Signs Taken for Wonders Aicon Galley, 8 Heddon Street, London
DATES: December 5 – January 31, 2009
Narratives of the emergence of ‘Indian Art’ have circulated for some time, in particular from auction houses and art fairs – but it would seem that another stage is now being reached, that of the appearance of large-scale survey shows at museums around the world.
For example this winter sees ‘Indian Highway’ at London’s Serpentine Gallery and ‘Chalo! India: A New Era of Indian Art’ at Japan’s Mori Art Museum. This is a pivotal moment in the construction of new object of knowledge, as curators, writers and galleries articulate what will become part of art history. Yet with its multiplicity of languages, its multi-denominational make-up and its vast contradictions, ‘India’ itself has a certain resistance to any straightforward process of being ‘produced’.
How then to build in a corrective that both constructs a discourse yet is reflexive; that produces knowledge whilst placing a question mark next to it?
In his chapter “Signs Taken For Wonders: Questions of ambivalence and authority under a tree in Delhi, May 1817”, Homi Bhabha takes the reader on a dazzling tour of how an object of authority, the Bible, is circulated through India in the early 19th century. Through this circulation it is misread, translated, distorted and displaced as an object of knowledge. For example, the natives are happy to be baptized but are unhappy about the Sacrament because the Europeans are known to eat cow’s flesh. Bhabha finishes with a quotation from a missionary who realizes that the demand for the book might not be entirely linked to a new-found faith: “Still everyone would gladly receive a Bible? And why? That he may store it up as a curiosity; sell it for a few piece; or use it for waste paper…”
It is this spirit of a simultaneous proffering of knowledge whilst questioning that very knowledge that underpins this exhibition of recent art from India and Pakistan at the Aicon Gallery. A number of the works use misrecognition as a trope, or undermine initial, cursory readings – these include Raqs Media Collective’s work from the ‘Misregistation Series’ and Amjad Ali Talpur’s works. Others offer personal, intimate visions of subjectivity and identities – such as Riyas Komu’s ‘Borivali Boy II’ and ‘M.F. Husain’s ‘Women from Yemen’, in place of any grand sweeping statement about what this new object of knowledge, ‘Indian Art’ might be. And the inclusion of artists from Pakistan questions that very term anyhow. An identity is emerging – but like the figure in Bose Krishnamachari’s haunting work ‘Mumbiya’, the closer you get to it, the more it disappears.