'Pop South Asia: Artistic Explorations in the Popular' at SAF navigates multiple themes

The exhibition at the Sharjah Art Foundation - suffused with humour, irony, colour, and sensory pleasure - deepens dialogue on art and its popularity on a South Asian level.

by Urvi KothariPublished on : Dec 08, 2022

In this Instagram-able day and age, I often wonder about the relation between art and its popularity within a millennial world. The answer lies within the realms of a common terminology, ‘Pop Art’- a phenomenon that emerged in the mid 1950s and early 1960s. For instance, one’s thought confines within the canonical names, often related to the western expressionists – Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein, Keith Haring, to name a few. During this same time, there was a parallel flourishing of an intercontinental dialogue within the South Asian countries, an area less discussed within the history of ‘Pop Art’. In an attempt to bridge the common threads of artistic exploration in the popular, Iftikhar Dadi and Roobina Karode came together to curate the first major survey exhibition of modern and contemporary art from South Asia engaging with popular culture.

Installation view of Pop South Asia: Artistic Explorations in the Popular at Sharjah Art Foundation, 2022 | Pop South Asia: Artistic Explorations in the Popular | STIRworld
Installation view of Pop South Asia: Artistic Explorations in the Popular at Sharjah Art Foundation, 2022 Image: Courtesy of Sharjah Art Foundation

"In this exhibition, we have narrated the rise of practices of Pop Art in South Asia and its diasporas from the 1960s onwards and have identified multiple themes that extend across decades into the present. We have works from earlier periods (such as the calendar art by Raja Ravi Verma) as well, these we term as 'proto-pop’ practices, and which contemporary artists continue to engage with, "shares Iftikhar Dadi. Weaving an intergenerational dialogue through more than 100 artworks, this survey exhibits visual artists from Afghanistan, Bangladesh, India, Nepal, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and the diaspora.

 Portrait of Iftikhar Dadi | Pop South Asia: Artistic Explorations in the Popular | STIRworld
Portrait of Iftikhar Dadi Image: Courtesy of Iftikhar Dadi

Cross-border political tensions have often limited open discourses on a South Asian level. However, this survey exhibition is much above these impeding exchanges. “Interestingly, popular culture continues to flow quite freely across borders!”, shares Dadi. The show becomes a catalyst, a common tangent of collective exchanges of dialogues, ideas, and open thoughts. The United Arab Emirates being an abode for many South Asian diasporic individuals, this show could have no better exposure than within the heart of the Sharjah Art Foundation.

 Bazaar, 2020, Cotton, chiffon, muslin, silk, suede, digitally woven textile, camouflage fabric, sari textile, inkjet prints on paper and canvas, paper, plastic, acrylic paint, marker, polyester, table cloth, faux leather, and found fabric, Hangama Amiri| Hangama Amiri | Pop South Asia: Artistic Explorations in the Popular | STIRworld
Bazaar, 2020, Cotton, chiffon, muslin, silk, suede, digitally woven textile, camouflage fabric, sari textile, inkjet prints on paper and canvas, paper, plastic, acrylic paint, marker, polyester, table cloth, faux leather, and found fabric, Hangama Amiri Image: Courtesy of Hangama Amiri and T293 Gallery, Rome

With a strong vision, curators Dadi and Karode manage to convert the foundation’s four art galleries into a colourful playground of all-things-pop. Artists express diverse mediums under this common umbrella of ‘pop’ modality. On one end, there is a billboard sized textile installation by Kabul based Hangama Amiri depicting the pomp and noise of a classic Pakistani bazaar. On a broader note, Amiri's large scale installation represents one of the many vernacular markets (from the British era till date) that define the diversity in South Asian culture. This matrix of street entertainment and bazaar became a contributing factor to the emergence of cinema in South Asia in the early 20th century.

