Just up the road from most of us, in new galleries that Kettle’s Yard opened last year, is one of the best small exhibitions you’ll see in England this year: Homelands: Art from Bangladesh, India and Pakistan.
The array of artists that Devika Singh, now curator of International Art at Tate, has managed to assemble is eclectic and diverse in location — and in aesthetic — but they all share one central fascination. All eleven work in the ambiguous, fertile space where what we might call history or current affairs — documentary evidence of mass migration, conflict, partition — meets artistic media — photography, miniature painting, video.
As you might expect from a show titled Homelands, there’s a running motif of artists from very different backgrounds focusing on universal narratives and histories of migration and national identity. The two oldest pieces in the exhibition, Bani Abidi’s The News (2001) and Zabina’s These Cities Blotted into the Wilderness (2003), are perfect examples. Zabina, who as a child lived through the Indian partition, creates a cartographic history of displacement, using the same black ink to draw the maps of far-apart cities affected by terror. Baghdad, Kabul, Ahmedabad, New York: from her brush, all emerge the same.
In Abidi’s work, two newsreaders recount the same nonsensical international incident on adjacent televisions; one is Indian and speaks Hindu, the other is Pakistani and speaks Urdu. The catch is that they’re both played by Bidi. Her parody, like all parodies, uses humour as a close reading of the original; the bombastic seriousness of nationalism, when applied to a joke about a Pakistani taking an egg laid by an Indian hen, loses its bombast.
Next to The News in the gallery is Shilpa Gupta’s Untitled, a single split-flap departure board suspended from the ceiling, as you’d have seen at a station twenty years ago. It’s an ambiguous piece made more ambiguous by the curators. We’re given no information about it. The wall-text relates name, title and year, and nothing else. This is for a clear purpose: Gupta wants us to pay attention to the words on the click-clacking display alone. She uses the capital-letter aesthetic of authority and fact to create ambiguous and shifting voices: words are misspelt, the words INDIA and PAKISTAN merge, and what seems to be a recounting of facts about partition: ‘1946 A TRAIN LEAVES’ becomes an unknown individual’s experience: 00:19 I FALL ASLEEP.
There’s something rather modernist about Gutpa’s narrative approach: a medium that we expect to convey a singular, objective message is made messy.
Without a title or a curator’s comment to guide us, we can only rely on the problematised voice; the departure board format hints at a theme of movement and migration, but the rest is down to the viewer to work out. It’s a superb use of the gallery format, playing with her spectators and their expectations of narration and medium.
Where Untitled benefits from a lack of explanation, other works lose out. At a panel discussion to mark the launch of the exhibition, I heard four of the other artists exhibited at Kettle’s Yard talk about their work: the photographers Sohrab Hura and Munem Wasif, architect Seher Shah, and painter Desmond Lazaro. All four spoke with great insight and intelligence about their work; seeing the exhibition in light of their words illuminated much that would be lost if I’d have gone in with no prior knowledge.
For example, in Sohrab Hura’s series of photographs from Kashmir, Snow (available online at www.sohrabhura.com/Snow-1), there’s a great deal of allusive imagery that’s easily understood in India, but when presented in Cambridge could do with a little explanation. The blood in the river in one piece late in the series is from an animal sacrifice, but alludes to the contentious 2016 death of Burhan Wani, a young Kashmiri militant killed by the Indian Army; the fish eyes on a countertop in the photograph above invoke the protestors, including children, blinded as the state violently quelled Kashmiri anger at what they perceived as Wani’s martyrdom.
Hura explained this allusion at the panel as less a poetic technique, more of a survival mechanism: as the Indian police begin to shut down more and more exhibitions of art they perceive as political (at least one of the works at Kettle’s Yard was banned under Indian counter-terror legislation), an indirect reference is more likely to stay on the walls. It would be nice to have this explained, but neither the captions nor the catalogue tell us about it. We can appreciate the sublime, subtle shyness of Hura’s photographs of arms, shoes, car-crashes. But something is lost if we’re not told, as he explained to me after the panel, that as a New Delhi-based outsider, he’s attempting to make sense of the physical space of Kashmir, as opposed to the terrorist-infested hellhole/bounteous paradise that the Indian media projects.
As we read Hura’s series from left to right, the snow melts and greys take its place. It melts as he becomes increasingly disillusioned with, and breaks from, the paradoxical dichotomy that Indian presentations of ‘Kashmir’ as idea and nationalist ideal create. He leaves us with something altogether more fragmentary, and human. Though he insisted to me that he’s still trying to understand Kashimir’s ever-shifting landscape, and constantly failing, I think Hura’s much more perceptive than he’ll admit.
Like many of the other pieces in Homelands, Hura shows us the humanity of people and territories in South Asia that we in Britain might only know as headlines.
From Desmond Lazaro’s commissioned paintings of the people and patterns that have emigrated to Cambridge, to Munem Wasif’s Spring Song, photographs of objects brought to Bangladesh by Rohingya refugees fleeing genocide in Myanmar, the artworks on display at Kettle’s Yard are enlightening and necessary. Go along and you’ll discover not just eleven brilliant artists, but a small glimpse into a region of almost two billion people that, all too often, we know next to nothing about.