by Jones JohnNov 26, 2020
When I decided to give up my apartment of eight years in Delhi in May, I was excited about paring down my possessions. It wasn’t just that I couldn’t see the point of continuing to pay rent in absentia, I was also tired of tending to an apartment long-distance, even if I occasionally had house-sitter-friends.
A house is a living being that demands constant attention and mending, which had become challenging, given my state of constant travel. Since I moved in, back in September 2012, the apartment had become, for me, a source of refuge, especially as a single woman living in Delhi. Within these walls I felt safe. It being in a corner building meant I was nourished by natural light. This apartment was my daily reminder that I had ‘made it’ as a single woman, that I was financially stable, even if there were days I had barely INR 200 in my bank account, and couldn’t buy vegetables.
Having to vacate my apartment during lockdown was not what I had foreseen. However, even as I sat on tenter hooks, I knew that it was a luxury for me to have so much time on my hand to make peace with moving out, to come to terms with surrendering the feeling of ownership we inevitably have to things, and to pack up the contents of what will encompass my present into two suitcases that can be checked onto a flight that will, at some point, hopefully leave for my partner’s home in northern Italy.
In February 2020, at the Dhaka Art Summit, I had encountered and had been moved by Munem Wasif’s installation comprising several bodies of work attesting to the trauma that Rohingyas had to encounter because of having to flee the threat of ethnic cleansing in Myanmar. Wasif had lovingly documented some of their belongings, all curiously invaluable only to their owner. I think this was what I loved about the series, Spring Song, that it was invested in the aesthetics that mark the privacy of attachment. “What can you hold onto when running away to save your life?” was the central thesis of his installation. “How can you be, belong, or settle when nobody accepts you as a citizen? How do you legally prove your very existence after decades of systemic violence? In Spring Song (2017-2019), Wasif allows objects found in refugee camps in Bangladesh to take centre stage and to echo something of what it means to be dislocated. They are also tracing of the subjectivities of the inhabitants of the camp, something we tend to very easily forget when we inevitably tend towards ‘pitying’ displaced people, dissolving all nuances of their forced exodus within the umbrella term of refugees. In Dark Water, a series of black-and-white photographs, accompanied by first-person accounts, Wasif challenges the viewer to reach within oneself and empathise with the indignity of a people who had to flee for their life, with little or no hope of being accommodated.
Privacy of attachment apart, there can also be a secrecy to how objects come to belong to us, what are the ideologies whose inheritance we must contend with when the objects constitute a cultural memory. In September 2018, I had encountered, at the Steirischerherbst’18 curated by Ekaterina Degot in Graz, Austria, a city-based autumn arts festival, an installation and video work by Yoshinori Niwa, Withdrawing Adolf Hitler from a Private Space (2018). At a platz in Graz, Niwa had installed a black box which would be a repository for people to safely stash away—no questions asked—objects of Nazi origin and history that were lying in their possession through whatsoever means. Niwa had placed advertisements encouraging people to avail of this service. He was also creating a video work consisting of his interviews with people who might be willing to talk about the objects, and a good amount of documentation about his process exists on the Streirischerherbst website. I loved this work because it engaged so poignantly with the role of objects in our lives, how closely they are connected to political upheaval or ideology, and how they pass from person to person and accrue an intensity of meaning over time. Even just passing by the big black box by the main Platz served as a reminder of Austria’s history, its complicity in furthering Hitler’s ambitions and, consequently, the Holocaust.
Considering most art manifests as objects, it is strangely satisfying to come across work that articulates what it means for them to be the consequence of belonging. I thought about this when, in Santiniketan, I had visited the home of Jogen Choudhury. As I was leaving, he showed me a cupboard that was filled with objects he had bought from his past students. He showed me, for example, some small-scale dolls that the artist Mithu Sen had made when she was a student of Kala Bhavan, and that he had acquired during a fair. He mentioned how he had been following her practice since then, and how he thought it was so intriguing that she had dealt with the philosophical business of acquiring objects and collecting them and then ‘showcasing’ them in her Museum of Unbelonging. It was wonderful to see something of Mithu, a work by her, in this unorthodox archive of an ageing artist’s personal memory, in a cupboard in the corner of a room in Santiniketan. It was like accessing a piece of her past in this intimate, un-preordained way. It felt like I had stumbled upon a secret, and by bearing witness, I was reclaiming this object and re-instituting it within public memory.