In a corner of the lower deck of Clark House Initiative, near the wooden staircase that leads upstairs, is a pile of what looks like rags. A closer look reveals that the pile is actually towers made using the padded head-rings that, across India, are used to balance loads on the head.
In our cities, these head-rings, which artist Ranjeeta Kumari calls vinda, are commonly seen on the heads of female labourers toiling at construction sites, ferrying load after load of bricks, cement and sand. Once you identify these, you will also instantly recognise the searing statement that Ranjeeta is making with this work — Unseen City (Vinda). It is her tribute to the unacknowledged contribution of labourers in building our cities.
Ranjeeta is one of the four artists participating in the group show, “River with a Thousand Holes”, which is on at the gallery in Mumbai’s Colaba till June 5. The works in the exhibition often simultaneously examine how a patriarchal social system, which oppresses women, feeds on and is fed by an economic and political system that also seeks to subjugate the poor and the environment.
In fact, “River with a Thousand Holes” is a useful illustration of intersectional feminism and extending it to environmental degradation by a patriarchal system. Accompanying the exhibition is a pop-up show by artist Saviya Lopes, which makes more overt observations on the restrictions placed upon women, whether its through In My Barbie World, which shows a burqa-clad Barbie, or a series of satirical drawings called A Girl’s Guide to Saudi Arabia, based on guidelines that are given to women who wish to travel to or settle down there.
The notion of restrictions is echoed in all the works. For example, in her woodcuts and drawings, Sucheta Ghadge examines the notion of partition — as a form of physical restrictions — at different levels, whether it is the partitioning of a house into rooms or the partitioning of a piece of land into fields and cities. The natural world, represented by trees, rivers and deer, seems curtailed and hemmed in by all these real and metaphorical lines that human beings draw on the land. Ghadge’s disdain for this tendency is particularly biting in an ink-on-paper drawing called Civilisation, which shows the topography of a land that has been divided into fields and denuded of all its wild, natural beauty.
Partition is also a theme in the works of Maria-Marika Koenig, who uses lace to examine the brutal fallouts of the redrawing of political maps. In the aftermath of the Second World War, when the Ottoman Empire was carved up, the hostility between the Greek and Turkish nationalist movements was higher than ever, leading to massacres on both sides. Koenig says, “As tens of thousands of Greeks fled Turkey during the forced partition and population exchange of 1922, many women cut the lace borders of their bedsheets and carried them to their new homes. All the women in the family used to sit together and make these lengths of lace for a bride’s trousseau.” Koenig uses them to talk simultaneously of the artificiality of borders, violence of nationalist politics and the received notions of a woman’s place in the home.
The issue of human infringement on the environment appears more obliquely in the ink and charcoal works by Shernavaz. Most of works seem, at first glance, to represent idyllic views of nature — grass swaying in the breeze, a thick tangle of trees, monkeys frolicking in the canopy. But Shernavaz is using these images to talk about the human occupation of the natural world. She says, “We create specific areas, like Kaziranga, which we ‘reserve’ for animals. But how will animals know that they are only supposed to stay within these boundaries? I go to Khandala every weekend and over the years, I’ve seen more and more buildings come up. There are many monkeys there and naturally, they sometimes come inside the houses. But really, we are the ones who have intruded their space.”