THE story of the Palestine Sunbird suitably illustrates the point that Reena Saini Kallat is making with the works in her exhibition, “Hyphenated Lives”, which is on at Chemould Prescott Road in Mumbai till October 10. The bird, which is formally known as the Northern Orange Tufted Sunbird, was at the centre of a curious incident which had Palestinians alleging that Israelis had launched an international campaign to have the name of the bird changed so as to remove any mention of Palestine. The news was widely reported in Arab newspapers, although Israelis have said that such a campaign never existed. Whatever
the truth of the story, it shows how human conflicts can reach farcical, fantastical proportions.
It is on this and similar absurdities that Kallat pegs the suite of works from which the exhibition derives its name. She’s created work that envisions hybridised versions of actual animals, birds, reptiles and plants which are claimed as symbols by various nations. In fusing together two separate creatures, she imagines a unified future for the warring nations they represent. So the national bird of Palestine, the sunbird and the national bird of Israel, the hoopoe merge to form the Sun-poe, while the national animals of England and Ireland — the red deer and the barbary lion — fuse to become the De-on. This section of the exhibition is deliberately laid out like a museum of natural history. For the 41-year-old artist, her hybrid species reimagine the world as a more unified and tolerant place. The ‘hyphen’, then, becomes the glue that brings together the separate.
Kallat’s preoccupation with man-made boundaries and categorisation goes back to the 1990s when she noticed an otherwise cosmopolitan Mumbai being divided along communal lines. This, along with her ecological concerns, began showing up in works. In the 2014 piece, Anatomy of Distance, the curvature of the human spine is reflected in the contours of the Line of Control, as depicted by Kallat and serves as a comment on the fractured relations of two countries — India and Pakistan — which are ecologically and historically linked. In the same year, she also made Siamese Trees and Half Oxygen, which presented India’s Banyan tree and Pakistan’s Deodar tree as two lungs in the same body.
Certain motifs make regular appearances in Kallat’s works. The electric wire, which could easily be a symbol of this modern, hyper-connected world, is used liberally, fashioned into barbed wires to indicate the contrast of globalisation and increasingly closed borders.
They’re used similarly in the 2014 series Ruled Paper (red, blue, white), to hint at the use of language as a unifier and a divider. Electric wires are also used to map historical migration routes of people across the globe in Kallat’s Woven Chronicles, currently on display at the Vancouver Art Gallery.
Kallat has also employed salt as a tool to talk about the common origins of all human beings. In the photo-pieces called Saline Notations, she has used salt to write text fragments, including poetry and soliloquies, on the beach before waves wash them away. She says, “We emerged from the pre-Cambrian seas and the salt from those waters is still found inside our bodies. This salt also links us to the larger world outside our bodies.” Even the rubber stamp, which has regularly appeared in Kallat’s works, is used in a video titled Pause Persist to present pairs of contradicting words such as Foreign/Native and Accept/Refuse in a game of noughts and crosses.