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The art of not forgetting

A Maruti Omni ride with Pakistani artist Huma Mulji two decades ago was the start of Shilpa Gupta's engagement with art that rethinks accepted notions of borders and nation-states

Shilpa Gupta in her studio. Photo: Aniruddha Chowdhury/Mint
Shilpa Gupta in her studio. Photo: Aniruddha Chowdhury/Mint

She’s not certain of the colour—she suspects it was white—but it was definitely a Maruti Omni. Shilpa Gupta is tracing her way back to 1999, eight years after India’s economy opened up, when the van had become a ubiquitous fixture on the country’s roads. She was about 23, and had just got her degree in sculpture from Mumbai’s Sir JJ School of Art, when she participated as one of 24 artists at the newly instituted Khoj International Artists Residency at Modinagar in Uttar Pradesh, along with Subodh Gupta, Anita Dube, Tallur L.N., and Navjot Altaf.

During one outing, Gupta found herself occupying one of the back seats. The Pakistani artist Huma Mulji sat across. They had already forged a friendship, communicating in both English and Urdu. “Within this setting, Aar Paar was being born," Gupta recounts during our interview at her studio in Bandra, Mumbai.

It’s a memory lush with metaphors, the peculiarly poised seating arrangement acting as a bridge, facilitating conversation between artists from either side of the border, the Omni with seven-eight artists, serving, quite literally, as a vehicle within which two citizens from two nations, once one, could talk about subversive ways of art-making that would undermine the rigidity of the illusive borders separating them.

“As a Pakistani, it was more than just any other international workshop for me. I discovered a surprisingly special sense of ‘brotherhood’ with artists from India," Mulji wrote in January 2000 in the publication produced by Khoj. Thanks to dial-up internet, the conversation between Gupta and Mulji continued, and the two artists conceived of Aar Paar as an exhibition of works by five artists from both countries. The title played on the Urdu words nuanced connotation of crossing over or getting across. Gupta and Mulji used one of the oldest modes of communication—the postal service—to invite artists from both countries to exchange work that was printed and displayed simultaneously in street shops and on public walls in Karachi and Mumbai in March 2000. Aar Paar saw two more iterations in 2002 and 2007, with the number of collaborating artists growing.

Threat (2008-09).

It was the first of several subsequent projects and exhibitions that Gupta initiated as a “facilitator", another significant and memorable one being Crossovers And Rewrites at the Museum of Contemporary Art at the World Social Forum in Porto Alegre, with Mamta Murthy, in 2005. This included highly evocative and political artists from India and around the world. “What was your experience after assembling the exhibition?" I ask Gupta. “We wept," she replies.

Gupta, now 41, has since made a career out of underscoring the existence of border as physical and notional, structural and syntactical sites to trespass, navigate and dismantle.

Jumbled words

Gupta’s studio, however, bears very little trace of this sustained engagement. Much of the work she has produced is either in circulation, in galleries and exhibitions, or has been acquired by collectors and museums. Some were even premised on the audience taking away individual units; such as Threat (2008-09), a wall of bricks, with each constituent composed of water-soluble soap bearing the work’s title. Visitors were invited to take away a soap-brick each, thus erasing the wall.

In several of her works, Gupta plays with deliberate misspellings, deriving meaning out of patterns. A flap board she made in 2007-08 included the anagram IPANKIDSIATAN, formed out of India and Pakistan. It’s easy to see how her 2015 neon work, My East Is Your West, evolved from this semantic twist. It also loaned the title to a joint unofficial pavilion with Pakistani artist Rashid Rana, sponsored by the Gujral Foundation, at the 2015 edition of the Venice Biennale. The structure of the neon sign reads WMYEIAOSUTR, but the programmed lighting illuminates certain letters to reimagine the anagrammed sentence, “My East is your West".

This is a clear strategy with her text-based works, bridging whole sentences within a limited spatial confine, establishing a deep intimacy between words and collapsing their structural boundaries by eliminating the distance between them. My East Is Your West is not just a clever sentence; it’s an aphorism that attests to how one’s geopolitical position determines one’s cartographic reference points, and how hegemonies get embedded because of the predominance of a singular position.

At the pavilion in Venice, Gupta also showed 998.9, in which you could see 3,394m of cloth handwoven by the people of Phulia in West Bengal. The fabric’s length correlated with the more than 3,400km-long barbed-wire border between the two countries. 998.9 could be seen in continuity with an earlier work, 1:14:9 (2011-12), a hand-wound ball of threat sitting in a glass casing with an accompanying plaque that reads: “1188.5 MILES OF FENCED BORDER—WEST, NORTH-WEST/DATA UPDATE: DEC 31, 2007," information she extracted from a Union home ministry report.

