You are one of the driving forces behind Generator, the cooperative art production fund launched by Experimenter gallery (Kolkata). Do you feel that such support measures are imperative during this time of crisis? What is the role of an artist in a time of crisis?
The conversation about sharing and distributing resources is something I’ve been having with Prateek and Priyanka (directors, Experimenter gallery), for a while. It took on particular urgency once the COVID-19 lockdown hit people’s earning potential. I feel that in countries where state funding and grants are absent, the fraternity of artists needs to enable each other. The general process of ‘establishing’ oneself is that everyone waits to see which biennale an artist is invited to, which gallery they are picked up by and how much he or she is selling for. The compulsion of this process is flawed. We, the artists, need to decide for ourselves what kind of work we want to see around us. The art market has been the sole driver behind art production for the past 20-30 years and you can see the effects of that in the kind of wealth disparity and value system within the art community. Artists these days can amass substantial wealth. That creates a whole culture of them becoming luxury brand celebrities who run small studio firms. That also determines the kind of spectacular art that is being put out. It’s quite a departure from my imagination of the artist being an aware and unique interlocutor of life, who has a very particular form of insight into society and lives on its edge.
Your 2016 installation Memorial to Lost Words presented letters, written by Indian soldiers who fought for the British Empire in World War I, and Punjabi folk songs of longing and love from the time. Through the work, you propose an anti-monumental form of memorial. How would you revisit it in the context of the present anti-statue movement?
Memorial to Lost Words was commissioned by the Edinburgh Arts Festival in 2016. The title of the show was ‘More Lasting than Bronze’, appropriate for a show that was questioning the place and efficacy of public monuments in urban settings. The decision to do this piece was a confluence of many factors: I was reading an Urdu novel called Udaas Naslain (1963, The Weary Generations, by Abdullah Hussain), which is set in India around World War I, I was grappling with the reality of once again living away from South Asia, and then this invitation of thinking about memorialising came up. So, the work came from a space of heartbreak primarily, reading about the lives of teenage boys who fought someone else’s war, far from home in a cold and hostile climate – history barely mentions them. Then, in my consequent research, I came across Punjabi folk songs from the time, that do acknowledge this societal rupture and injustice. It is a potent idea and reality, that the most expansive history is oral and passed down informally through generations. Songs and rituals embody memories and subjectivities which monuments don’t come even close to doing.
Do you feel that being based in Berlin now offers you a vantage point to observe the political and socio-cultural complexities in the subcontinent and the relationship it shares with the West?
The fate of Europe and how it handles the influx of refugees, or how its cultural landscape needs to diversify through the inclusion of international voices was never my interest, and, frankly, still isn’t. I am more interested in how the young, problematic, floundering, power-hungry nations of South Asia go about their business and how South Asians exist and assert ourselves in these spaces. But here I am in Europe, ironically, to enable a borderless coexistence with my son, who is an Indian national. So, I guess, while being far away from places where our presence is more significant, Berlin helps foster important, powerful connections between people from South Asia, the Middle East, eastern Europe and so on. There is a widening of intellectual and political alliances, which are enriching, but, in many ways, have a bit of a diluting effect. But Berlin is the only city I could imagine being in within Europe. And yes, the distance from the spaces I react to in a guttural manner – Karachi or even Delhi, is hard for me in terms of basic ideas about what art to make.
Several of your initial works discussed the complex relationship between India and Pakistan, including Mangoes (1999) and The News (2001). For five years, you were based out of Karachi and Delhi. What was your assessment of the response to these works across the border?
I was kind of an informal ambassador between the two countries, dispelling myths on either side about the other, but, honestly, Pakistanis and Indians are so excited about dissing each other and feeling better about themselves through this process that I couldn’t care less about this conversation any more. If somebody has the brain and perspective to realise that these borders were created and our lives and culture attest to other truths, then that’s a starting point. One gets fatigued in the face of such rampant patriotism, and you move on to other things. But yes, my earliest work was about the ludicrousness and absurdity of nationalism. Twenty years ago, it was still partially funny.
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