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This museum is getting people to talk about conflict

Through art installations, events and residencies, the Conflictorium in Ahmedabad and Raipur is starting conversations about emotions related to conflicts and violence

Fault Lines at The Conflictorium the almost-century-old Gool Lodge in Ahmedabad.
Fault Lines at The Conflictorium the almost-century-old Gool Lodge in Ahmedabad. (Conflictorium)

The world is engulfed in myriad conflicts, creating an urgent need to understand how to engage with such violent news, other than reacting. A museum of conflict, with premises in Gujarat and Chhattisgarh, which marks its 10-year anniversary this year, is making space for people to think, feel, and express what they feel about everyday violence via art, installations and conversations about the history and impact of conflict.

“The tendency to not talk about conflicts is not a city-specific but a South Asian cultural thing. We either want to ignore it or we explode,” says YSK Prerana, the artistic director of the museum. For instance, an ongoing exhibition in Ahmedabad, Fault Lines, is an attempt to re-interpret the writing of history to understand erasure and exclusionary practices rooted in oppression. “Through Conflcitorium, the idea is that conflict must be acknowledged and as a society, people should have tools to turn their feelings into something helpful that is healing and healthier,” Prerana explains.

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“When you walk into a museum, one thinks this is history and it is truthful. There is little space for criticality. Conflictorium focuses on building alternative narratives to popular ones so that history is plural. We want to offer multiple narratives to the audience who then through their own skills can make sense of history and truth,” Prerana says.

The Conflictorium or Museum of Conflict was started by Avni Sethi in 2013 in Ahmedabad, as part of her final project while studying at Srishti Institute of Art, Design and Technology in Bengaluru. When Sethi spoke to people in her hometown of Ahmedabad about conflict, she was surprised to find that most people saw them as merely symptoms of an unhealthy society. To establish a space for people to engage in dialogue about conflict as a necessary path to peace, she started the Conflictorium in the city. Last year, the museum opened a branch in Raipur, Chhattisgarh. The Conflictorium also hosts free residencies for artists. Earlier this year, it published a book, Elephant in the Room, featuring the work of 70 artists and art writers from India.

An important installation in the Ahmedabad museum is Conflict Timeline, which traces Gujarat’s history of conflicts in the last six decades. “People usually associate it with the 2002 riots or the 2001 earthquake. While they have their place, it is also important to look back into communal riots in the late 1960s as well as land conflicts,” Prerana says.

Not all visitors realise the importance of holding space for differences or react with the same to the installations. Last year, a visitor, who felt deeply uncomfortable with Jinnah’s silhouette in Empathy Alley, an installation that depicts him alongside Gandhi and Ambedkar, threatened to destroy it. Another asked them to display a trigger warning at the entrance to the museum. “We haven't done it because our idea is that bodies must be in discomfort when they visit, especially those that come from privilege and power. For those who come from marginalized context, this becomes a space for rest,” explains Prerana.

In Raipur, too, the Conflictorum has several installations that trace various forms of conflicts. For instance, Borders and Boundaries maps the state’s creation, and in another room, headphones dangle from the roof and visitors can listen to narratives of people affected by the Naxal movement, the state and industrial expansion. The team also wanted to bring focus to art centred on the tense political, and economic land conflicts and explore if they could intersect. “We wanted to see if the museum could be a space where contemporary indigenous art practices meet, and so, an alternative narrative was born,” says Prerana.

In both Ahmedabad and Raipur, there are permanent installations that ask questions about justice: how to become justice-oriented, how justice works, and what it looks like for different people. For instance, there is a Sorry Tree, a peepal tree from which cards with apologies that “were never asked for or expressed or understood” hang. Dalit research scholar, Rohit Vemula’s last letter is painted on the walls of the first floor, where the Sorry Tree branches out onto the balcony. “We hope that visitors can look at conflict through alternative narratives and build their personal constitutions and value systems that are centred around empathy and justice,” Prerana says.

Fault Lines is on till 5 November at The Conflictorium in Ahmedabad.

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