‘Pop South Asia’ group show at Sharjah Art Foundation breaks new critical ground

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One of the first major group exhibitions providing a substantial survey of modern and contemporary South Asian art that engages with popular culture is about to conclude this week at the Sharjah Art Foundation (SAF), having already drawn a wide range of connoisseurs as well as the art-loving public.

The exhibition ‘Pop South Asia: Artistic Explorations in the Popular’ has been organized by SAF along with the Kiran Nadar Museum of Art (KNMA), New Delhi, India, and curated by Iftikhar Dadi, artist and John H. Burris Professor at Cornell University, and Roobina Karode, Director and Chief Curator of KNMA.

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With over 100 works by artists from Afghanistan, Bangladesh, India, Nepal, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and the diaspora, ‘Pop South Asia’ navigates multiple and diverse themes.

‘Pop South Asia’ brings to light knowledge and research relevant not only to South Asia, but also to parallel regions across the world, equally shaped by forces of capitalism and media as they continue to modernize and urbanize.

Hangama Amiri Bazaar  2020. (Courtesy of the artist and T293 Gallery, Rome)
Hangama Amiri Bazaar 2020. (Courtesy of the artist and T293 Gallery, Rome)

The exhibition at the Al Mureijah Art Spaces is organized under these categories: Local Capitalism and Print Culture; Cinema and Mediatised Icons (Gallery 1); Tradition and Everday Practices: A Retake (Gallery 2); Politics, Protest, Borders, Partitions; Modernity and Urbanism; Utopia and Dystopia (Gallery 3); Self, Identity, Diaspora (Gallery 6).

The exhibition highlights artists who explore the aesthetics of print, cinematic and digital media, alongside those engaging with devotional practices, crafts and folk culture; it presents artists addressing modes of local capitalism, from large-scale industries to vernacular ‘bazaars,’ as well as those commenting on identity, politics, and borders.

The exhibition expands the conventional canon of Pop Art -- understood in the Western context primarily as art that addresses consumer culture and the media image – and foregrounds multiple layers and ideas embedded within the ‘popular’ in South Asia.

‘Beyond Western epistemologies’

“Platforming artists and thinkers from Asia and Africa whose ‘intellectual legacies can be traced beyond Western epistemologies’ has been part of Sharjah Art Foundation’s mission in the words of Hoor Al Qasimi, its President and Director.

‘Pop South Asia’ is an expansive exhibition that “recontextualizes the history of Pop art in the context of South Asia…,” writes Al Qasimi in the foreword to the catalogue. These works “evoke cross-generational dialogues that explore the specificity of Pop art in the region, a subject long neglected by institutional surveys of the movement despite South Asian art’s intimate engagement with the popular.’

K. G. Subramanyan The Tale of the Talking Face 1975 - 1989. (Courtesy of Kiran Nadar Museum of Art, New Delhi)
K. G. Subramanyan The Tale of the Talking Face 1975 - 1989. (Courtesy of Kiran Nadar Museum of Art, New Delhi)

In his Introductory essay titled ‘Pop South Asia: Artistic Explorations in the Popular,’ the curator Iftikhar Dadi writes that the exhibition “focuses on a major but largely unexamined development in the modern and contemporary art of South Asia—its engagement with popular culture from the mid-twentieth century through the present.”

For Dadi, “South Asia serves as synecdoche of wider developments across the Global South, which continues to modernise and urbanise, and wherein the ambit of Pop art is not confined to what is commonly understood in a Western context as engaging primarily with late capitalist consumer culture and media imagery. Rather, Pop artistic practices in these societies unfold in the context of uneven development, multiple temporalities, layered aesthetic regimes, and relays within societies that are in rapid and turbulent transition.”

He notes that recently there has been “growing recognition that Pop art was always global,” as evidenced by major exhibitions ‘The World Goes Pop’ at the Tate Modern (2015) and Walker Art Center’s ‘International Pop’ (2015).

“Contemporaneous with the global efflorescence of Pop art, South Asian artists, whether practising in the region or as part of the diaspora, were deeply engaged with questions of the ‘popular’,” writes Dadi.

