts the underbelly of identity and displacement through cheekily placing a camel - a symbol of desert and nomads - into a suitcase ready for mobility.
But is this a collection that plays too much on its otherness, simply to provoke its audience? There are some works that contain too forced a message. Jitish Kallat’s ode to Ghandi’s speech in bones (”Public Notice 2″) doesn’t really deliver anything novel, and Jaishri Abichandani’s “Allah-O-Akhbar” in tinsel and lights - while dazzling, does little to disband terror specific branding of Pakistani society. The irony or true meaning of this signage can’t help but get lost in translation.
If the Empire Strikes Back indicates anything, it is that Indian Art today is not a replica of harems and overdone motifs - much to the dismay of Taj Mahal seeking tourist art voyeurs. Young artists are active agents in questioning and dissecting their respective countrys’ skin, and political will shifting away from politically ambiguous and diluted paintings and figurines - even if it’s still amateur in it’s efforts. And in doing so, they are well aware of how the West perceives and receives the underbelly of their national heritage. Even if their message gets confused with what the outside views as change and transformation in the former Empire.
Despite the mixed messages, there’s quite a sense of optimism seeing the active and anything but ambiguous political dissections of the subcontinent’s youth. Questions of identity, heritage and ingenuity speak the most loudly but that’s the least you can expect.
The visual spectacle of the British Empire has formatted the gory details pertinent in this work. Kudos to Charles Saatchi for his always impressive eye in generating light on artists from around the world. The borough of Chelsea - posh and prim as ever - could never have expected such a zealous and unapologetic display.