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Distant Visions and Lucid Dreams: South Asian Art in the Diaspora

Khalil Chishtee. Study for History is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake II, 2017, Wood H. 40 x W. 100 in. (101.6 x 254 cm),Courtesy of the artist

By JULIAN A. JIMAREZ HOWARD, JUL. 2017

Lucid Dreams and Distant Visions: South Asian Art in the Diaspora

June 27-August 6, 2017

Asia Society

725 Park Avenue (at East 70th Street,) New York, NY, 10021

Nationalism is messy business. But it is mostly business. With it comes a web of attachments like identity and culture. While the United States, despite its popular rhetoric, has never been a truly welcoming country, it is, in words Isamu Noguchi wrote in 1942 from within his somewhat voluntary confinement in an Arizona concentration camp, “...the nation of all nationalities.” But as someone trapped within the liminal space of his biracial identity, he was keenly aware of his own unique perspective, opening this same essay (“I Become a Nisei”) just a sentence earlier proclaiming, “To be a hybrid anticipates the future.”

It is this very anticipation that takes center stage in the Asia Society’s latest exhibition, Lucid Dreams and Distant Visions: South Asian Art in the Diaspora. The show features works by nineteen contemporary artists, all of whom live in the United States, but who nevertheless trace elements of their biographies to a larger South Asian diaspora from countries including Afghanistan, Bangladesh, India, Nepal, Pakistan, and Tibet. 

Climbing the stairs to the second floor gallery, the viewer is confronted by Khalil Chishtee’s large wall relief History is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake II, a jarring encounter depicting a scene of men on horses brandishing swords as if chasing after some escaped prisoner, or perhaps, charging towards an uncertain destiny. Looking closely, we can see that the figures are actually composed of Urdu characters. For those of us illiterate in the Hindustani language, a wall label to the left notes that the words are a verse taken from the poet, and central figure of the Pakistan Movement, Muhammad Iqbal, which Chishtee has translated as “Not only land we bore Your Word glorious across the heaving seas,/ Upon our steel of zeal, we rode unto their darkest boundaries.” It’s a foreboding message that grounds a group show full of nuance. Stylistically, Chishtee has drawn on the inspiration of his mentor, the renowned Sufi calligrapher Sadequain; he has also added his own innovation, creating a more figurative and sculptural mode for an ancient tradition. And yet this work is only one of many works that carry the weight of their historical geopolitical malevolence, all the while longing for some later-date utopian escape.

Entering the gallery, the mood remains unabated. Ruby Chishti’s audio-visual installation The present is a Ruin Without the People is a poignant meditation on the relationships among architecture, the human body, and displacement. She has created a dystopian cityscape from found clothing by folding, stacking, and stitching the articles together, embellishing here and there with small windows and shutters set askew amongst the folds. Reminiscent of the overcrowding all too common in under-resourced areas, and yet also not dissimilar from a carcass bulging from the wall, the work features intermittent sounds that faintly emerge depending on the viewer’s position. The installation amplifies the complexity of displacement from conflict, humanizing its scale and giving much needed voice to the individual's experience without discarding the larger societal implications. This duality is echoed in Jaret Vadera’s Emperor of No Country, which hangs lifelessly on an adjoining wall. Comprising a grand robe printed with a redacted map of the world, the blacked out labels create a dynamic ambiguousness that perhaps alludes to Vadera’s interest in personalizing the abstract as he collapses the categories of ruler and the ruled, the boundary and the bound.

Jaret Vadera. Emperor of No Country, 2016, Print on fabric, H. 58 x W. 28 x D. 6 in. (147.32 x 71.1 x 15.2 cm),Courtesy of the artist

Borders, border crossing, and the complex web of power connections between them figure heavily into this exhibition. One of the most gut-wrenching works is an unassuming video by Tenzin Tsetan Choklay of Tenzing Rigdol. In 2011, Rigdol made headlines around the world for his work Bringing Tibet Home, in which he smuggled roughly 22 tonnes of soil from Shigatse, Tibet to Dharamsala, India via Nepal. Inspired by the unfulfilled wish of his dead father to return to his homeland, the project instead allowed over 10,000 Tibetans-in-exile to walk, sit and experience the earth of their homeland over a three day period. In the denouement, as we watch the ecstatic and pained faces of grandmothers and children as they hurriedly scoop handfuls of dirt into empty plastic bottles to later treasure at home, the herculean and absurd task of the artist’s labor gains significance. What is home? What does it mean to belong? What is the value of dirt in a world obsessed with slinging mud?

On a not altogether different track, Annu Palakunnathu Matthew’s Virtual Immigrant series engages home and belonging, questioning the future of nationalism and cultural identification through the messy lens of globalization and technological innovation by delving into the lives of Indian call center workers and the shifting cultural attitudes that result from their work. Presented as a lenticular print juxtaposing the individual in ceremonial and office attire, the accompanying text offers a number to call to listen to workers as they speak in-depth about how their performance of being Westerners at the call center affects their opinions about issues of gender, class, and consumer culture outside of the workplace. Thesenarratives and the cognitive dissonance of their positions raise questions of empire and migration while still giving voice to the personal within the scope of the societal. 

Yet because of their nuance, so many of the works in Distant Visions and Lucid Dreams either necessitate a sophisticated and broadly versed audience, or really require more elaborate didactic information. For example, Chitra Ganesh’s brilliant and powerful charcoal drawings of Seeta Devi née Renee Smith hardly make sense without knowing the history of the Anglo-Indian actress who made her filmic debut as Princess Gopa in 1925. Without knowing the way the actress embraced multiple roles in spite of the ways they might stigmatize her, Ganesh’s exploration of femininity, sexuality, and power remain coded, and the works’ impact are diminished outside of their raw aesthetic prowess. 

