by Rahul KumarMay 19, 2020
The Ishara Art Foundation asked artist Sohrab Hura to bring together a curation that extends into his own ideologies, that of our cultural and social interconnectedness. “The core idea of interconnectedness has been growing for a long time already. In the beginning I had realised this interconnectedness in my own works and process and at some later point I began to realise that I was a very small part of something far bigger,” says Hura. Growing Like A Tree presents image-based art with this common thread binding the show. Most practitioners have retraced their lives and encounters through the works.
Hura has won the prestigious Paris Photo-Aperture Foundation Photobook Award in 2019 and The Magnum Photo award 2020. I speak to him about his concerns, curatorial framework of this exhibit, and his thoughts on layers to be interpreted through the context of Dubai as the host location.
Rahul Kumar (RK): Please elaborate your idea of “excavation of place, memory and culture” and examining this through regional histories of image-making? Does the location (the Middle East) of this exhibit form a part of or adds to the narrative?
Sohrab Hura (SH): A lot of my own work is built on retracing my life and my associations and encounters. When I was bringing together these works, I realised that many artists whose works are part of this show were doing the same. To illustrate briefly, it was Bunu Dhungana’s return to Kathmandu that enabled her to confront certain expectations of the institution of marriage she had been trying to escape in her work Confrontations, just like it was Jaisingh Nageswaran’s last year spent in lockdown in his parental village outside Madurai that prompted his exploration of his grandmother Ponnuthai’s legacy in the region. She had started a school for Dalit children in 1962 in her home, in the face of a lot of resistance of upper caste people in the community. Jaisingh was aware of that history and had been photographing other communities for many years, but it was the situation of this pandemic that had him look inwards in I Feel Like A Fish. Munem Wasif’s film Kheyal imagines and reimagines his memories of Old Dhaka where he spent his childhood. This process of looking back is not a one-time act in a reverse direction, it is in fact moving forward in continuous loops. This constant ricocheting between different perspectives (memory being just one of those perspectives) and the ‘reality’ that one confronts in the present helps to open up our understanding of the works that we are trying to make. Similarly, my hope with this exhibition is that opening up a larger context around the works might also expand the viewer’s own relationship with the works that they have experienced.
This exhibition has works by 14 artists and collectives - a small extract from a much larger network of people and conversations that are in perpetual flux. The exhibition installed in Dubai is a kind of passing-through, and if the show were to be installed elsewhere, maybe the configuration of artists and works shown would be different. I had not thought about it so much until I was actually in Dubai. It was only then that I realised that there is a complex mix of people, communities, ideas and thoughts and that none of it is permanent. This state of flux is mirrored in the exhibition.
RK: How do you view the concept of boundaries? There are those that are important and exist for one’s security and privacy. How is this body of work expanding the very framework of geographical boundaries?
SH: There are boundaries that we choose and others that are imposed on us. Most of the regional identities that we work within end up being the latter. If I am to consider the history of ‘Indian’ art for example, I find it absurd to differentiate Indian Bengali artists from Bangladeshi artists, both of whom might have overlaps in histories and experiences, and box them in with someone else who in fact might be completely dissociated from those shared conditions of ‘Indianness’. Even if I were to build this regional identity from the inside-out, the truth is that this representational identity is limited to very few groups of people who are mostly male, upper caste, straight, north Indian and are mostly based in metropolitan cities. I can imagine that even if I were to extend the region from India to South Asia, these problems would remain.
Over the years I have witnessed the movement of artists and photographers across these imposed boundaries creating many different nodes of communication, experience and exchange in the larger region, neither of which I am able to situate within pre-defined identities because they are all amalgamations in states of perpetual flux, dependent on shifting movements of people and thoughts. If I had to situate such complex itineraries into fixed regional points of contact, Kathmandu would become my most important node in this larger nervous system because it is one of the most accessible spaces in terms of visas and other travel regulations that are imposed on many of us living in parts of South Asia. The conversations that are born out of that permeability are the most important to me in this given moment, especially considering the current circumstances of the government here trying to narrow even further the definition of who is Indian and who is not.
RK: How does the ensemble explore the ideas of interconnectedness yet distinct, archival and contemporary, mundane making for high-art? It is noteworthy that most artists in the show are young. Does that by itself add a unique flavour to the show?
SH: When I was in Dubai, I asked someone if he was from Dubai. He replied saying that he was from Dubai and not from Dubai. The exhibition also occupies similar spaces in between, because all the people trying to locate themselves through their works have been situated at different intersections, like you and I might locate ourselves in life at very specific overlaps and intersections. I don’t see why art and art exhibitions need to be turned into boxes when as people, we exist in uncontainable forms and shapes that are constantly expanding and contracting. This is especially so for the artists in this exhibition and the many others who are part of the larger constellation. It is also where the stakes are the highest without so much to lose.
RK: I am interested to know how you perceive image-based work (photographs and moving images) as against other forms of art in bringing to focus the dualities and cultural parallels?
SH: I don’t really see the dualities and parallels here. I happen to make images because I happen to make images. The core of Farah Mulla’s sound work, Aural Mirror, intersects with the core within Jaisingh Nageswaran’s I Feel Like A Fish, or the core within Bunu Dhungana’s Confrontations, or the core within Yu Yu Myint Than’s Sorry, Not Sorry, or the core within Nida Mehboob’s Shadow Lives. Maybe there is an assumption within the question that these different forms are separate and are later brought together. However, in making my own work and also in putting this exhibition together, I took for granted at the start that everything was on the same register and level of entanglement, which I hope is palpable within the exhibition. I would not want any one part to be isolated from the other. Instead, I would want it to be experienced like how you might experience pulling a string of lights out of an old box of lights and wires. Each pull draws a different set of entanglements. It can be irritating because it doesn’t offer the clarity that we expect immediately, but while running through the mess with our fingers we might discover something that we thought we had long lost.
RK: This is your inaugural curatorial project. What triggered to take this direction and how have your own artistic practices to work with photographs and films influenced the curation of this exhibit?
SH: The core idea of interconnectedness has been growing for a long time already. In the beginning I had realised this interconnectedness in my own works and process and at some later point I began to realise that I was a very small part of something far bigger. I have been in conversations with the artists in the show for many years. I have also similarly been in conversation with many others who don’t have works within the exhibition, yet are equally integral to the core idea of this exhibition. This exhibition is just an extension of triggers that already existed. When Sabih Ahmed from Ishara Art Foundation reached out to me, he was aware of the way in which I was trying to locate my practice and also this much larger interconnectedness that became the foundation of all my work. I look at how the engagement with other people’s works and practices expands my own process and this experience of curation has helped me navigate through the different ways in which I might build on ideas in the future.