‘Lucid Dreams’: Art of the South Asian Diaspora

  • Jaishri Abichandani in front of her study for We Were Making History, 2012 (Photo by Karen Pennar for Voices of NY)
The Indian-born artist Jaishri Abichandani, founder of the South Asian Women’s Creative Collective, felt an urgent need: that the diasporic artists of South Asia, many of whom work in New York as well as other locales, receive the recognition and the visibility, collectively, that they deserve. Only 0.2 percent of represented artists in NYC are South Asian artists, noted Abichandani. If some of them are stars, she says, this has happened “in spite of the circumstances, not because there are support structures.” When shows of South Asian artists happen, the artists of the diaspora are often excluded, she noted, while they are not considered “American enough” for shows of American artists. As a community of artists, she said “we fall into a space of invisibility.”

“Lucid Dreams and Distant Visions: South Asian Art in the Diaspora,” on view at the Asia Society through Aug. 6, aims to change all that, and start a conversation about the need for ongoing representation of the work of this community. Abichandani, who has curated shows for many years and curated the exhibit “Fatal Love” for the Queens Museum in 2005, about a year and a half ago took her idea for a group exhibit to the Asia Society, and met a receptive audience in Boon Hui Tan, newly named Asia Society vice president for global arts & cultural programs and director of the Asia Society Museum.

She envisioned an exhibition that would include works produced over the past two decades by more than 30 artists.  Over time, the curators winnowed the list to 19 artists, retaining some of the juxtapositions that Abichandani first imagined when she conceived of the show, and allowing the works to “speak with each other.”

For Tan, “Lucid Dreams” is “not an exhibition only, it is a project about building community.” At a moment in time when lines are drawn that divide people, the works in the show, he said, give the public an opportunity “to find ways to empathize with other lives to try to see the world from other kinds of experiences.”  The works of art on display, he noted, are “very generous works,” which embody ambiguous complexity. Diaspora artists “live in two or three worlds,” he said, and thereby remind us that life is ambiguous.

The artist Jaret Vadera, who was born in Toronto and lives and works in New York, Toronto and India, spoke about his 2016 work, “Emperor of No Country,” a coat made of print on fabric, with a world map with all the place names blacked out. In other works in his Pangaea series, he said, the coordinates as well as place names on maps are deleted, to show how little is lasting or real about the access and power relations that mapmakers have attempted to represent in delineating particular territories and lands.

Near Vadera’s work is the striking installation, “The Present is a Ruin Without the People,” by Pakistani-born Ruby Chishti, who lives and works in Brooklyn. Spanning 10 feet across, the work is created from layers of recycled textile attached to a mesh frame, with small scattered window frames to evoke spaces emptied of people.

Chishti said she started to explore how to represent absence after experiencing the loss of many family members. After experimenting initially with body casts and her own clothing, she eventually realized, she said, that in architecture, “people live and leave,” and that “in bodies memories live.” The work grew organically, as she used clothing from thrift stories, clothing disposed of in her building, and eventually added children’s clothing and remnants of bridal clothing as well as metal pieces. She even included pieces of clothing belonging to her mother, whom she cared for for 11 years. Haunting sounds emanate from the piece as the viewer approaches, enhancing the sense of spaces emptied of living souls.

Shahzia Sikander, a recipient of the MacArthur Foundation “genius” award whose works are in numerous museum collections around world,  takes as her starting point the Indo-Persian miniaturist tradition. The Lahore-born artist has four works in the show, and one of these, “Many Faces of Islam, 1993-99” was commissioned for a New York Times special issue, “Imaging the Millennium,” in 1999, yet appears, on viewing, to be a prescient rendition of how America’s relationship with the Muslim world would evolve, post-9/11. “How the foe has become a friend, how a friend has become a foe, that whole interface,” Sikander said, plays out in the storytelling, miniaturist-like presentation.

Also drawing on traditional art forms, in this case classical calligraphy, is the 2017 work “History is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake II,” by Khalil Chishtee. The Pakistani artist fashions a verse by Muhammad Iqbal, the Urdu poet and leader of the Pakistan Movement, into a wall relief of invaders on horseback. Chishtee says that the common thread running through his art practice is the need to “look at ourselves, as individuals, as a nation, as a group, as a society,” rather than look at the outsiders, foreign ideas and their impact. He draws on classical calligraphy and make an ironic commentary through his art.

In conjunction with the exhibition, a two-day symposium entitled “Fatal Love: Where Are We Now?” will be held  July 1 and 2 at the Queens Museum. Co-organized by the Queens Museum and the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center, it will bring together South Asian-American artists, curators, and academics to discuss how to bring the work of contemporary South Asian artists to a broader audience. A keynote panel for the symposium will be held at the Asia Society Museum the evening of June 30, preceded by a reception for the exhibition.

“The stories of our experiences are still not told enough, the images of our experiences are not understood well enough, the ideas of complexity that are told of the communities are not well told,” said former president of the Asia Society, Vishakha Desai. The works in the exhibition, she said, tell stories about “multiple longings, rather than the typical immigrant story only of longing – there is longing and belonging that is part of this exhibit, and it is also about reflection.” Desai is now chair of the board of the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center, which supported the “Lucid Dreams” exhibit at the Asia Society.

South Asian artists of the diaspora, said Abichandani, don’t have a Museo del Barrio or a Studio Museum in Harlem to represent them and display their work. Might the Asia Society be a permanent venue for a rotating exhibit of art of the South Asian diaspora? It would be ideal, she said for this exhibit not just to be “an intervention, but the beginning of structural change.”

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