How South Asian art is speaking to the world
The Metropolitan Museum of Art has two big shows this season that attempt to caution us against a dystopian future
Two South Asian artists are showing at The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York this summer. Pakistani artist Huma Bhabha’s open-air, rooftop exhibition, We Come In Peace, is marked by two larger-than-life sculptures that hint at mankind’s apocalyptic future, while Indian artist Ranjani Shettar’s Seven Ponds And A Few Raindrops reminds us that the natural world is under threat.
The Met has featured South Asian artists in the past, including a magnificent retrospective on modernist artist Nasreen Mohamedi (The Met Breuer, 2016), as well as shows with Krishna Reddy and Zarina Hashmi. At present, however, The Met’s Iris and B Gerald Cantor Roof Garden has a 12ft-tall figure, sculpted by Bhabha, that looks resolutely into the distance. Resembling a totemic deity plucked from an ancient era and placed in our modern world, its pale-blue torso, marked by deep crisscross lines, merges seamlessly with the New York skyline. The lower body is a different—mud—colour, harking to the mythological theme of “creation of man from clay". But its five heads, each with a set of cold, stony eyes, are suggestive of alien or rakshasa (demonic) origins.
A few feet away from the colossal creature is an 18ft, half-human, half-animal body prostrating itself, hands outstretched in submission. Benaam (Nameless), also made by Bhabha, is shrouded in an ominous cape that both conceals its identity and safeguards it from the world. Is Benaam something hideous which needs to hidden? Or something beautiful which shouldn’t be shared?
The relationship between the two sculptural installations (commissioned by The Met) can be interpreted in countless ways. For one, it suggests the relationship between man and woman in patriarchal societies (like India and Pakistan), where culture dictates that women must be modestly covered, worship their husbands, be submissive, and hidden from the public eye. So, while the behemoth stands starkly naked in all its glory, the submissive figure is almost fully clothed. Bhabha used industrial materials—cork, Styrofoam, clay and plastic—to make these sculptures.
The curator of modern and contemporary South Asian art at The Met, Shanay Jhaveri, considers the roof to be a stage, where the two pieces are in dialogue, “like actors on a movie set".
“To my eye, the bodies of both these sculptures are those which appear in extremis, that communicate both notions of pain and survival," he says. “I see them concurrently as valiant, but also subjugated, striated but defiant. I believe them to be monuments to the precariousness of living," writes Jhaveri on email.
The giant installations, which have no geographical or religious markers, could also be interpreted as foreign visitors teleported to the roof from another world. And why not? The work’s title, We Come In Peace, is a paraphrased quote from the film The Day The Earth Stood Still (1951), about an alien’s first contact with humans. In the film, the alien has an important message to deliver to humans about their apocalyptic future. Bhabha’s work has always been politically inclined and this installation is no different. We live in a time of geographical, racial and political wars, marked by fear, anxiety and majoritarianism. “I think what we have on The Met’s roof responds quite emphatically and powerfully to these social conditions and circumstances," says Jhaveri.
Bhabha’s sculptures bear a striking resemblance to Dol hareubang (“grandfather made of stone" in Korean)—basalt sculptures of Jejudo Island with their distinctive bulging eyes. A more modern comparison can be made to the large-scale figures known for their other-worldly edifices, by artist Thomas Houseago.
Ranjani Shettar’s Seven Ponds And A Few Raindrops, on the other hand, comprises delicate installations that seem to float in the air. The seven forms, moulded in stainless steel and covered in muslin cloth, cast dark pools of shadows across the carpeted floor.
Like Bhabha, Shettar is known for her larger-than-life works. And like Bhabha, she too works with conventional industrial materials—steel, beeswax, wood and organic dyes—to create transformative, unconventional work. But while Bhabha’s figures are grounded, Shettar’s take flight; while Bhabha’s are solid, formidable beings, Shettar’s are often diaphanous pieces.
From a distance, Shettar’s creatures look like insects. Their branch-like legs seem to be attached to leaves that could store rainwater. And the colours—flaming orange, plum red and rust—conjure up the illusion of man-made forest fires, foreshadowing the destruction of natural habitats.
For 11 years, Shettar has been living in the remote village of Sagara, in the Western Ghats of Karnataka. Nature serves as a vast oasis of inspiration. “In today’s time, it is impossible to not think about the ecological and carbon footprint we are leaving behind," she says on the phone. “Nature is under threat. It is one of the things that linger in my mind."
But Shettar refuses to pin a theme, an idea or an atmosphere to her work. It is the plurality of interpretations that she takes delight in.“I believe in making something that is experiential and that evokes beauty. That is my primary starting point to engage with the viewer," she specifies.
Jhaveri, who has been following Shettar’s practice for over a decade, corroborates this. “A defining aspect of Ranjani’s work is her commitment to abstraction, which allows for her work to be heeded, grasped and experienced in myriad ways."
Abstraction aside, the titles Shettar gives her work are also ambiguous. Whether it is the name of the current show or Bubble Trap And A Double Bow (Talwar Gallery, Delhi, 2017), the titles reflect Shettar’s fondness for concise, lyrical phrases. “It is my chance to write poetry!" she says. The sole objective of these poetic phrases is to serve as guides—a starting point—for viewers to indulge in a creative interpretation of her work.
Both Bhabha’s and Shettar’s hyperrealist works have a special relevance in today’s global context. “Currently, ours is a restive cultural moment, and this restlessness and desire not to submit to what has been the status quo is reflected in those contemporary artworks," says Jhaveri. Although their artwork may come from a personal/regional space, their work has a universal language and appeal. Their art occupies a crucial space in global discourse, pushing us to think about important issues.
We Come In Peace is on view till 28 October, and Seven Ponds And A Few Raindrops, till 12 August.