Inside Khirkee Extension in Delhi, narrow mud paths are barely lit. The street is filled with people, sitting on either side, watching the theatre of every day unfold. In a tiny hole-in-the-wall electrical store, Swati Janu runs a temporary “phone recharge shop”. “Isme video gana dal do,” says Hasim, handing over his phone. A contract labourer from Bihar, he is among the many who have contributed to Janu’s media library. This past month, she has been exchanging songs and videos of Hindi and Bhojpuri cinema, sometimes Congolese and Afghani, for free, with residents of the area as a barter for what they have on their memory cards. Her work is a part of the month-long Khoj Studios’ residency programme.
A crowd slowly piles up on the street, as Janu begins video projections, laying Caribbean “chutney music” thick on the wall as a Bhojpuri song plays out for an audience, which includes people from Bihar, Nigeria, and Iran. “As an architect, I’m curious about unorganised settlements and informal exchanges. Memory takes on a digital form, through photos and videos,” says Janu. This “cultural mash-up” is what she presents at “Coriolis Effect: Migration and Memory”. The group show is a culmination of the art residency at Khoj, where Andrew Ananda Voogel, Chibuike Uzoma, Joao Orecchia, Liza Grobler, Malini Kochupillai, Mahesh Shantaram and Janu are showcasing their work, primarily centered around Khirkee Extension, which sees multitudes of migrants every month.
Neighbourhoods make photographer-urban researcher Kochupillai curious as well. She presents a newspaper (in English and Hindi), called Khirkee Voice or Khirkee Awaaz. The 12-page tabloid has stories of a Khirkee tailor who dreams of going back to South Africa, hidden stories of an African kitchen, even a snippet on dragonflies crossing the seas from south India to Africa. As one who has lived in the area and documented the African community for over four years, she says, “For me, public spaces are everything. It’s the living room of a city. My work subverts the notions one associates with Africans. For instance, one often reads of Nigerian criminals, not of artists. We need such spaces for dialogue.”
With Grobler, that dialogue can happen within a cocoon of colour. Her floor-to-ceiling installation, made from wiry, green, woolly pipe cleaners, is pretty much like a weaver bird’s nest. “I am concerned about how ideas meet. Those small exchanges we have with each other, and how that shifts our thinking. From the outside, the experience of the installation is very different, but once you step into it, it shifts everything. With every new experience, your memory changes,” says Capetown-based Grobler.
The Coriolis Effect or the deflection force in nature appears in an abstract form in each art work, says curator Sitara Chowfla. “Khoj’s neighbourhood of Khirkee Village is a dense urban-village environment that is home to immigrants from India and across the global South. We have seen increased friction, particularly during and after the raids in the area by political leaders. There were tensions; there were also islands of acceptance. We would find beauty salons and food outlets that were by Africans. We’ve been contemplating the theme of migration; we became more aware of the rich history between Africa and India. We wanted to enquire into what happens to memory, your identity, when you lose your place of belonging?”
Nigerian artist Uzoma places himself on the streets of Old Delhi, to understand and, maybe, accept where he is. Photographs that show him as a tourist also mark his absence in the frame. “To me, migration is about memory. And memory is very fragile. In these photos, I have erased myself as a way of being there but not being there,” he says. One frame shows Uzoma sitting with his hands on his knees, while, in the background, are electrical wires zig-zagging across the frame, one even going past his neck.
Indo-Caribbean artist Voogel discovered that “otherness” doesn’t sit too quietly on the streets. He shared the story of a Northeast lady, who would pass by a shop every evening, from where she bought stuff. She had grown to know the family, until, one day, when she returned home at night, the son assaulted her. The story inspired his work He Was Decent until it Got Dark. His text-on-textile project at has words from newspaper headlines, or phrases he’s seen on trucks. Bearing colours of the Congolese flag is a work that reads like a headline: Congolese youth beaten to death, while, in jungle print, are two beautifully embroidered words: Collective Rage.
For Orecchia, migration and identity travel in his backpack. The New York immigrant, with a Peruvian mother and an Italian father, says he feels foreign even in his place of birth, and that “the feeling of home, or belonging in a physical place never existed”. At Khoj, he has fashioned instruments out of copper bowls and car horns to amplify the sounds of Delhi streets. As you touch one of the exhibits, it blares a sound that stops your heart and cuts your connect with everything in the room for that breath of a second. When it ceases, you realise, that here could ultimately be an order here, very faint, very human.
The exhibition at Khoj Studios, Delhi, closes on October 4