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Dubai exhibit tackles ‘absence’ of cultural references to British India’s partition
DUBAI: “In the aftermath of British colonial rule, a crucial few weeks in 1947 initiated complex and still unresolved processes of displacement, fragmentation, conflict and nation-building that spanned decades and continue to deeply mark societies and peoples of the subcontinent”.
This is how the Jameel Arts Center in Dubai presents its latest exhibition, “Proposals for a Monument to Partition”.
It has been 75 years since partition divided British India into two independent dominions – India and Pakistan (which was later split again into Pakistan and Bangladesh) – leaving millions religiously displaced and creating what is believed to be the greatest refugee crisis of all time (mass migration continued for many years thereafter). It also sparked widespread outbreaks of violence that left hundreds of thousands dead (a conservative estimate) on both sides of the newly created border.
It’s no wonder, then, that the curator of the exhibition, the Sharjah-born writer and art historian Murtaza Vali, describes the partition as a “fundamental trauma” – a trauma that still has a marked influence on the events in the countries of the South.
For Vali, “Proposals for a Partition Memorial” brings together a number of themes that have occupied his thoughts for many years, including trauma, displacement, nationalism and the rise of authoritarianism.
The idea for the show germinated in Vali’s work for the 10th Sharjah Biennale in 2011, when he was asked to contribute to a project called “A Manual For Treason”.
“I was very interested in the dialectical tension between betrayal and patriotism and how it’s basically the sovereign power of the nation-state that decides who is considered a traitor and who is considered a patriot,” said Vali at Arab News. “In the South Asian context, nationalism looms large. Nationalism was the movement that helped us gain independence. Nationalism therefore has this very strong anti-colonial bent which is also accompanied by a liberating policy. But there were also very important thinkers who were suspicious of nationalism and its evils from the start.
“Growing up as a South Asian in the UAE, I felt this pull of national identity – because I grew up with this feeling of never being entirely at home where I was – but also a suspicion towards him”, he continues. “So, I came up with six essays that examined liminal characters who straddled that very fine line between betrayal and patriotism.” He also invited six artists to contribute to the book. “I had to explore a format that made sense in this context and I had this idea of soliciting proposals for a memorial to share,” he explains.
The score, Vali said, had been on his mind for a while. His interest in artists dealing with history meant that he was aware of “one or two important works…which struggled with the legacy of the score”, but on digging deeper he discovered that there were also “that kind of absence around the subject, which was particularly telling in visual arts and culture. In the decades since partition, very few artists have attempted to address or depict the violence, displacement, and trauma associated with it.
“So I became quite fascinated by this idea of absence,” he continues. “What about this event that made it, in a certain sense, unrepresentable? It’s like the Holocaust: it’s such a horrific incident that it becomes unrepresentable in contemporary terms.”
“So that’s where the idea of making proposals for a partition memorial came from; actually asking people to imagine a site, an event, a ritual or an object, which would help to remedy this lack of recognition of a fundamental trauma.
Besides the horrors of the score, Vali thinks there are other reasons for this “absence”. “It was an event that (goes hand in hand) with independence,” he says. “So one of my theories is that because the violence – the riots, the murders, the kidnapping and the rape of women – (has been perpetrated) on both sides, it’s hard to identify (just one) culprit. So everyone just moves on and forgets about it.The other thing is that with independence there is a strong push towards nation building, development and modernization, and upliftment of the poor. And in that optimism, whatever troubles that nation spirit gets swept under the rug. I was also interested in exploring some of that.
From these six original proposals, the project has now expanded (and may continue to do so, Vali says he has always envisioned it as “a cumulative project”) to include three newly commissioned works and proposals for a dozen other artists. The multitude of proposals (which include cross-border collection of plant seeds, a syllabus, an audio installation, etc.), he explains, are intentional – acknowledging that there cannot be one single memorial that will fit all. the world. And the format of the proposal allows “a degree of poetic, or utopian, or surrealist thought; it takes some of the pressure off because the project never has to be done.
The results are certainly empowering, often simple – as basic as a t-shirt, say, or Amitava Kumar’s suggestion of giving ‘pairs’ of gifts, each pair consisting of one item from each country – and often emotional. Faiza Hasan’s moving proposal, for example, combines charcoal drawings of photographs and bric-a-brac of her grandmother with official documents, including one stating that a requested birth certificate cannot be issued because ” the register concerned is not available”; Dubai-based artist Nabla Yahya has created “Silsila”, a series of cyanotypes, the centerpiece of which is a photograph of the original Kashmir accession document.
“There were a few people (from Kashmir) who came up to me,” Vali says, “and were, like, ‘It’s amazing that everything that’s happened in the last 75 years, all the violence and injustice – the document that set it in motion is so banal.
There’s humor here too, most obviously in an installation by the Pak Khawateen Painting Club – a collective of Pakistani female artists – which resembles the kind of anonymous government office familiar to so many of us, where time seems endlessly stretching while you wait for someone to stamp something: a brown wooden desk, a potted plant, tidy folders; a swivel chair…
“They came back to us with this idea of creating a discussion folder between different departments in any type of bureaucratic structure – each of them took on a role in a different department,” Vali explains. “The entire communication is entirely false – essentially an illustration of how postcolonial bureaucratic inertia makes it almost impossible to complete a project like a memorial to share.”
The variety of approaches exhibited seems to confirm Vali’s theory that there can be no single memorial to this event. But maybe the show itself could fill that role? It is certainly a powerful attempt. And relevant.
“I think partition is this trauma that repeats itself cyclically, so a lot of the lingering problems in South Asia are all traumatic throwbacks to partition,” Vali says. “I hope the show gives people a chance to reflect on that and have conversations about it.
“I also hope that – in whatever way – the show brings that spirit of always tempering patriotism with a degree of self-reflection on what it means. It comes down to something that is close to my heart, which is that it is important to be wary of nationalism, ”he continues. “It’s a strong, powerful rallying cry, and it’s a source of identity and belonging, but it can also turn black very quickly.”