 Gabbar on Gamboge, 1997, Oil, acrylic, marble dust, charcoal on canvas, Atul Dodiya | Installation view of giclée prints by Muvindu Bijoy at Sharjah Art Foundation, 2022, Giclée print on archival photo paper, Muvindu Bijoy| Pop South Asia: Artistic Explorations in the Popular | | Pop South Asia: Artistic Explorations in the Popular | STIRworld
(Left) Gabbar on Gamboge, 1997, Oil, acrylic, marble dust, charcoal on canvas, Atul Dodiya; (Right) Installation view of giclée prints by Muvindu Bijoy at Sharjah Art Foundation, 2022, Giclée print on archival photo paper, Muvindu Bijoy Image: L: Courtesy of Atul Dodiya, and Collection of Fukuoka Asian Art Museum; R: Courtesy of Muvindu Bijoy, and Saskia Fernando Gallery, Colombo

Today, India is at its zenith with the largest film industry in the world. Conflating reality and fiction, this cinematic experience has compelled artists to push boundaries of imagination within popular consciousness. Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Pakistan also possess a rich history of moving imagery. Indian artist Atul Dodiya's playful rendition of Sholay’s Gabbar Singh (a very renowned Bollywood antagonist) and Sri Lanka-based Muvindu Bojoy’s film poster-like giclée prints have introduced a strong pop sensibility amidst a pool of colour.

 Love Studio, 2012 – 2013, Digital prints and a backdrop, SamsulAlamHelal | SamsulAlamHelal | Pop South Asia: Artistic Explorations in the Popular | STIRworld
Love Studio, 2012–2013, Digital prints and a backdrop, Samsul Alam Helal Image: Courtesy of Samsul Alam Helal

The exhibition spotlights important artists who intervene in the aesthetics of print and digital media. One may find himself walking into a room converted into a photo studio by the Bangladeshi artist, Samsul Alam Helal. A paradisiacal landscape awaits – at the rear end of the room - for the beholders to create their very own 'Kodak' moment. This rather could be a memorable ‘pop’ takeaway from this encapsulating experience.

 Native Women of India – Manners and Customs Series, 2004, Colour photographs, Pushpamala N | Pushpamala N | Pop South Asia: Artistic Explorations in the Popular | STIRworld
Native Women of India – Manners and Customs Series, 2004, Colour photographs, Pushpamala N Image: Courtesy of Pushpamala N, and Collection of Kiran Nadar Museum of Art, New Delhi

Commenting on the ideas of identity and borders, sepia photographs by the famous Pushpamala N’s anthropometric studies on native women of India places this survey at the centre of social and political inquiry. She theatrically inhabits and questions references from familiar frames of art history and cultural memory. On a similar note, Indian visual artist LN Tallur’s video work Interference captures the manual cleaning of a near-two-century-old carpet – that was once presented to Muhammad Mahabat Khan III, the last ruling nawab of the princely state of Junagadh. The visually enhanced slow motioned explosion of dust embodies sediments of time, history, colonialism and capitalism. Departing from Tallur’s ornate floral rug, contemporary artist Baseera’s Khan’s part of a Corinthian column is eerily propped with the support of a vertical column of the gallery. Wrapped with handwoven Kashmiri rugs, the refashioned pillar metaphorically represents patterns of exile and kinship. Khan’s monumental works are visually juxtaposed against the small scaled surreal sculptures by Bharti Kher, a contemporary depiction of the ardhanarishwara principle of the dualities of male female energies.

  •  Interference, 2019, 4K Video, sound, colour, L. N. Tallur | L. N. Tallur | Pop South Asia: Artistic Explorations in the Popular | STIRworld
    Interference, 2019, 4K Video, sound, colour, LN Tallur Image: Courtesy of LN Tallur, and Collection of Kiran Nadar Museum of Art, New Delhi
  •  Column 7, 2019, Pink Panther foamular, plywood, resin dye, custom handmade silk rugs made in Kashmir, Baseera Khan | Baseera Khan | Pop South Asia: Artistic Explorations in the Popular | STIRworld
    Column 7, 2019, Pink Panther foamular, plywood, resin dye, custom handmade silk rugs made in Kashmir, Baseera Khan Image: Courtesy of Baseera Khan, and Simone Subal Gallery, New York

“Pop art in South Asia develops with reference to multiple lineages. Artists’ imaginative engagement with traditional and performative modes of devotional, craft and folk practices constitute an approach,” shares the curator. This sub-theme has been extremely crucial in shaping the wide arrayed spiritual beliefs of an individual with a South Asian diasporic identity. They include vibrant Islamic prayer rugs with quirky phrases by Baseera Khan, a red magnetic collage of Hindu gods and goddesses within a Pan Shop painted by the late Indian modernist Bhupen Khakhar in 1965, Kathmandu artist Tsherin Sherpa’s depiction of a Buddhist deity, Chitra Ganesh’s comical visualisation of the Indian literary book Ramayana, and a synthesis of Hindu, Buddhist and Christian iconographies within Sri Lankan contemporary Ramesh Mario Nithiyendran’s shamanic Spiky Heads. This rich lineage informs the works of artists invested in probing the role of art in recontextualising traditional legacies for the present.

