History is in the making at the 120-year-old Venice Biennale as India and Pakistan are coming together at arguably the world’s biggest contemporary art platform to initiate a cultural dialogue that transcends physical barriers and political tensions.
Born out of the desire to reposition the complex climate of historical relations between India and Pakistan, the event My East is Your West witnesses the participation of Mumbai-based Shilpa Gupta and Lahore-based Rashid Rana — both of whom are known for their artistic mastery in the world of contemporary art. With a wide view of exploring physical, temporal and relationship tension between their subjects, this will run at the 56th edition of the biennale from May 9 to November 22.
However, the credit for initiating the process, raising funds and supporting the vision should go to the Gujral Foundation, an organisation that supports contemporary cultural engagements, which realised the under-representation of India and Pakistan at the reputed Venice platform.
“It was the realisation that one-third of the world’s population is not represented at the global platform of contemporary art; the question was why were we missing from this platform despite the fact that we have extremely reputed contemporary artists,” Feroze Gujral, co-founder of the foundation named after her father-in-law and prominent painter Satish Gujral, told media persons.
Though the idea was born three years ago when Gujral and Rana were chatting and realised the lacuna was too big to be filled, the question was: Who would bell the cat?
Given the fact that India’s first official representation at the biennale was only in 2011 and that of Pakistan was in 1956, the under-representation was staring right in the face.
So began the process of getting artists on board and raising money for the project. Gujral admitted that this being a pride project’, she had to convince people to pump in money to ensure the event sustains for a good six months at Palazzo Benzon, where the artworks will be displayed.
Rana was an obvious choice because he is the reputed face of contemporary art in Pakistan whose work examines the intersection of the actual and remote, which then becomes a reflection on non-linear chronologies.
His approach to art is very much similar to that of Gupta, who explores the relationship between the citizens and the state. And they are friends and know each other for almost a decade.
This familiarity definitely facilitated smooth conversations between them as they exchanged ideas to ensure the objects have a narrative that connects the shared history of the two countries.
Despite these umpteen similarities and associations, Rana felt their visual vocabularies are completely different and yet they correspond in surprising ways.
“We do understand the broad common ideas in our respective practices, but what’s more notable is that we are also attuned to each other’s radically different vocabularies,” Rana told the media.
“Shilpa has an effective sensitive visual language, whereas I am interested in similar ideas from a broader detached perspective. Our works will come together in Venice in a way that they retain their autonomy and yet form an integral whole — often corresponding in subtle, surprising ways,” he added.
The political entanglement between the two nations dates back to 1947 when the sub-continent was partitioned. They have since fought wars in 1948, 1965, 1971 and 1999. Apart from this, there have been regular border skirmishes over the Kashmir dispute that has often stalled the political dialogue between the two nations.
“In any political dialogue there is always some sort of burden. But when it comes to art, it is an open world where the expressions are not restrained by any tension,” Gupta, who has exhibited at the Tate Modern and Guggenheim, told media persons.
The curatorial adviser, Natasha Ginwala, remained in close conversation with the artists throughout their working process and said the initiative brings forth an unprecedented move in the history of the Venice Biennale.
“There is definitely a mounting sense of anticipation for the exhibition.
It is the first attempt at such a model from the Indian subcontinent so we also need to see it as a blueprint for future efforts to strengthen South Asia’s representation at other such forums for artistic engagement,” Ginwala said.
The expectations and anticipations haven’t flustered Gujral, who views this as a valuable investment for art in India and hopes this engagement will strengthen their cultural threads.
“It is time for us to use culture to forge the bond between the two nations. We should stop expecting the government to do everything,” she said.