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Art collectives from the North-East focus on the community

Art collectives in the North-East are turning towards conceptual practices, keeping the community at the heart of their projects

‘Man on Boat’ by the Northeast Lightbox
‘Man on Boat’ by the Northeast Lightbox

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What forms can a book take? Artists such as Ravikumar Kashi and Dayanita Singh have come up with their own interpretations. But in a village in Assam’s Dhemaji district, it is students from classes IV-VI who are reimagining it. Should it be like a scroll, rolled out of bamboo hollows available in the village, or have a rotating design that unfolds stories in circular fashion?

This unique experiment was conducted in January by the Assam-based Anga Art Collective as part of kNOw School, a travelling school initiative that looks beyond set curricula and teaching methods, inspiring children to think anew about ways to bring together contemporary art forms and local material. The collective lets the communities it works with dictate the curricula.

This is just one facet of what it is attempting. In Namphake, in Dibrugarh district, this collective of 13 art practitioners has been engaging with the Tai Phake community (which migrated from Myanmar in the 18th century) and the Tai Phake Language Study and Research Centre. They learnt from the community that the dominance of Axomiya, or Assamese, was killing their language. So, earlier this month, they came together at the Buddhist monastery to create books of alphabets and interpret elements from the obscure manuscript tradition as woodcut prints. The aim: to keep traditional arts and crafts relevant by interpreting them in contemporary media.

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Contemporary art in the North-East is being led by a myriad collectives that focus on multidisciplinary practices, placing communities at the heart of their work. Some, such as Northeast Lightbox, are run by a couple of individuals who collaborate with artists and other collectives, while the Anga Art Collective has 13 members, each with an interest in a different medium, such as sculpture, printmaking, painting or installation.The broad idea is to change the usual craft-based narrative associated with the region. The practices are conceptual in nature and rooted in the geographical and social context of the eight states—Assam, Meghalaya, Manipur, Tripura, Mizoram, Sikkim, Arunachal Pradesh and Nagaland.

So, the Confluence Collective, comprising photographers and researchers who document visual and oral stories of the Darjeeling-Sikkim Himalaya, hopes to go beyond “homogenised, colonial discourses” . The Uppu Collective, based in the cities of Mumbai and Guwahati, worked with children of the Parijat Academy, a non-profit school in the tribal village of Pamohi in Assam, to create a puzzle game based on the children’s descriptions of their environment and animals.

“There is an exoticised perception of the North-East—beautiful scenery, tribals, festivals or violence. The region has never been normalised. We want to establish a nuanced understanding of the North-East through arts,” explain Devadeep Gupta and Hrishikesh Chowdhury, founders of the Northeast Lightbox.

Jayanta Mili with his artist book, which he created at Anga Art Collective's kNOw School
Jayanta Mili with his artist book, which he created at Anga Art Collective's kNOw School

Also read: Editor's note: Looking beyond the frame

Keen to explore documentary photography—defined as providing a straightforward, accurate representation of people, places, objects, events—they set up their own Instagram platform in 2017 to curate photo stories drawn from the region’s everyday reality. “We asked the local artists if they were happy with the way the region was being represented. There were many contemporary art practitioners in the North-East but they were working in isolation. There was a need for these practices to have a conversation—whether constructive or critical,” says Devadeep.

The attempt is to start a conversation. In 2017, they began by lending visibility to the residents of Uzan Bazar in northern Guwahati—mainly daily-wage workers, fishmongers and fishermen living in makeshift houses, and, as Hrishikesh puts it, the first to be hit by river-made disasters. They painted a member of the community, and his boat, blue. This living sculpture of sorts, Man On Boat, moved through the area, “challenging the invisibility faced by the community, which was brought to light when presented as art,” explains Devadeep.

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They returned to the area in 2021 for the Question Project, an extension of the Chilean collective MilM2’s project, putting up questions—about elections, environmental damage, student anger, ownership of the river... One question, at a café, was on whether farmers could afford the organic produce they were supplying. “We saw this as an artistic way to bring debates into the public realm,” says Devadeep.

If the Northeast Lightbox started as a space for forging artistic connections, the Anga Art Collective began as a soft critique of the pedagogy of art schools. Its members, who met as classmates in Guwahati’s art college in 2004, believed the college did not provide a space for critical discourse. So, they rented four rooms nearby. “We started calling intellectuals, writers and artists like Nilmani Phookan Jr. Gradually, we began to acquire the form of a collective,” says Dharmendra Prasad, one of the 13 members. The collective was formally launched in 2010.