It was during her research for 1:14:9, (which was acquired by the Guggenheim Museum, New York) that Gupta began looking at similar statistics about the fence between India and Bangladesh, which, when completed, would be the longest of its kind. This led her to a Bangladeshi enclave that was surrounded by India on all sides.

Gupta was commissioned by curator Diana Campbell Betancourt, on behalf of the Dhaka-based Samdani Art Foundation, to create a solo project for the second edition of the Dhaka Art Summit. This resulted in her 2014, hard-hitting Untitled installation, documenting the lives of at least 51,000 people stranded within enclaves (chhitmahal).

There is no explosive in this (2007).

Non-objective practice

“Art was not ‘art’ then," Gupta says candidly, referring to her early 20s. “The object was not as fetishized," she qualifies. I am surprised when she tells me about an early experiment with an unknown audience, when she anonymously sent out drawings to addresses on the mailing list of the Jehangir Art Gallery.

“I sold my first artwork only in 2008," she confesses. That was nearly a decade after she graduated. It was from her series, There Is No Explosive In This, an installation comprising photographs taken on the streets of London, of participants who volunteered to carry a suitcase tightly covered with cloth upon which the titular text was imprinted.

“I am no longer the artist," she says, acknowledging this divestiture of authorship. Her intimacy with her anonymous audience demolishes the boundaries between art as a fetishized object and the viewer as a distant being.

Whether through textual works or her installations, over the years Gupta has continued to probe the narrativity of borders by exploring the nature of cartography, on the one hand, as a state-sponsored exercise, and on the other as a subjective human experience. Her 2007-08 piece, 100 Hand-drawn Maps Of India, commissioned 100 hand-drawn maps from 100 individuals and bound them into a book whose pages fluttered and turned with the motion of a table fan. It was an extension of her reflection on the arbitrariness of the collective imagining of the nation state.

This series has continued to evolve by assuming a range of formats, from a 100-slide projection of the imprecise cartographic renderings to a carbon-paper-made drawing of 100 individual maps superimposed upon each other, resulting in an unstable image of India where the border lines seem to be shifting constantly, incapable of functioning as markers of fixity.

My East is Your West (2015).

Contraband art

“Have you seen the marijuana works?" Gupta asks me towards the end of our meeting. I am intrigued. She pulls out a desktop folder of subtle drawings of official objects made using a pigment extracted from the intoxicating weed she found growing in the vicinity of various border checkpoints.

These were among a slew of newer works that were exhibited as part of Drawings In The Dark at Kiosk Gallery, Belgium, alongside Song Of The Ground, a mechanical installation of two stones from a border zone that slap against each other’s surface, subversively applauding their unusual fate. It’s an appropriate metaphor for Gupta’s oeuvre, where technique and technology, spirit and essence, form and content are firmly entrenched in the poetics of transgression.


Courtesy: The Artist

Creating a bridge

Significant works by other Indian artists that wrestle with lines of control

Remembering Toba Tek Singh, Nalini Malani

Its poetic crux rooted in Saadat Hasan Manto’s classic story about a lunatic’s border dilemma in the aftermath of Partition, Malani’s 20- minute video loop, using four projectors dating back to 1998-99, builds a causal relationship between the underground nuclear tests conducted by India on 11 May 1998 and the conflicted history of India and Pakistan.

Courtesy: The Artist
Courtesy: The Artist

Not all who wander are lost, Bharti Kher

For her public art commission in 2015, Kher appropriated a 1960s’ map from The Larousse International Political and Economic Atlas edited by Jean Chardonnet, which she enlarged and populated with large, multicoloured bindis and positioned on the façade of the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston as a commentary on the histories of colonization and migration.

Courtesy: The Artist

A season outside, Amar Kanwar

Shot on 16mm colour film, Kanwar’s 30-minute 1997 film uses a personal narrative to reflect on military aggression, beginning with the sunset ritual of closing the gate at the Wagah-Atari border and presenting the figure of “a nomad wandering through lines of separation, examining the scars of violence and dreams of hope scattered among communities and nations".

Courtesy: The Artist

Woven Chronicle, Reena Kallat

First produced in 2015 at the Vancouver Art Gallery, with a second edition made especially for an international group exhibition, Insecurities: Tracing Displacement And Shelter, at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, Kallat’s Woven Chronicle is a gigantic map of the world woven with electrical wires and fittings and interspersed with circuit boards and speakers. The drawing it forms along the wall traces migration patterns and reveals how human ingenuity makes the borders porous.

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