 L to R: Luxation 2, 2016, Acrylic on cotton, Tsherin Sherpa; Figure with Spicky Head, 2022, Earthenware, Ramesh Nithiyendra| Pop South Asia: Artistic Explorations in the Popular | STIRworld
L to R: Luxation 2, 2016, Acrylic on cotton, Tsherin Sherpa; Figure with Spicky Head, 2022, Earthenware, Ramesh Nithiyendra Image: L: Courtesy of Tsherin Sherpa, and Rossi & Rossi, Hong Kong; and Courtesy of Ramesh Nithiyendra & Jhaveri Contemporary, Mumbai

The ambit of pop art also encapsulates the simple everyday culture infused with drama and fantasy. It penetrates within the monotony of everyday life! Contextualising familiar objects, these pieces of art question one’s cultural identity and initiate notions of memory making. Inspired by her travels to Afghanistan, Jeanno Gaussi’s Dreams on Wheels pays homage to the dying craft of truck painting. However, Gaussi intuitively reimagines these fantastical imageries on skateboards, exhibiting individualism of the Western culture. "Many artists have been very familiar with western developments, having studied, travelled, and lived there, or through exposure to publications and media. Their artwork is on occasion in dialogue with aspects of international pop art. Nevertheless, for most of the works presented in this exhibition, references solely to western art do not provide an adequate explanatory framework,” adds curator Dadi.

 Dreams on Wheels (Kabul), 2013, Wood, acrylic paint, Painted by Ustad Abdullah, Commissioned by JeannoGaussi | JeannoGaussi | Pop South Asia: Artistic Explorations in the Popular | STIRworld
Dreams on Wheels (Kabul), 2013, wood, acrylic paint, painted by Ustad Abdullah, Commissioned by Jeanno Gaussi Image: Courtesy of Ustad Abdullah

To demonstrate this, the curator duo juxtaposed the skateboards with Ram Rahman’s Wishmachine composed entirely of indigenous found objects and photographs from his everyday life. Another Indian artist Anant Joshi, decided to traverse time by documenting a year-long calendar of emblematic moments and real-life events. The 12-television cabinet installation forms an intervention, a peep into Joshi’s life with familiar motifs, found objects, splash of colour and humour. It is indeed a year-long time machine waiting to be explored and re-explored by the beholder’s gaze!

 Happy New Year, 2013, Fibreglass box, acrylic, mirror, steel, resin, industrial paint, kite paper, LED lights, ready-made objects, Anant Joshi | Anant Joshi | Pop South Asia: Artistic Explorations in the Popular | STIRworld
Happy New Year, 2013, Fibre glass box, acrylic, mirror, steel, resin, industrial paint, kite paper, LED lights, ready-made objects, Anant Joshi Image: Courtesy of Anant Joshi, and Collection of Kiran Nadar Museum of Art, New Delhi

Suffused with irony, humour, play, colour, and sensory pleasure, this show is layered with historical, social, political and cultural references. Breaking away from the commonly perceived western context, this survey provides opportunities to deepen dialogue and exchanges on a South Asian level. “This project therefore calls for a capacious understanding of ‘Pop’ as a constellation of artistic practices that resonate along multiple lineages - a conception that is more adequate to the heterogeneity and diversity of experience that characterises life in South Asia during the modern and contemporary era,” mentions curator Dadi. Built with the unrivalled South Asian art collection of the Kiran Nadar Museum of Art (India), borrowings from the Fukuoka Asian Art Museum (Japan) and many other public and private collections, this exhibition foregrounds multiple layers and ideas embedded within the ‘popular’ in South Asia. The show will address more audiences in the region with its opening at the Kiran Nadar Museum of Art in February 2023.  

Pop South Asia: Artistic Explorations in the Popular at Sharjah Art Foundation, UAE Video: Courtesy of Sharjah Art Foundation

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