What do you talk about when you talk about the body? One might say the physical body, its expanse, the politics, the perimeters, the idea of “body,” or perhaps the body in relation to conflict, in all its meanings, in its every reach. What does a body do with and in conflict? The sites that the body occupies—in its multiple, fluid forms—make up the underlying anchor of “Unfolding a Scene,” a tripartite show of artists from India, Afghanistan and Bangladesh, curated by Meenakshi Thirukode at New Delhi’s Exhibit 320.
Afghan artist Mariam Ghani’s video work Like Water from a Stone (2014) is a collaboration with performer and choreographer Erin Ellen Kelly, made during a residency in Norway in a coastal city known for its oil rigs. It presents a narrative of the land in its pre-oil-boom days and follows a timeline that includes its German occupation and leads into the present years. The video’s title, a play on the phrase “like getting blood from a stone,” points to the ongoing challenges involved in the extracting of oil from Norway’s unyielding sea, as well as the difficulty of life in its unfriendly land before the start of the modern oil industry. The video is accompanied by a series of Ghani’s photographs originally commissioned for the Rogaland Kunstsenter in Norway, and prints based on the book Afghanistan: A Lexicon (2012), co-written by the artist and her economist father, Ashraf Ghani. Preoccupations on the relationship between place, memory, myths, language, loss and reconstruction in the artist’s work are as applicable to the stray bodies that occupy her photographs as they are to the beautiful, but often stark landscapes she frames within them.
The sense of loneliness and distress expressed by the bodies, which nearly blend into the landscape and appear almost invisible at times, seem to resonate with the despair that many individuals experience in today’s crowded world. These are bodies that are alone or lonely, though they are often part of many multiplicities, are deeply political (admittedly not always by choice) and existing within various contexts.
Bangladesh-born Mustafa Zaman’s photographic images, re-shot after applying them with honey, hair gel or soap bars, demand that the viewer contemplate the imagery before them in “before/after” binaries—in other words, how the original subject, body part or scene was once framed and what they have now become after the artist’s interventions. In writing about the work, Zaman noted how a commercial photographer in Dhaka saw these re-worked visuals when they were being printed and said that he could “smell the images.” In viewing the works, I feel like I can reach out, beyond the frame and place a finger gingerly upon the gooey honey, or the gel, and draw a pattern, maybe in circles, while playing with it absentmindedly. The images seem to have that kind of tangible quality. Through the interconnectivity between what was and what is, a figurative rearview mirror appears, allowing the viewer to look back in time, even as the honey, gel and soap add layers—with possible emotional, historical and political connotations—to this retrospective act.
Indian artist Riyas Komu’s On International Workers Day Gandhi from Kochi (2015) couldn’t be more relevant in the contemporary political environment. Komu appropriates the iconography of Gandhi, which is severely burdened with, and cannot escape from, collective deification and relentless romanticization. Komu places the image of Gandhi alongside words like “ahimsa” and “Swaraj”—words that were once used as political weapons, but in today’s climate are now casual rhetoric at best. With this work, Komu wonders whether icons can be appropriated at will, to be used for political gain or propaganda. Exhibited alongside it is Memory Tree (2016), which comprises wooden sculptures each adorned with a map of India from three different years over a 50-odd time period before its independence in 1947. Here, Komu extends the politics of the body from the individual to the geography of a country.
The show makes a telling comment on the State that seems all too eager to co-opt everything, from the body of the individual to that of the country, for capricious purposes that seemingly plague this unique moment in history.
“Unfolding a Scene,” is on view at Exhibit 320, New Delhi, until May 5, 2016.