HOW WOULD ONE define youth? Is it merely an administrative category determined by the number of years one has been alive? Or is it the joyful feeling associated with discovering the varied possibilities of this world? For the purpose of art, it is certainly the latter.
“All of us grow up under different cultural influences, different educational circumstances, we speak different languages and come from different backgrounds. But the one thing we have in common is that we were all children at some point,” says artistic director and chief curator of the Dhaka Art Summit, Diana Campbell. She is addressing a large gathering that has come together for the opening of Very Small Feelings, a new multi-artist exhibition currently on display at the Kiran Nadar Museum of Art (KNMA), Saket, Delhi in collaboration with the Samdani Art Foundation, Bangladesh. With this proclamation, Campbell who has co-curated the exhibit along with
senior curator of programming and exhibitions at KNMA, Akansha Rastogi, summarises its intention to appeal to the child within us.
Rastogi adds, “This is KNMA’s fourth exhibition in the ‘Young Artists of our Times’ series. For this programming, we have been thinking about the body and the senses, and about allowing ourselves to be what we want to be, without the restrictions of age. It’s a younger thought and approach for younger audiences.”
The exhibition is certainly an ambitious one. On display are 42 projects by artists from around the world, 60 per cent of which were works commissioned specifically for this exhibition while others include historical works, books, works from personal and institutional archives, performance pieces, installations, films, animation, graphic novels and more. For its first outing in a smaller form, Very Small Feelings was displayed in February this year, at the nine-day-long Dhaka Art Summit. Its present iteration is larger in scope and scale and has been curated by Rastogi and Campbell, aided by Ruxmini Choudhury (Assistant Curator, Samdani Art Foundation), and Avik Debdas and Swati Kumari (Curatorial and Research Associates, KNMA).
As one of the first collaborations of its kind between arts institutions in India and Bangladesh, and the first at KNMA to include the works of international artists outside of South Asia, it aims to give a voice to younger artists and offer them new platforms. Throughout the nearly three-month long duration of the exhibition, a series of programmes will also be organised in collaboration with the exhibiting artists. There will be workshops, talks, performances, curated walkthroughs, and in-depth discussions.
Interactivity is at the core of this project, where every work has a distinctive identity of its own, yet seamlessly interacts with the others on display. This translates to some overlap in placement or commonality of theme. A few, such as David Horvitz’s Change the Name of Days, consisting of prompts that invite the viewer to rethink established concepts, are present throughout the premises.
Setting the tone at the entrance, is Anpu Varkey’s larger-than-life mural painted on the front wall of the museum. It recreates a scene from her graphic novel titled Summer’s Children, consisting of a well that signifies a “swell of feelings”. Next, one encounters Rupali Gupte and Prasad Shetty’s Belly of the Strange III, a massive cylindrical object painted red from the outside and a bright orange within, that invites you to run around its curvilinear innards or settle in to read a selection of children’s books in different languages.
Interactivity is at the core of this project, where every work has a distinctive identity of its own, yet seamlessly interacts with the others on display
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From here, one can take many circuitous routes around the exhibition. Down one path, you face a wall of soap called the Stuck-in-time Time Wall by Ghazaleh Avarzamani, which is a nod to the American propaganda unleashed on developing nations during the Cold War. Here, sheets of Cosco soap, introduced to her native Bangladesh by America, form a screen. They shield a playful piece by Dutch artist Afra Eisma called Poke, Press, Squeeze, Clasp, which consists of figurines made with yarn and textiles placed on a soft rug that invites the audience to sit, play, muse and interact with the art. Eisma’s idea is to “foster mutual understanding and shared experience through art.”
ANOTHER PIECE ON propaganda is Afrah Shafiq’s Nobody Knows for Certain. This large installation, within a room of its own, consists of an archival video game and animated videos of interactive fiction based on a number of books, originally published in the Soviet Union but translated into various Indian languages for the purpose of disseminating their communist philosophy. One can read the stories on a large screen or play the games while others watch.
There are a number of collaborative works. Assam-based Anga Art Collective showcases audio-visual installations made with bamboo, clay, earth, and jute elements in its work titled Khal Gaaon. Artists Jugal Kumar, Anup Let, Devadeep Gupta, Gyanwant Yadav and Umesh Singh helm this work, but leave the work open to contributions from the audience who are encouraged to draw or write messages to hang from their bamboo rain curtain.
