TO THE RIGHT OF A ROUND DAIS, on which a few visibly ill-at-ease Adivasi artists sit while elegant French and Indian guests swirl around them, a rough rendition of the Eiffel Tower in modelling clay has slowly cracked into sections as it dries. The occasion is the opening of the exhibition of Adivasi art currently on in Paris at the Quai Branly Museum, Other Indian Masters: Contemporary Adivasi Creations. The clay provided to the visiting artists to demonstrate their craft is not a material they are used to manipulating. The cracking Eiffel Tower seems to be a metaphor for the subtle rebellion of an Adivasi artist not happy with being rendered into an exotic spectacle for Parisian aesthetes; and for the persistent incapacity of both urban India and France to break the neocolonial frame of a vision of ‘exotic’ others that permits them to be exhibited.
The irony is that the exhibition itself explicitly takes on imperial ethnography, from 19th century British sepia portraits of various ethnic ‘types,’ to Bollywood movie renditions of pretty tribal girls capturing the hearts of proper Hindu urban boys, to Dayanita Singh’s photographs of ethnographic dioramas in a Kolkata museum. The exhibition is curated by celebrated Indian traditional art expert and anthropologist Jyotindra Jain, and is brilliantly informed by his essays in the exhibition catalogue. Jain is categorical: this art is neither ‘primitive’ nor timeless. It is a contemporary expression of an alternative modernity which exists simultaneously with the modernity of the viewer, as parallel universes might. In the contemporary Adivasi artist’s vision, it is the West and, more specifically, Westernised India—urban, rapidly industrialising and privatising, globally connected and whose Promethean trajectory is ruthlessly enforced by the police and security forces—that is the object of an active subject’s representation. In the Adivasi artist’s world, we are among the observed, the depicted, the represented, as our world crashes into theirs. The art in the exhibition presents us with our own violent reality as seen by people who live at once on the margins of this reality and at its epicentre.
While the exhibition includes exquisite specimens of the traditional art of diverse communities across India, it is the work of those artists who have put their individual stamp on a traditional medium that is the most provocative. In these works, we see the god of death, Yama, represented as a policeman. In the innocent-seeming terracotta friezes of Rajwar artist Sonabai, a policeman leads away a man as if it were the most usual thing in the world. In a painting by Warli master Jivya Soma Mashe, a train rips through a village, dividing it forever from itself. A work by Ganga Devi, an artist who paints on paper in the Mithila tradition, depicts her treatment for cancer. Here, the figures of doctor and patient, rendered in the Mithila silhouetted style, echo the relationship of the work of art to the viewer, where one is exhibited to the other’s observation. The twin towers in New York, under attack on 11 September 2001, Indira Gandhi’s assassination, and the tsunami of 2004 all find their way into the works Jyotindra Jain has selected to make his point that the Adivasi artist’s world includes our own. This point is underlined by the photographs in the exhibition by Pablo Bartholomew of Nagas whose day-to-day reality, we come to understand, is very much inflected by one we think of as ours even as Bartholomew shows us it is theirs.