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Reena Kallat: I wanted to use nature to demonstrate how we could co-habit

Artist Reena Kallat's latest exhibition, 'Earth Families', is a proposition for a unique future

Reena Kallat. Photo: Karishma Mehta.
Reena Kallat. Photo: Karishma Mehta.

Reena Kallat sounds anxious over the phone. She’s in the process of making last-minute, hair-splitting edits to a press release that has to be immediately dispatched. A week before her exhibition, Earth Families, opens at Manchester Museum, UK, she has been able to make room for a conversation.

Kallat’s oeuvre is replete with messages and motifs that are way ahead of their time. In an era of geographical insecurities and political fisticuffs, where artists and film-makers are imaging dystopian futures, Kallat constructs a world rooted in optimism. A meditation on boundaries—geographical, psychological and anatomical—her work attempts to replace the universal narrative of conflict with that of convergence.

For this, she pans her lens towards birds, plants and animals. Earth Families features 16 series in its entirety, one of which is Hyphenated Lives. In this series, Kallat takes the national markers of two neighbouring hostile nations, and merges them to form a cohesive whole. For instance, she morphed the red deer (the national animal of Ireland) and lion (the national animal of England) to create a hybrid species called De-on. In a similar vein, Kallat imagined Sun-poe, a species that emerged from merging the Palestine sunbird (Palestine’s national bird) and hoopoe (Israel’s national bird). These mythical species appear flawless—they look remarkably real, which makes it easier to imagine a world that Kallat proposes. “I wanted to use nature to demonstrate how we could co-habit," says Kallat. “You could look at these new species, therefore, as a proposition for the future."

‘De-on’, from ‘Hyphenated Lives’. Photo: Dheeraj Thakur’

Sun-poe emerged from the debate around the Palestine sunbird a few years ago, when Israel demanded that the bird’s name be changed to “orange bird", objecting to the presence of the term “Palestine" in it. Recalling that incident, Kallat says, “It is interesting how we claim ownership of birds and other species, and include them in our own political language. I’m intrigued by this politicization of nature—of how we fight not only between ourselves, but we also drag other species in our pursuit of conflict." Kallat’s intricate brushstrokes result in a seamless integration of different birds, animals and trees, “and this quality makes them almost look as though nature is in defiance of man-made divisions. As though they are refusing to respect these boundaries," she says.

Wars and geographical boundaries (which she calls “incisions on land") are themes that also pulsate through her work. Through Chorus, Kallat unearths the beauty in a World War II surveillance device, while divorcing it from the painful memories of war. Chorus is a sonic installation in Kallat’s exhibition—a quasi-replica of the surveillance device once used during the war to locate enemy aircraft. In Chorus, the artist replaces the disconcerting sound of whirring aircrafts with the sound of birds. “A visitor stepping into (Chorus) will hear the national birds of various border-sharing countries singing in unison; such as the peacock (India) with the chukar (Pakistan)," she explains. “Though appropriated (as belonging to) one nation or another, these birds inhabit both, being citizens only of a particular terrain that no country can claim ownership to."

While the original sonic machines made during the war were of concrete, Kallat had to create a lighter prototype which could be easily transported from Mumbai to Manchester. For this, she used fiberglass-reinforced polymer and metal. “I had to think of an easy way for the piece to collapse and re-assemble," Kallat says. “It’s almost to the scale and dimensions of the original devices used during the war though."

Kallat’s preoccupation with the tenacity of borders has lasted for almost a decade. In 2010, she was invited to participate in The River Project at the Campbelltown Arts Centre in Sydney, where she turned towards the Indus river (which flows between India and Pakistan) for inspiration. “I’ve always been interested in the two countries—our shared history and commonalities. I looked at how Indus had multiple tributaries—Ravi, Beas, Sutlej, Jhelam and Chenab—and how they all flowed into the same river. So, at the end of the day, the water was really the same, and yet we had these multiple names for it."

Electric cables, a recurring motif in Kallat’s works, also weave into the conceptual fabric of Earth Families. In the paintings belonging to the Garden Of Forking Paths series, the cables appear as borders. Uncannily though, they also resemble rivers or DNA swirls (that symbolize life). Kallat is interested in teasing out dualities or inherent contradictions in objects. “Electric cables are transmitters of communication and exchange. In this case, they are meant to be conduit/carriers, but also morph into barriers. This is a thematic contradiction that runs throughout my work: on the one hand, technology is connecting us, but on another, our borders are becoming more controlled," she says. Earth Families, therefore, holds a mirror in front of us. “My work is about self-reflection. It’s about tweaking our perceptual limitations. It’s about being able to look beyond our differences and look at our shared commonalities and histories instead."

Earth Families is on till 26 February at Manchester Museum, UK. For details, visit

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