A Place Called Home at the SANG
by Kim Gurney
'A Place Called Home' treads a very fine curatorial line. Comprising work by artists of the South Asian diaspora, the show by definition selects work based upon a particular cultural grouping. Yet it is this very notion of one-dimensional naming that the exhibition aims to undermine.
Curator Zayd Minty deftly sidesteps this apparent contradiction by foregrounding the debate. He has picked artists, including South Africans, who deliberately obfuscate delineated notions of identity and shun any attempt to circumscribe their work.
On the whole, it is a successful approach. However, it is somewhat frustrating. The show unravels ideas in the mind rather than gathering them together. As such, one walks away with a jumble of images and thoughts and no grand new hypothesis about identity, other than to be wary of any such monolithic concept. Perhaps that is entirely the point.
So much has already been written about this show, as it has traveled from Durban to Cape Town, and yet there still seems much to say. This multi-layered character is one of the show's strengths.
Broadly speaking, 'A Place Called Home' has particular resonance in a country where land and a roof over one's head are not a given. It also has a particular resonance in the Mother City, where the Indian identity of the artists plays second fiddle to their diasporic links.
The show is quite a mixed one, comprising mostly photographic work that speaks eloquently of the fractured identities so commonplace in the world today. These identities happen to involve artists of Indian descent.
The idea for the show grew out of Minty's own considerations about identity, race and culture. He said the concept began with his feelings of displacement and not fitting in, but it evolved as he found connections politically and in other spheres with people in different places.
'This isn't a very Indian project as such,' he added, 'It is meant to be quite universal, seen through the lens of artists of South Asian descent to look at the world and the place they are in.' The sense of multiple identities is particularly striking. There is no quintessential Indian diaspora, just as there is no quintessential emigrant or immigrant anywhere in the world.
This message has particular pertinence for South Africa right now. As Minty says, this country is currently pushing a one-dimensional national narrative that promotes an homogenous group identity.
A number of themes recur throughout 'A Place Called Home'. Besides the photography bias, humour is a common element. This is evident right at the show's start with a three-minute video called Mangoes, by Bani Abidi (2001).
At first, it appears to be a banal conversation between two women � one from Pakistan and one from India � about the tropical fruit they are busy eating. It highlights the importance of storytelling for the diaspora as both women no longer live in their countries of origin.
Right at the end, however, their banter reveals an underlying antagonism as they childishly compete about which country has more species of mangoes. It is a biting comment on the more consequential games of political one-upmanship played by these two nuclear states.
Sunil Gupta's series of diptychs, Homelands, juxtaposes colour photographs of three different places that he has called home. There is often unexpected irony as the rural landscape of India stands stark against images of the west.
One photograph shows Gupta's view from his Manhattan window: the fa�ade of a residential block with absolutely no privacy for any of the tenants. In contrast, a wall with high windows in India secludes the family from the stranger's gaze.
This series can also be read on many other levels. For one thing, it is a comment on living with HIV/AIDS. Gupta says it is a journey through the landscape of the virus, although that connection is less obvious without prior knowledge.
Other associations also reveal themselves. One plot of land pictured in fact belongs to Gupta, passed down through family generations from father to son, and speaks eloquently of a patriarchal society. Another photograph shows an old man next to a young boy � a common site in villages worldwide abandoned by the youth for the city lights.
Gupta says he has become less didactic in his work and wanted to leave the meaning of this series more open-ended. However, his coupling in diptychs arguably frustrates this process. It prevents the images from interacting more freely with one another.
The opposite is true of a video by Gupta, which was excluded from the SANG show because of space limitations. A World Without Pity was, however, screened at a Michaelis lunchtime lecture instead.
The video is filmed mostly in Delhi and documents the impact of HIV/AIDS in India. In particular, it shows the conspiracy of silence around the virus. Gupta himself features in some of the footage. This is partly because the rural Indians he met were unable to articulate the impact of the virus and partly because nobody would speak about it or consent to being filmed.
Gupta said: 'I didn't want to become an 'AIDS artist' or single-issue artist but something needed to be done about it. I aspired to use [this film] as a tool to raise debate so it is quite activist and not just aesthetic.'
The video also documents another less visible sector of the population: gay, Indian men. Gupta added, 'They don't seem to exist in art history so my purpose was to put these pictures into the canon.'
South African Omar Badsha exhibits a series of photographs taken on a 1996 trip to the ancestral village of his grandparents, Tadkeshwar. Badsha said looking back on the past and one's history was important. However, he said, questions about the future were just as pertinent.
Some of the images in Badsha's series were taken much earlier, in the 1930s and 1940s. They provide an interesting juxtaposition. In particular, the posed studio photographs speak powerfully of aspects of self-perception.
A young South African artist, Zen Marie, exhibits an installation called Method and Order. He has constructed a character, Dyah Khan, who is photographed in various poses that tap into notions of masculinity: notably through sport, cars and fashion.
The rest of the show comprises a weighty UK contingent including Ansuman Biswas, Chila Kumari Burman, Roshini Kempadoo and Moti Roti. Faiza Galdhari, Prema Murthy and Usha Seejarim complete the line-up.
Opens: September 22
Closes: November 7
SANG, Government Avenue, Company Gardens, Cape Town
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