Similarly, Jungle Nama brings together three creative stalwarts across different mediums. Amitav Ghosh’s book of the same name about a folk tale from the Sunderbans, is converted to a larger-than-life book installation containing black-and-white drawings by Salman Toor and with scenography by GOLEM. An accompanying audiobook is narrated by musician Ali Sethi. The words follow a rhyming beat in keeping with its original inspiration, which was the rhythmic, communal form of storytelling popular in this part of the world.
Indonesian artist Aditya Novali pairs up with his sister Ade Dianita for a collaborative work called Significant Other. When Novali noticed that his sister’s drawings (which emerged from her experience as a person with Down Syndrome and Autism Spectrum Disorder), were similar in form to the landscapes he was taught to draw in formal art school, he drew a link between their art. To demonstrate this, he asks viewers to project her works onto his own, decorated on the walls. The result is 365 unique combinations that offer a powerful commentary on how art transcends the boundaries of traditional communication.
Also inviting the viewer to interact is Ahmet Ogut’s Jump Up!. Three low-lying mid-size trampolines are placed below three of modern master Benodebehari Mukherjee’s works, made after he had lost his eyesight. The mixed-media collages are placed higher than eye level, addressing the need to make the placement of art in galleries more inclusive. In order to see the art, therefore, people must jump up on the trampolines. Mukherjee’s works also interact abstractly with others laid out in the same gallery. On an adjacent wall rests the work of his wife, sculptor and arts educator Leela Mukherjee. There is a photograph of a vibrant mural titled, The Peacock Stage, originally painted for the Welham Boys School in 1968 along with a set of four wood sculptures. Also placed nearby is a film by Mukherjee’s contemporary Satyajit Ray named, Two – A Film Fable / Parable of Two, which explores the divide between the haves and have-nots in society through the interaction of two children at the opposite ends of the economic spectrum.
This is not the only film in the exhibition that seeks to impart a powerful message. The other is Tropical Siesta by Vietnamese artist Thao Nguyen Phan, which recounts fraught periods of Vietnamese history through the games of children. Then there is the trilogy of films by Albanian artist Driant Zeneli, which draw on stark visual imagery to explore themes of displacement and the connection to one’s roots. Accompanying Zeneli’s films in the same room are projects by two other artists exploring similar themes. Lapdiang Syiem from Shillong offers a film Laitïam on performative art where she poses as a deer to narrate an old Khasi folk tale of a mother deer mourning the loss of her son who ventures across the border, and whose heartfelt cry teaches the tribe how to grieve. Then there are the photo-drawings and collage prints of Joydeb Roaja from the Chittagong hill tracts. In his series titled Go Back to Roots, matriarchal figures descend from the roots of trees to signify their importance in the shaping of an individual.
Another set of significant drawings are the ones made with ink on rice paper by Bangladeshi artist Mong Mong Sho. In Songs of the Fishermen’s Children, he shows children foregoing their childhood as they work in their parent’s trade. Lokesh Khodke’s comics The Speaking Mountain also attract the viewer. Their protagonist is a boy from Bhopal travelling in time to meet interesting characters like Hong Kong-based Ha Bik Chuen and the Indian comic book superhero Nagaraj. The latter two are also displayed in their original form across from Khodke’s work.
Books are another recurring theme. They form the basis of the project by artist-in-residence Nidhi Khurana. Her book Playroom consists of framed interactive photos made in collaboration with the students of Udavi School in Edyanchavadi, a village in Auroville, Tamil Nadu. Making a commentary on how books play out differently in the minds of different people, it invites viewers to interact and draw their own conclusions. Her presence is also part of the overall experience, as she will be at the venue in person every day to speak about her own work and the project displayed adjacent to hers, which consists of books by artist and art educator Devi Prasad, and art work made by his students aged 2-14 from the Nai Talim programme at Sevagram. These works of art were made in response to a question raised by a student on how people write books. Over a 15-day workshop he taught them the art of book writing, drawing, detailing each page and binding, which ties in well with Khurana’s work.
Shaped as a labyrinthine playground, the exhibition is playful and has much to offer. The essence of this is captured by Simon Fujiwara in his Who the Baer series, where he raises questions about the role of problematic concepts like patriarchy, a search for identity and more.
Campbell highlights that the exhibit also addresses the importance of the very small feelings of hurt and jealousy, insecurity and anger that one has as a child, which if left unchecked can become larger feelings with major consequences. “Age and youthfulness aren’t correlated,” she says, “We were all young at some point. So, we wanted to meet everyone at a certain level and take them up with us.”
(Very Small Feelings is on display at the Kiran Nadar Museum of Art, Saket till September 20)