Ideas of borders, migration and identity often evoke emotions that might be complex to express. Any displacement, which is involuntary, caused by sociopolitical events such as the Partition, adds a distinctly painful layer to these emotions. Artist Arpita Akhanda explores these myriad feelings in her practice, through which she focuses on ‘decolonising’ memories. She uses personal archives, inherited from her grandparents, and weaves a new image that merges the past and the present. Currently an artist in residence at Arbeitsgruppe Gästeatelier Krone, Switzerland, Akhanda is trying to find new possibilities while encountering the self in an unknown city. Edited excerpts from the interview:
How does colonial history of the country form the very basis of your art practice?
I was born in a family of artists who migrated from Bangladesh during the Partition. My grandfather was a freedom fighter, an artist, a photographer, and a poet, while my grandmother was a homemaker, who magically turned discarded cloth and paper into a works of art. So, colonial history is not just a chapter in my book but is the very fabric of my life. I was very close to my grandparents, as a result of which I grew up listening to stories of Noakhali riot and memories of partition. Colonial history is not something I merely choose to work with, rather it is an ingrained and automated response to my existence.
I see my practice as an extension as well as a response to my relationship with this history. My works heavily depend upon the personal archives of my grandfather and the skill of my grandmother in stitching and weaving. I combine these to turn a memory into a new narrative while retaining the layer of stories imbued within. The memories and archives are in the form of poems, stories, photographs, objects, and even textiles. It is these that have helped shape my understanding of a dissected nation, where I live now.
You say that you endeavour to decolonise memories (of your family and others). How does an erasure or alteration help?
I try to look at decolonisation as a journey. I am not saying that I want to do so to alter or erase the past, I want to do the exact opposite. I re-evaluate constantly because I am aware that a conscious engagement with the past raises questions. And I am interested in the issues which are still relevant in our present. If you ask why, then I would say maybe to stay rooted, to have a sense of belonging.
Division was the basis of the country’s independence, which left wounded relationships. This is the reason why I think we need to decolonise. The idea originated, again, with my grandfather, who I am told, on August 15, 1947, refused to accept this division. He discarded his khadi clothes that he wore to fight for the country in the river Ganga. He penned a poem titled Khed, vocalising his regret of being a part of parted land. This became my inspiration for a performance piece on August 15, 2015. In 2018, I stood at the very spot where my grandfather had taken one last photograph of his village in 1946. People there still remember my ancestors. They welcomed us and I brought back a fistful of soil as a memoir of my roots. These experiences made me realise that the history we learn and the lived history are not the same thing. This needs to be reassessed and woven into newer narratives.
How do you straddle various media: paper weaves, performance, installations, drawings, and video pieces?
I do not restrict myself while exploring mediums. I always give preference to the context and research, and then generate methodologies which often requires experimenting with various media. Paper weaving emerged out of my need to bring multiple narratives in a singular work, without losing the unique identity of each element. The body, to me is a memory collector, presented in the form of text, photograph, or performance. My video works and installations are in a way extension of the performative explorations. I engage with drawing as a process either to initiate a dialogue between my body and the site before the performance or as a memory of what remains post-performance.
How does your paper work weave “the warp of memories with the weft of politically charged statements to create a fabric that questions identity and existence”?
Weaving is a traditional craft. I enjoy exploring its various techniques and histories. I adopted the process of weaving to bring two layers together through the warp and weft, creating a third entity. In my works, one of the layers is always derived from memories and past, while the other layer depicts the present —the situation that the past gave birth to. And the two layers, containing the past and the present, get interwoven to construct a new narrative, which is pixelated, broken, hidden, dissected, and blurred. This adds the metaphorical reference of the very relationship of our identity and existence.
What is the significance of using original archival maps and actual images of people?
I see personal as political. And hence the use of images of actual people comes from the idea of sharing personal history that gets diluted when placed adjacent to the broader history. I respond to, and extend my family's archive, which I inherited in the form of photographs, personal diaries and travelogues. So, in my works the people are real, they are the protagonist, it is their story, it is my story. But again, by weaving various layers of history with those images I intend to place it parallel to the country's past and turn it into a narrative of many more families who walked the same path. My works in a sense become characters to narrate the story, but as real as alive and breathing. Using reproduction of original archival maps also derives from bringing historical evidence and reference to the work.
Rahul Kumar is a Gurugram-based culture writer