Saturday, January 31, 2015
Pakistan and India to share exhibit at Venice Biennale
Where the politicians and diplomats have failed, the artists hope to succeed. Pakistan and India are to be united at the Venice Biennale this year when a top contemporary artist from each nation will share an exhibit, in an unprecedented initiative aimed at bringing the two neighbours closer together.
The show, entitled My East is Your West, has been funded by a Indian private philanthropic organisation. The respective governments, which have been exchanging intermittent artillery fire and verbal barbs for months, are not involved.
“We just thought, let’s stop complaining about what others should be doing, let’s just do our best and say that from a common past and a divided present, we would like a peaceful future,” said Feroze Gujral, cofounder of the Gujral Foundation.
The two participating artists are both stars of the burgeoning contemporary art scenes in their respective countries. Mumbai-based Shilpa Gupta has exhibited at the Tate Modern, the Serpentine Gallery and the Guggenheim. Rashid Rana, who lives and works in Lahore, is considered one of the most important current Pakistani artists.
“This is something coming from the art world. We have just had [Barack] Obama in Delhi watching a huge parade of weapons and talking about nuclear power. So it’s wonderful to have this unofficial dream of peace,” Gupta said.
India and Pakistan were divided in 1947 when Britain was forced to give up its south Asian empire. The two nuclear powers have fought three major wars since and have skirmished, militarily and diplomatically, continually. A nascent peace process has been frozen since 2008 after Pakistan-based militants attacked India’s commercial capital, Mumbai.
At least 14 million people were displaced in the partition of the two countries 68 years ago as Muslims fled to Pakistan and Hindus and Sikhs headed to India. Up to a million were killed in mob violence. “Partition hasn’t really been addressed at all in either nation,” said Gupta, whose previous work has investigated ideas of nationhood and frontiers.
Gujral said this shared history was one reason for her decision to organise the joint show in Venice. Her father-in-law, Satish Gujral, one of the most important Indian artists of recent decades, was born in Jhelum, in modern Pakistan, and fled to India in 1947, narrowly escaping death.
“His losses were irreplaceable … so this is a very special project. There is never any healing but there can be a celebration, a cultural conversation, that can cross borders,” she said.
India exhibited at the Venice Biennale for the first time four years ago. Pakistan last did in 1956.
That artists and patrons should pick up where officials have failed is less surprising than it may seem to outsiders. Despite poverty, political instability and sometimes violence, artists from south Asia are beginning to make a global name for themselves, attracting interest from international buyers, curators and museum directors.
This weekend tens of thousands of visitors are expected to attend the India Art Fair, now in its seventh year. The event has attracted artists and dealers from across the world, all keen to get a slice of the still booming Indian market.
British and European artists have proved popular among India’s new wealthy art collectors, though bureaucratic restrictions mean some gallery owners prefer to bring works to show rather than sell.
This year’s event, with 85 galleries, is more focused on local artists and those in smaller towns beyond India’s sprawling cities.
One Pakistani gallery, from the southern port city of Karachi, has surmounted a series of logistical obstacles to show at the event. “It is special being here, there’s a lot of history obviously, though getting visas is tough,” said Camilla Chaudhary, of ArtChowk.
Rashid Rana, who will share the Venice Biennale exhibit with Gupta, said the exhibition would be more about the south Asian region as a whole rather than just the complex relationship between India and Pakistan. “I am interested in messing with time and location … As artists we can defy these borders,” Rana said.
The venture has been greeted with some scepticism. Kanwal Sibal, a former foreign secretary of India, said cultural initiatives could help “form a pool of public opinion “that could help improve relations between states, but little more”. He said: “It has some value, but in terms of true impact on policy it is less than marginal.”