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The body speaks many languages in this new exhibition

‘One Story is Not Enough’ features a myriad of artistic perspectives on gender, identity and erasures through diverse mediums

Staged portraiture from the streets of Iran by lens-based artist Maryam Firuzi. Photo: courtesy Engendered

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It’s interesting to watch a seamless confluence of performance, dance and the visual arts in a new exhibition. The flowing lyricism of the dancers—both classical and contemporary—gets juxtaposed against the geometric constant of the artwork. Through photographs, light boxes, digital cuboids and paintings, one enters a world where digital, phygital and performativity come together. The body, irrespective of gender, talks of many issues where physicality exhibits what is on the outside but hints and guides one to what is on the inside.

The exhibition, One Story is Not Enough, features a variety of artistic perspectives, across mediums and styles, ranging from artificial intelligence to classical dance, digital to artisanal, contemporary to timeless, with artists from India, the US, Iran, UK and Sri Lanka. Curated by Myna Mukherjee, the exhibition brings together live classical performances by Odissi Dancers from the Nrityagram Dance Ensemble, Bengaluru, India, in collaboration with the Chitrasena Dance Company from Sri Lanka. The idea is to expand audiences for artists from conflict areas, and to lend support and solidarity.

“In Āhuti [the dance piece], the Kandyan and Odissi dance traditions come together to find deeper connections between our common dance histories. It reinforces the idea of community and how art builds awareness of what binds us together across different nations,” says Surupa Sen, artistic director, Nrityagram. The collaboration with Chitrasena—the oldest dance company in Sri Lanka—addresses inequalities in the world, particularly within the island country, where civil unrest has adversely impacted the audience for art and culture.

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The show also spotlights performances and staged portraiture from the streets of Iran by artists such as Maryam Firuzi and Nazli Abbaspour. Another highlight includes the first NFT drop by artist Ranbir Kaleka.

Odissi Dancers from the Nrityagram Dance Ensemble, Bengaluru, India, have collaborated with the Chitrasena Dance Company from Sri Lanka
Odissi Dancers from the Nrityagram Dance Ensemble, Bengaluru, India, have collaborated with the Chitrasena Dance Company from Sri Lanka

“The exhibition and performances explore both the similarities and differences between the various cultures in India, Sri Lanka, Iran, the US and the UK. It does not try to homogenise the art, rather, it speaks of their uniqueness,” says Myna Mukherjee, founder, Engendered, which is a transnational arts and human rights organisation. “Whether it is live dance, performance photographs, digital works or even phygital manifestations of the AI art, each work has an individual unique codified language. Often in a global setting, the country with the most mainstream representation ends up flattening the cultural representation of the minorities. But here, no such dilution is taking place.”

For artists like Kaleka, it is fascinating to observe if a different aesthetic emerges in the making of and viewing of digital art. “For my showcase, I felt that reducing the scale of the artwork would add a sense of intimacy to the experience, similar to the feeling of viewing a miniature painting,” he adds.

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The exhibition addresses pressing issues such as climate change, gender and identity, and erasures based on religion. For instance, Puneet Kaushik’s work talks about the climate crisis, and of a landscape stripped of its rich biodiversity. Nur Mahammad’s NFT is about the lack of balance in the understanding of and representation of Islam. He uses architecture as a metaphor of overwriting and erasure, where one form superimposes upon the other.

Babak Haghi, a performance artist from Iran, presents a lifelong preoccupation with gender, identity and performance at the exhibition. “It is an issue that is taboo to talk about in Iran's ideological and religious climate, and it keeps disturbing my mind,” says Haghi,who has created sublime portraits of male dancers that defy gender stereotypes. Photography allows him to create a collaborative dialogue, both with the subjects—who are chosen once the artist is sure that they share an intellectual compatibility with him—and with the viewer. “The image, as a medium, conveys my feelings, which are sometimes hard to express in words. The connection between bodies and their hidden identities forms the theme for my photography projects,” he adds.

The other lens-based artists from Iran—Firuzi, Abbaspour and Soheila Esmaeli—are three vocal women exploring gender and sexuality. Their works continue to represent the desire for life and freedom in the face of oppression and unrest. Besides a strong commentary on the veil, the role of women in the public space and the loss of freedom of expression and love, the photographs include a performance piece by Esmaeli dressed as Frida Kahlo, surrounded by her chopped-off hair. It is inspired by the original painting (dated 1940, and presently in the virtual collection of the Museum of Modern Art, New York), which captured the moment when Kahlo cut her hair short a month after her divorce from Diego Rivera. Titled Immortality, Esmaeli addresses her wish for freedom through this iconic image.

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The exhibition explores digital as a medium in a big way. Take, for instance, the Artificial Intelligence-led work by two artists from the US and the UK—Caroline Sanders and Anna Riddler. They have used data to predict the growth of a tree into an imagined forest. Another artist, Mandakini Devi, has interpreted her earlier set of light boxes as digital collages, titled Much Maligned Goddess. “In this series, I have developed iconography by combining images of ancient Hindu goddesses, found in popular culture, with photographs from my personal collection of graffiti and self-portraits”, she adds.

The artworks and the performances come together to create a strong and continuous narrative that embraces the issues faced by people across the globe. In times of strife and stress, it presents a collective voice against oppression.

The exhibition is on view at the Visual Art Gallery, India Habitat Center, New Delhi, till 27 January, 2023

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