by Dilpreet BhullarOct 30, 2021
Sutapa Biswas’ first substantial solo show in 14 years explores the artist’s contributions to the Black Arts Movement in England and the evolution of post-war British art and how it is perceived, understood, and to some extent engaged with. Biswas is a British-Indian conceptual artist working across a range of media that includes painting, film, photography, and performance. Her work challenges and reimagines notions of Eurocentric dialogue in visual practices, rich, diverse, and packed with powerful imagery it reclaims cultural narratives of migration and displacement in the wake of the post-colonial era.
The show, which is a mix of the artist’s paintings, drawings, sculptural installation, photography, and film, consistently questions the established forms of thinking about power and structures of power in our intimate worlds almost as much as within our socio-cultural worlds. The work Infestations of the Aorta – Shrine to a Distant Relative, for instance, takes the artist’s personal archive of photographs, once made in an Indian studio, and is transformed here into three large negatives suspended before a black and white photographic print of lips. It takes a moment to recognise that this is the tranquil, meditative smile of the Buddha, the isolation of the facial anatomy rendering a moment of pause, the negatives on the other hand show the artist’s aunt holding her daughter up before the camera during a traditional Indian naming ceremony. For Biswas capturing this rite of passage is an exercise in subversion, subverting a tradition/ritual that ‘historically privileges the male child’. Each negative triggers a game of spot the difference, speaking to some extent, not just to the uniqueness of the subject photographed but also in the treatment the technology that oft times holds up a repetitive dare I say, meditative experience.
As one moves through the room to the next photographic work aptly named Synapse, a nervous-system structure that carries information around our bodies. Here we are brought to question not only our personal embodied geography but also the terrain of our lived memories. The series of hand-printed black and white photographs depicts Biswas’ naked body as a canvas upon which images of her first trip back home, since moving to England, are projected. Each large-scale image holds a snapshot of pit-stops along the trip, one example being the landscape around her grandmother’s house, speaking to the entwined nature of our own personal identities and the lived history of the people who came before us – our families, communities and cultural circles.
Biswas often works in community collaborations, namely with women as bearers of rich cultural histories, the installation work Stitch by Stitch is a product of one such collaboration made in Japan on her visit to Oita. In Oita, the artist researched the Japanese rite of passage of the ‘first kimono’, her conversations with an older generation of Japanese women translated in a work that is testament to the ingenuity of female labour. Stitch-by-Stitch plays with the Japanese tradition of unweaving fabric, thread after thread in times of hardship to create something that is new and full of promise, a ‘first kimono’. The kimono that is part of the installation cannot be practically worn, rather it sails proud, a banner to the ingenuity of a community. Created itself from the ‘fabric of several kimonos and hand-dyed indigo silk gifted by members of the Oita community with whom Biswas worked’.
As I made my way to the room screening Lumen, a semi-fictional film that retraces Biswas’ journey from Bengal to Britain, and the matrilineal lines, ties, and journeys of her mother and grandmother, I can’t help but think of the artist’s own journey through medium and practice. The exhibition, which acts almost as a sample plate of the artist’s work over the years in various mediums, evokes a meditative sense of immersion, letting go of the security of a grounded world for one of memories and reflection, challenging the existing discourse of power and who it is that wields it. Lumen, the title of the artist’s new filmic work, is taken from the unit that measures light, the powerful monologue uses poetry, performance, and evocative imagery to give voice to the artist’s mother and grandmother. It tells a story of migration, of displacement, and of the memories that are left behind. The film uses historical found footage of ‘the late period of the British Raj in India, alongside imagery dating from the 1700s when the British East India Company was establishing itself’. A contemplation of the shadows left behind by time it is as though Biswas is asking for us to come together to make a ‘better shared future’. The film was shot along the west coast of India and the Red Lodge Museum in Bristol and was co-commissioned by Film and Video Umbrella, Bristol Museum & Art Gallery, BALTIC Centre for Contemporary Art and the Kettle’s Yard, University of Cambridge, supported by Art Fund through the Moving Image for Museums programme.
As we exit the screening room, a shorter video work called Under the Table captures the attention. It is a recall of childhood moments of play inspired by an incident wherein the artist’s son asked her to make cakes for a zoo that was to be created under the table at home. The work uses only the materials at hand relying more on this universal sense of child-play, make believe and the dream-like world of whimsy that we all once par-took in. It is a fitting close to the exhibit, that leaves the viewer contemplative of the ways in which we perceive our worlds and how these are often shaded by our own positions of power or the lack of it.