Anant Joshi Happy New Year 2013. (Collection of Kiran Nadar Museum of Art, New Delhi. Courtesy of the artist)
Anant Joshi Happy New Year 2013. (Collection of Kiran Nadar Museum of Art, New Delhi. Courtesy of the artist)

Pop art in South Asia and the diaspora, according to him, does not constitute a single movement or school. Instead, many artists have worked in a ‘pop’ modality, either as individuals or in conversation with fellow travelers in places such as Baroda, Dhaka and Karachi over the decades.

For Dadi, one of the objectives is to foreground “South Asian sociocultural developments through which these works can be more fully legible… in hopes that it will also contribute to a broader comparative conversation in future with Pop art from the Arab world, Africa and other regions across the Global South.” In that sense, the Pop South Asia show is groundbreaking.

Ayesha Jatoi Lockdown Posters 2022. (Courtesy of the artist)
Ayesha Jatoi Lockdown Posters 2022. (Courtesy of the artist)

Roobina Karode in her essay titled “The Kaleidoscope and the Magic Lantern: Artistic Illuminations on the Indian Popular,” addresses the context of ‘South Asian Pop’ from the vantage point of Indian art history and cultural politics, while clarifying that the term ‘Indian’ refers to subcontinental region.

Karode notes that the cultural movement in art and literature in the 60s and 70s, “inspired by the complex and multi-layered reality of South Asian society” were centred and framed within the social and political milieu, particularly in the northwestern cities of Bombay (Mumbai) and Baroda. “Themes and spaces suffused with the sensorium of Indian cities like street signs, billboards, print advertisements, photographs in newspapers, calendar art and film posters also began appearing in the works of artists from this northwestern region as investigative modalities into the condition of the ‘common’ or the ‘popular’.”

Atul Dodiya Gabbar on Gamboge 1997. (Collection of Fukuoka Asian Art Museum. Courtesy of the artist)
Atul Dodiya Gabbar on Gamboge 1997. (Collection of Fukuoka Asian Art Museum. Courtesy of the artist)

The starting point of ‘Pop South Asia’ exhibition is with the satirical work The Tale of the Talking Face (1975), by the pedagogue K. G. Subramanyan, the Gandhian freedom-fighter and an alumnus of Viswa Bharati, Santiniketan.

Subramanyan guided the curricular and extra-curricular activities at the Faculty of Fine Arts, M. S. University, leading to the flowering of brilliant artists and their pathbreaking entry into contemporary art, which came to be known as the ‘Baroda School.’

Karode notes how the Baroda School artists like Gulamohammed Sheikh and Bhupen Khakhar move freely between religious traditions and calendar art, rural performances, and Bollywood cinema, bridging the notions of the folk, the mythic, and the popular.

Jeanno Gaussi Dreams On Wheels, Kabul 2013 Wood, acrylic paint
Jeanno Gaussi Dreams On Wheels, Kabul 2013 Wood, acrylic paint

The exhibition features works across a range of media, including Atul Dodiya’s painting Gabbar on Gamboge (1997), a homage to Bollywood cinema’s iconic villain, Gabbar Singh, from the 1975 blockbuster Sholay. Dodiya’s playfulness with visual narratives is expressed in the artwork’s pastiche of popular cultural references.

Pushpamala N., based in Bengaluru in her work which fuses performance and photography actively challenging gender identities, uses lot of humor by layering images with various cultural refences.

Baseera Khan’s lantern-like ‘Chandelier’ (2021) sculptures rotate and reflect light, referencing the joyous, cross-cultural associations evoked by disco balls. Each of the patterns, though, are specific to Khan’s family’s collection of Islamic Arab and South Asian textiles and embroidery designs.

Other highlights include Bhupen Khakhar’s ‘Janata Watch Repairing’ (1972) and ‘De-Luxe Tailors’ (1972), reminiscent of the ethos of shops and businesses across small-town South Asia and rendered in a style and iconography drawn from commercial painting techniques, and Hangama Amiri’s textile installation ‘Bazaar’ (2020), in which the artist wove her childhood memories of Kabul’s bazaars and transformed them to offer viewers a sense of place and time, alongside an awareness of the politicized present.

‘Pop South Asia’ will close on Sunday ( December 11, 2022) before travelling to Kiran Nadar Museum of Art (KNMA), New Delhi in 2023.

Read more: Navjot Altaf at Ishara: Art, activism, and the larger web of life

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