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Sheba Chhachhi shows her decades long practice for the first time in the Middle East

The exhibition Temporal Twists: A Subversive Metalogue presented a complex retelling of the meta-narratives that drive the Indian nation state, through a feminist lens.

by Sukanya DebPublished on : Apr 20, 2023

Sheba Chhachhi’s exhibition Temporal Twists: A Subversive Metalogue, brings together a series of multimedia, installation, lightboxes and photographic works that form critical interventions into dominant cultural dialogues in India. There appears to be a sense of tension in the renowned artist-activist’s decades long practice challenging hegemonic notions around questions of religion, conflict, and even further towards ascetic practices and militancy with Hinduism at the forefront of her critique. Chhachhi brings together diverse considerations of spiritualist inquiries and ecology as well in order to add complexity to the themes that are often understood through often polarised considerations.

STIR In coversation with Salima Hashmi, Sasha Altaf, and Sheba ChhachhiVideo: Courtesy of STIR
Detail view of Temporal Twist, 2017, kinetic sculpture, Sheba Chhachhi | Temporal Twists | Sheba Chhachhi | STIRworld
Detail view of Temporal Twist, 2017, kinetic sculpture, Sheba Chhachhi Image: Courtesy of Volte Art Projects

In Raktpushp (1997), the visual artist presents an installation that comprises photographs, fabric, texts and objects. The texts are drawn from Hindu, and particularly Brahmanical texts that ascribe impurity and pollution in this dichotomous, hegemonic understanding around female bodies and menstruation, aside from considering Tantric celebration of fertility and the western approach that prioritises a perhaps sanitised, medical approach. In conversation with STIR, the installation artist explains her use of ‘metalogue’ in this exhibition, “‘Metalogue’, as used by (English anthropologist Gregory) Bateson, refers to a conversation about conversation—it is used playfully, and dialectically. This is a marked difference from meta narratives, which are overarching stories which produce sets of beliefs, behaviours, ways of understanding the world— which is why they can also be called Master Narratives. This constellation of works in the show seeks to open conversations at several levels: between the viewer and each particular work, between the works, which are selected across a fairly large span of time, and the ideas, thoughts and discussions which emerge from the whole show. The twists of time also recur across these registers. I offer a feminist perspective, by which I mean the perspective of feminism as a political philosophy which analyses power structures within society, family and self, not merely the perspective of women’s rights activist) grounded in women’s experience, to open up alternative ways of relating to the historical, social, cultural and ecological.”

Raktpushp (Blood Flower), 1997, multimedia installation, Sheba Chhachhi | Temporal Twists | Sheba Chhachhi | STIRworld
Raktpushp (Blood Flower), 1997, multimedia installation, Sheba Chhachhi Image: Courtesy of Volte Art Projects

The art exhibition also engages with ideas of nation-building, particularly through the register of cinema, television and media. The eponymous work Temporal Twist, a kinetic sculpture that uses film celluloid, looks at the different modes of narrativisation and sectioning of history, especially the deployment of narratives as such, as a mode of nation-building. The Indian artist also engages with the medium of the celluloid print for film as a form of ‘resilience’, one that is difficult to gather, the stocks more often than not having been melted down to silver after the development of new forms. Chhachhi reflects on the nationalist tropes that are commonly reproduced within the films she chose for the sculpture, such as the heroic soldier, the weeping widow, the burning home and so on.

Profile image of the artist | Temporal Twists | Sheba Chhachhi | STIRworld
Sheba Chachhi Image: John Page; Courtesy of Volte Art Projects

Chhachhi refers to this as “spectatorship democracy” in her conversation with STIR, on which she expands, “In many parts of the world today, we see what is called spectatorship democracy at work. Political leaders, regimes, ideologies deploy spectacle to influence and shape the life of the citizen, where the citizen is a powerless watcher. We see history being rewritten, current crises obscured by grandiose claims, and spectatorship becoming a mode of political participation. The spectator/citizen actively engages with and reproduces the narratives given by those in power. Mainstream media, cinema, TV, and social media play a critical role in the production and dissemination of these stories. In the kinetic art sculpture Temporal Twist, I look at the loop between memories and stories—both personal and social/cultural/political. How memories produce stories, and stories in turn produce memories. How stories change in each re-telling, according to the teller and the reason for telling. And, how stories told by cinema, cinematic narratives, become our memories, particularly of larger social/ political events.”

Edible Birds, 2007, Animated lightboxes, Sheba Chhachhi | Temporal Twists | Sheba Chhachhi | STIRworld
Edible Birds, 2007, Animated lightboxes, Sheba Chhachhi Image: Courtesy of Volte Art Projects

The ‘document’ features as a mode of presentation within the archive, particularly through photographs, texts and film, as something that is predetermined and held true. Chhachhi, as a writer, questions the logic of veracity through complicating singular narrative structures towards what can be seen as a mode of mythmaking in the larger political and social imaginary of the nation told through the unilateral lens of dominant class, caste, gender and religion. The archival becomes a point of intensification. Through her intimate deployment of portraiture through works like Seven Lives and a Dream (1990-91), Ganga's Daughters (meetings with women ascetics) (1992-2002) and The Initiation Chronicle (2001-2007), we are witness to Chhachhi’s long engagement as an activist and an ‘honorary insider’, to use her term, to create activist art, in particular, feminist art and social art. The works allow for a restaging of these women within specific communities, depicting forms of resistance as they are rebels, mystics, ascetics, fighters, mothers, and fellow activists.

Alter the Balance of Power, an interview with Sheba Chhachhi on TateShots Video: Courtesy of Tate London on YouTube

Chhachhi explains the process of developing these portraits, “The process of developing these ‘theatres of the self’ is complex and long-drawn-out, taking shape through intense, intimate interaction over several months with many revisions and retakes. Both subject and photographer are altered, the conversation of independent individuals made possible by a mutual becoming. We create an intersubjective field: a space of shared subjectivities that is neither here nor mine but comes into being.”

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