Ackland exhibit offers another view of India

Sep. 20, 2013 @ 01:48 PM

“The Sahmat Collective: Art and Activism in India Since 1989,” Ackland Art Museum, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, through Jan. 5.

The new show at the Ackland Art Museum is not the conventional exhibition with paintings on the wall and sculpture on pedestals. In this show the galleries are full of posters, signs reproduced on burlap, a motorized rickshaw, on-site photographs and lots of videos. This is pop art, that is the art of the people, and it speaks out against injustices in India. This is art by Indians about the freedom of expression in their own country. These are voices against sectarianism and censorship. Much of the art focuses on the enmity between Indian Hindus and Indian Muslims.
Most of us have a very limited picture of India. There is the voice on the telephone when we call about a computer problem; there are the ideas we glean from movies like the “Best Exotic Marigold Hotel;” there is the classical Indian art which celebrates the gods; there is the Taj Mahal, which few have seen but all have heard about; and there is the man who invented nonviolent civil disobedience, Mahatma Gandhi. 
Each is important to the understanding of India, the largest democracy in the world, but there is so much more. In this exhibition we read and see contemporary Indian protest art. Through videos, photographs and original art we witness the records of giant exhibitions of posters and slogans, all-day dance festivals and street theater. This is yet one more part in the story of this giant country and its culture.
The Sahmat Collective began in 1989 out of anguish at the murder by political thugs of Safdar Hashmi (1954-1989), a political activist, an actor, a playwright and a poet. The outpouring of events at the death of this great artist marked a huge outcry. Within days artists and cultural activists met to demand the main street in the town’s cultural center be renamed for Hashmi. The University of Calcutta awarded a posthumous doctorate to the poet, and a street festival in his honor took place that year in April. After that, annually, his birthday would be remembered by street theater day.
The exhibition includes videos that show us some of these immediate responses and includes a huge photograph of the great crowd carrying Hashmi’s body to its funeral pyre.  From the original artists who protested this event to enlarging its base whenever a new challenge presents itself, Sahmat has operated regularly since 1989.  The organization has a core group but when there is a new idea or an event to be memorialized or protested others join in.  Some of the artists are well known nationally; others are amateurs who are drawn in because of a particular cause.
The show, which was organized by the Smart Museum of Art of the University of Chicago, has focused on certain events that galvanized the art community and through technology, photography, and original art we, the museum goers, get some idea of how artists responded to basic inequities in their own country and effected change. Deeply rooted in these protests is the argument that religious fundamentalism and sectarianism should not be structured into a socio-political life. One whole section of the exhibition is devoted to children’s books, illustrated by contemporary artists and based on Hashmi’s writings. What better way to sow the seeds of equality and freedom of religion than through children?
Another section highlights the destruction of the 16th century Babri Masjid (Babur’s Mosque) in the city of Ayodhya. The gallery walls are covered with the record of this event. It was Dec. 6, 1992, and a mob of Hindu activists destroyed the mosque, because myth had it that on the same spot there had once been a Hindu temple, believed to be the birthplace of the god Rama. Sahmat’s response was a yearlong series of events beginning with a meeting with the president of India demanding the arrest of those who had committed the crime and a government order to ban any new building on the site.
But when Sahmat designed an exhibition kit about the mosque’s destruction and sent it to 17 sites to be opened and displayed on the same day, the project was attacked and confiscated by the government. After an eight-year legal battle, Sahmat won; it was a landmark case for freedom of expression. 
As we move through the exhibit we realize this is people’s art encouraged and organized.  One of the projects was the “mobile exhibition” which was about using ordinary modes of transport like bicycles, pushcarts and rickshaws as platforms for a particular theme.  Sitting in the middle of the gallery is a large coffin-like box with rods for carrying it jutting out of each end and an upside down boat on top dotted with artificial flowers, a reference to funeral vehicles. Another exhibition which sparked enormous participation was an invitation to auto-rickshaw drivers to create or copy poems about brotherhood and communal harmony and paint them on their vehicles. It was the biggest show Sahmat ever sponsored; the drivers and their vehicles were all over India. A replica of a motorized rickshaw sits in the Ackland lobby. 
The section in the show focusing on Gandhi contains postcard messages. On the anniversary of his assassination 100 artists were each invited to make six postcard-size images reflecting Gandhi’s values. The originals were to be in a traveling exhibition while thousands of copies were printed and sold for pennies. Art for the people; egalitarianism was a Gandhi priority.
This show is all about the power of art, how it can bring some inequity to the table and spark a conversation. If people talk, solutions can be found. 
(Peter Nisbet, the Ackland’s chief curator, said this exhibit is in parallel with the Nasher Museum of Art’s “Lines of Control” which opened Sept. 19.)

Blue Greenberg’s column appears each week in Entertainment and More. She can be reached at or by writing her in c/o The Herald-Sun, 2828 Pickett Road, Durham, NC 27705.