Chitra Ganesh. Gopa in the Garden, 2012, Loose graphite powder and charcoal on paper, H. 51 x W. 73 in. (129.5 x 185.4 cm), Courtesy of the artist

Chitra Ganesh. Devika Rani, 2012, Loose graphite powder and charcoal on paper, H. 76 x W. 51 in. (193 x 129.5 cm), Courtesy of the artist

Similarly, Kanishka Raja’s I and I (MISSED TWICE); SW1-XY traces so many intersections among the politics of representation, place, power, production, violence, subjective positionality, art history, and authorship that the work is as dizzying as his kaleidoscopic aesthetic. The work begins with a painting of a generic Swiss pastoral landscape lifted from a postcard, which is then meticulously abstracted in an accompanying panel; the two pieces are then joined face to face and shot through twice by a .44 Magnum. After this process disrupted their surface, inextricably bonding them, the two panels have been copied and collaged on a larger third panel into a patchwork of textiles that draw on the history of South Asian crafts like weaving and embroidery. The back of this component is then scanned at a high resolution, the color digitally inverted, and printed on a fourth panel in a sort of disingenuous technological transparency that contrasts with its historical counterpart. While it’s fine for the work to function on this process-oriented plane, what’s not immediately evident--and nowhere mentioned--is that the work is part of a series and that the implied message behind the selection of the seemingly tranquil landscape is Switzerland’s history as a 50 year long Bollywood alternative for its South Asian corollary in contested Kashmir, with Raja’s artistic translations also functioning as metaphors questioning our received notions of neutrality, violence, and the power to control how that narrative is disseminated.


Palden Weinreb. Untitled (Reliquary), 2012, Encaustic wax, Polyurethane resin, and LED lighting, H. 56 x W. 24 x D. 24 in. (142.2 x 61 x 61 cm), Courtesy of the artist

Vandana Jain’s nearby sculpture Enlightenment likewise confounds expectation. At first glance, the circular formation of abstract elements appears to play to all the usual tropes of inscrutable Asian spirituality, perhaps commenting on meditative practice, worship, sacred geometry, or all three. Not a bad guess either, given the Asia Society as the venue and its proximity to Palden Weinreb’s Untitled (Reliquary), an encaustic wax stupa framed in a bottom-lit resin pyramid. Jain’s work, however, is a far more ironic and critical arrangement of 48 sugar sculptures cast from fluorescent light bulb blister packs arranged in a circle. Instead, tt beguiles its context to censure both the viewer and the saccharine culture of desire, consumption, mass production, and spirituality.


Vandana Jain. Enlightenment, 2012, 40 sugar casts of CFL blister packs, Dimensions variable, Courtesy of the artist

All of these rather esoteric references work in tandem, ultimately begging the question: who is the audience for this show? Surely all the works can stand alone on their aesthetic power, but it would be a gross miscarriage of justice to float on the surface among them. Yet the sophistication of the curatorial choices and the many sub-narratives within the exhibition might elide those who could benefit from their message. If the show comes off as somewhat of an insider’s club, it’s because it very much is. But this aspect raises even more questions – it is certainly not the fault of the artists that there is almost no institutional apparatus dedicated to their Western-imposed geographically-derived taxonomic category, nor is it the fault of the institution lending its space and power to help shore up the gap and illustrate the complexity within that constructed demographic.

Where, then, should the burden of explication lie? Is the presumption of familiarity with the region’s many and complex histories unfair, especially in an exhibition that rightly polemicizes the very politics of representation that might exclude those narratives from Western collective understanding? Even this vector of analysis unfortunately does little to emphasize the many other important themes raised within the exhibition, such as the explicit messages of female empowerment that connect the works by Jaishri Abichandani, Anila Quayyum Agha, Mequitta Ahuja, Rina Banerjee, Shahzia Sikander, Chitra Ganesh’s previously mentioned graphite drawings, and Annu Palakunnathu Matthew’s Virtual Immigrant hotline. But can’t museums still be a site of learning, an entry point into complex topics the viewer can easily elaborate on at their leisure in the age of Google? Perhaps, let’s not expect institutions to strip away all the mystery in the desire for inclusivity...

Yet if there were a work that gets to the heart of so many of the exhibition’s topics, it might be the small mostly black woodcut print by Zarina simply titled Abyss. Across the work's surface ripple tiny white scratches that create the linear image of a border. The reverse process of block printing implies that its production left the wood block heavily gouged. This hidden violence in creation is characteristic of Zarina's mostly print based practice in which she prefers to excavate the surface rather than construct it. Born in 1937, she was 10 years old when the Radcliffe Line was drawn separating India and Pakistan. This enduring trauma figures heavily in her work--having family torn apart, the label of Muslim foisted upon her. Here, partition functions as a metaphor for the uneven process of separation that is diaspora. Staring into the utter blackness of the work, I can see the border before me, illuminated with high-intensity lights and razor-wire, it’s a whiteness that blinds out of fear, plunging both sides into the abyss. If the border is a scar inscribed into her heart, in her pain we wait for our eyes to adjust until we can see ourselves as one people, no longer alone in the darkness. WM

Julian A. Jimarez Howard

Julian is an artist and curator based in New York. He is a Co-Director at Associated Gallery, and the former founder of OUTLET Fine Art. His exhibitions have been featured in The New York Times, New York Magazine, Hyperallergic, Artnet News, Artinfo, Bushwick Daily and many others. He writes primarily about topics of space, place, and representation. 


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