Most would say its efforts lie between art and activism. Like the Northeast Lightbox, it too placed itself within the neighbourhood. Through small street displays—like putting up sculptures and installations in Ganesh Nagar, Guwahati, to see how people interact with conceptual art in public spaces—it began to engage with the locals.

“There is immense power in public spaces, and we started to think of collective forms that exist within the communities. The kNOw School was a result of that—if you see, the NO is prominent in the name, as we are negating the individualism and competition that drives mainstream education,” says Prasad. As they travelled through the Panikhaiti, Thakurkuchi and Chanaka villages along the Brahmaputra, they gradually realised that the curriculum of the kNOw School should mimic the fluidity of the river networks.

The collective, which has just been awarded the Shergil Sundaram Arts Foundation installation grant, will be working on a project, Granary, that has its roots in the man-elephant conflict in the villages surrounding the Rani Reserve Forest in Kamrup, Assam. “The elephant comes from the forest to eat paddy, either straight from the fields or from the threshing floor and the granary,” says Dhrubajit Sarma, a member of the collective.

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The idea for Granary is derived from bharal, the Assamese word for a village structure to store grain. In their work, the bharal will become a house of stories—an experimental library and performance space that will store the knowledge of the people, and present elephant-human stories. “The project starts with architecture and goes towards performance. We are also contemplating the long-term uses of the space for the community,” says Sarma. Their work is supported by Asia Art Archive, a non-profit that documents the recent histories of art in Asia, and Pro Helvetia, which supports artist residencies.

During the pandemic, the Northeast Lightbox started looking at archives from the eight states. “The proposed project seeks to explore and democratise historical narratives from the region that have been overlooked in the mainstream using tools of archiving,” states the project note. The collective has already started looking at archives related to civil society, pressure groups, mahila samitis (women’s committees) and resistance groups. “One of the goals is to have an exhibition that brings to the fore these regional micro-histories,” says Gupta.

Careen Joplin Langstieh, ‘Fish and Bread’, charcoal and pastel on toned paper, (2021), presented by the North East Arts Initiative 
Careen Joplin Langstieh, ‘Fish and Bread’, charcoal and pastel on toned paper, (2021), presented by the North East Arts Initiative 

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In Shillong, an art initiative has been trying to create an inclusive community of visual practitioners, art writers and researchers, presenting the “everyday” differently. Called the North East Arts Initiative, it was started by Afreen K. Khyriem and Naphisabiang Khongwir in 2020. It now has a third member, Chwamiki Lamarr. Graduates of the Maharaja Sayajirao University of Baroda, Khyriem and Khongwir felt the need for an understanding of conceptual art and the way it can encompass different disciplines. They began working at the intersection of film, performing arts, literature and folklore.

“One of our agendas is to bridge the gap between the artists and the community, which we have tried to do through exhibitions, talks and workshops,” says Khyriem. “By acknowledging the multiplicities of narratives, ethnic groups and dialogues within North-East India, we want to nurture the localised contemporary art sensibilities.”

A second objective is to highlight the distinctive trajectories of each state in art practices. “For instance, Meghalaya didn’t have a very strong visual arts repertoire until the British established themselves there. On the other hand, Nagaland had a very vibrant practice but they are struggling to incorporate identities of the past with the present. There are a lot of contemporary artists within the Khasi community and across Meghalaya,but they are barely visible due to lack of collective spaces and platforms,” says Khyriem—till now, attention has been focused only on their textiles and crafts.

The artists they collaborate with have very distinct voices. Take, for instance, the work of Guwahati-based artist Biswajit Thakuria, who reflects on the cultural and political past of the land. In a series of works, he takes objects considered synonymous with the Assamese identity—a traditional fishing net (jakoi), the drying skin of a banana (athiya kal) and a drying betel leaf (paan). The presentation of the objects in a decaying state affirms the cultural shift that Assam is going through.

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Then there is Careen Joplin Langstieh from Shillong, who presents a candid account of a Khasi woman’s everyday life in her sketches—one of the most striking is a portrait of a woman, staring fixedly at the viewer, with a fish in her mouth and a slice of bread in her hand. One doesn’t often get to see contemporary works from Mizoram, and it is heartening to see work by Thlana Bazik Keitum. His research-based multimedia practice makes use of text, images and symbolic materials to define identity within a modern nation state.

From Gangtok, Sikkim, one can see the works of Sisir Thapa whose installations bring together personal and collective memory. “Gleaning motifs from the rather banal repertoire of objects in everyday life, he develops a constellation of free forms that create a billowing visual effect in the space,” states the curatorial note.

“The idea of identity is very fluid for each state, every village in the region. We want to bring out those nuances through the works of artists—both self-taught and trained,” says Khongwir.

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