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Lines of Control: Exhibition at Johnson Museum

by Iftikhar Dadi (Cornell University) and Hammad Nassar (Green Cardamom), Curators
January 21 — April 1, 2012
Exhibit website:  http://museum.cornell.edu/exhibitions/lines-of-control.html.

Accompanying Catalogue

Lines of Control: Partition as a Productive Space

by Iftikhar Dadi and Hammad Nassar, Editors
Green Cardamom, London and Herbert F. Johnson Museum of Art, Cornell University, Ithaca, NY, 2012
238 pp. Illus. col. Paper, $30.00
ISBN: 978-1-934260-22-7.

Reviewed by Aparna Sharma
Department of World Arts and Cultures/Dance, UCLA


It has been often observed that the Partition of India and Pakistan in 1947 did not get fully commemorated in public imagination, say, through a museum, a ritual or some kind of dialogue that would acknowledge and memorialize the experiences of the people who were unsettled by this act that left nearly 3 million dead and 15 million displaced. “Lines of Control,” curated by Iftikhar Dadi and Hammad Nassar at Cornell University’s Herbert F. Johnson Museum of Art, was a recent exhibition that gathered over 40 works in varied media that dwell on the theme of borders, particularly the lines that got drawn as colonial empires physically receded in the last century. As suggested by its title, the India-Pakistan Partition was the provocateur for this show, but the exhibition cast a wider span, gathering artists from Africa, the Americas, Asia, and Europe. Navigating the galleries of the Johnson Museum, one was overwhelmed by how divisiveness has been normalized as a geographical and political fact of our times. But one was more struck by the exhibited artists’ persistence in embracing the complexities inherent in border experiences — complexities that cannot be erased or simply wished away by the drawing of neat lines marking national territories. What are the epistemological consequences of the act of drawing borders and lines of control? And where do human experiences of borders sit in a world that in academic parlance is increasingly punctuated with the prefix ‘post’ (-colonial, -modern, -industrial, -national, -digital, -human)? The exhibition provocatively raised these questions.

New York-based Seher Shah’s large-scale, impressive collages foreground a key problematic in thinking about colonialism and the borders it continues to engender. Shah overlays images of Islamic, Baroque and colonial architectures, and historic photographs researched from sources such as the Royal Geographical Society, creating very nuanced — delicate, measured and rich images that expose us to multiple civilizational and cultural perspectives. Shah’s collages resonate with a critical distance particular to her position as a second-generation artist from the subcontinent. This critical distance is necessary to relativise, through juxtaposition, colonial discourse with its ties to linear perspective. This serves to reveal how colonialism constitutes a particular worldview contrasting from and competing with cultural imaginaries such as, say, those within Islam. This visual rendition of competing perspectives, quite resonant with the strategies of early Constructivism, is a much-desired move through which to decenter colonialism and advance critical thought beyond linear and causal understandings of colonial encounters and hierarchies, which can prove quite limiting. The theme of perspectivalism is advanced in Jolene Rickard’s Fight for the Line – a work that asserts Onkwehonwe peoples’ claim upon their homeland from which they have been displaced by American settler colonialism, the very land on which the Johnson Museum stands. The work deploys projected images and signage as a gesture to reclaim this land — a strategy resonant with other native artists, too. Through this, the viewer is situated in a tense zone where modern nationhood is thrown into sharp contest with native nationhood. As we stand before this work that interrogates US political supremacy, we cannot but conjure links with other territories, outside mainland USA, where the US intervenes politically and militarily. And so Fight for the Line opens up what Rickard terms an ‘ethical schism’: ‘The US claims to be a beacon of justice globally, yet has not fully reconciled its ongoing colonial settler status in relationship to indigenous peoples in North America’ (202).

If Lines of Control critically raises the links between borders and colonialism, it also calls into question the relations between contemporary arts and technologies. Many of the borders and control lines in this exhibition have been mediated through some or the other form of technology, and one could almost plot a history of border technologies navigating this exhibition. But very judiciously and subtly Lines of Control resists a technological-progressivist discourse with the result that we are confronted, in the same space, with works spanning advanced digital image technologies, wood-cut prints, video installations, and traditional zari (metal-wrapped thread) embroideries, to name a few. This rich conglomeration of technologies is only to the advantage of the exhibition’s theme underlining its urgency and constituting a necessary counterpoint to the celebratory discourse of new media arts from the subcontinent that have been the fare of much European and North American curatorial interests within the last decade. Pakistani artist Rashid Rana’s All Eyes Skyward During the Annual Parade (2004) seductively draws the viewer into a composite life-size photographic image of a Pakistani crowd seeing a spectacle in the sky during a national parade. Sensing fuzziness in this image one is drawn closer to it and only then is it revealed that the image has been digitally composed through a colour-sensitive assemblage of stills from blockbuster Hindi films such as Sholay and Umrao Jaan, among others. Here, digital image technology serves to unravel a political-cultural dichotomy — the people looking up to a military spectacle partake in the state’s discourse that constructs India as an ‘enemy’; and yet the minute film stills through which this image is composed gesture to popular culture and the people’s fantasies fostered by Indian cinema, itself often accessed through smuggled VHS tapes. A more acutely reflexive move occurs in Duncan Campbell’s installation Bernadette (2008) that is an assembled footage portrait of Northern Irish activist and politician, Bernadette Devlin, known more famously for being the youngest member of the British Parliament. Drawing footage from various sources in England, Ireland, and America, Campbell constructs a portrait whose reflexive vocabulary deconstructs its subject. I am here referencing political-modernist film theory’s take on deconstruction wherein the moving image apparatus reveals its own workings thus unsettling dominant ideology. But Campbell’s piece pushes beyond reflecting the apparatus at work in a technical sense and imbues the deconstructive move with an explicit political agenda — the revelation of how media constructed Bernadette Devlin as image through techniques of camerawork, sound recording, editing and her very performance before cameras.

While the media works at Lines of Control reflect the multi-layered and complexly negotiated re-presentations of border-experiences and figures, works in other media at the exhibition usher us into a more critically daring zone — the realm of intimate personal memories, desires, and interpretations pertaining to displacement and the imaginations its fosters. One of the most impactful bodies of work was New York-based Zarina Hashmi’s prints that contemplate upon exile, dwelling spaces, borders, maps, and language, here Urdu. Hashmi’s prints reflect a disciplined engagement through which personal experience is historicized and historical fact personalized. Aamir Mufti’s eloquent essay Zarina Hashmi and the Arts of Dispossession in the exhibition’s catalogue — Lines of Control: Partition as a Productive Space, elaborates on this. Mufti Hashmi’s work is decisively exilic providing a ‘critical perspective on nation-states as the universal political form of our times, the social crises and conflicts they seem to repeatedly generate, and their marginalization and victimization of those social groups that are deemed to be non-national peoples’ (91).

Lines of Control has been an ambitious undertaking that has effectively expanded discussions of partitions, borders, and lines of control beyond singular geographical locations. This is a crucial move that inaugurates new questions and lines of thought in the study of cultural, technological, and political phenomena and experiences in our times. The exhibition’s catalogue is a vital text that weaves together scholarly and artistic thought on borders and modern nations from varied locations and contexts. Salah M. Hasan’s Sudan: The Tumultuous Road to Partition and Jolene Rickard’s Minds in Control are two particularly perceptive pieces that complicate neat histories of colonialism, raising the arbitrary nature of post-colonial states. Sitting in a complementary relation to the exhibition this catalogue will serve as a useful resource for scholars and practitioners of the arts and sciences alike.

Last Updated 8 September 2012

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