Taking a Part

In Order To Join allows women to become interpreters of history

Astrid Klein’s cracked mirrors and Jamelie Hassan’s “ ن” share space at Mumbai’s Max Mueller Bhavan. Courtesy Sprüth Magers Berlin London
Astrid Klein’s cracked mirrors and Jamelie Hassan’s “ ن” share space at Mumbai’s Max Mueller Bhavan. Courtesy Sprüth Magers Berlin London
01 April, 2015

A VIDEO DOCUMENTING “The Negotiating Table,” Mona Hatoum’s landmark performance piece, opens on a breathing, bloodied mass of what looks like flesh, pulsing under a layer of plastic. Over 20 minutes, the camera slowly zooms out to reveal the Palestinian artist’s body, constrained by surgical gauze, foil and cling film. Hatoum’s original performance was accompanied by snippets of politicians’ speeches promising to bring peace to the Middle East. The video’s grainy quality and glacial pan heighten an intense sense of foreboding: Is the performer alive or dead? Is that bulbous red mess her entrails?

I might have pegged the piece as a comment on recent events in West Asia, until I checked the label accompanying the video at In Order to Join: The Political in a Historical Moment—a hefty exhibition currently on show in Mumbai. The video was dated 5 December 1983, and Hatoum was likely reacting to the 1982 invasion of Lebanon, her adoptive country, by Israeli forces; and to the civil war that had started there nearly seven years earlier. Still the contemporaneousness of her work is uncanny. This is true of most exhibits at In Order to Join, which brings together pieces by 14 women from various countries to Mumbai’s Max Mueller Bhavan and Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya, or CSMVS—two venues separated by a five-minute walk. The curators, Swapnaa Tamhane and Susanne Titz, specifically chose works with longevity, that are concerned with a specific period in modern history, but which also reflect contemporary events.

On display in Mumbai until 10 April, the exhibition was first mounted in 2013, at the Museum Abteiberg in Mönchengladbach, Germany. Titz is the director of that museum, which was established in 1904 and is well known for its pop art and Nouveau réalisme collections. She was introduced to Tamhane by the artist Jitish Kallat, who thought she would be interested in Tamhane’s PhD research into the politically charged and formally challenging work of the late artist Rummana Hussain. “Susanne and I immediately started talking,” Tamhane told me when we met recently at the Max Mueller Bhavan. “She mentioned Astrid Klein and this generation of women artists who were working in the eighties. I mentioned, along with Rummana Hussain, Angela Grauerholz and Rosemarie Trockel.” The two curators found that they were looking at female artists born in the early 1950s who, Tamhane said, “started working after the Second Wave of feminism—they weren’t doing any rah-rah feminist thing and were working in a very different way.”

Rummana Hussain’s installation, “A Space for Healing,” was made in 1999, shortly before the artist died of cancer. Courtesy Dr. Martin Wälde

Even though no themes united these artists initially, Tamhane said specific works immediately sprang to mind that seemed to loosely converse with each other. For instance, the Canadian artist Angela Grauerholz and the German artist Astrid Klein both employed black-and-white images and newsprint, and used contemporary events to hark back to the past. Tamhane and Titz zeroed down on the deceptively simple curatorial strategy of selecting artists born between 1948 and 1958—the first generation, they wrote in the exhibition catalogue, “to experience a global identity.”

This rather free-flowing approach comes together surprisingly well. With a large corpus of over 40 works, some of which are series with multiple pieces, this is one of the largest international exhibitions of women artists ever mounted in India. Through its breadth, it avoids the trap of making its contributors simply ciphers of the national or regional conditions of their sex. The selection of artists who are united by gender and a historical moment, but who span several nationalities and ethnicities, is liberating; it allows the women to become interpreters of history rather than its by-products. The feminist lens through which they do this is implicit, and often layered with other concerns—language politics, religious beliefs, personal identity, geographic location. The connections between the works are discernible, yet the curators mostly just suggest tenuous links, leaving viewers to discover common ground on their own.

IN ORDER TO JOIN takes its title from Hussain’s 1998 exhibition at the Art in General gallery in New York, and the artist’s work is the cornerstone of the present exhibition. Hussain was largely a figurative painter until the 1990s. After the destruction of the Babri Masjid in Ayodhya, though, she took a turn towards the conceptual. She was also involved with the explicitly political and performance-oriented Safdar Hashmi Memorial Trust. Like Hatoum, Hussain was preoccupied with mortality, and the connections between the ailing or battered body and the diseased body politic.

Hussain was born in Bangalore, and lived in Mumbai until her tragically early death, from cancer, in 1999. Her work, specifically her performances, explored religious and personal identity, often imparting slightly off-kilter takeaways. In her notable 1998 performance “Is it what you think?”, Hussain sat on a stool at the Kaskadenkondensator gallery in Basel while slides of self-portraits of her wearing a chador were projected onto her body. This performance is not part of In Order to Join, but the exhibition does feature a poster that accompanied it. On the poster are a series of questions that betray certain assumptions that are commonly made when projecting meaning onto a female figure’s appearance. “Where does she belong? Is she behind a veil? Have you defined her?,” it begins. The questions range from the droll—“Do you think she believes in the Jihad? Did you read it in today’s newspaper?” —to the earnest—“Are her beliefs an escape? Or a security? Or a habit? Or a choice?”—to the challenging—“Do you pity her? Is that your construct? Is that a predicament?”

Angela Grauerholz archives her burned library in “Privation.” Courtesy the artist / Olga Korper Galery Toronto, and Art 45, Montreal

The body is absent but implied in “A Space for Healing,” a complex installation by Hussain that is the centrepiece of In Order to Join. Far less confrontational in tone than “Is it what you think?”, this 1999 installation, which is at the Max Mueller Bhavan, was Hussain’s last. Shortly before her death, it was sent to the Asia-Pacific Triennial of Contemporary Art in Brisbane, where a young Shilpa Gupta—now one of India’s best-known installation artists, who was then documenting Hussain’s work—put it up on its creator’s behalf. This is the first time the artwork is being shown in India, after a gap of nearly 16 years.

“A Space for Healing” is contained within a room that is bathed in red light and looks like a cross between a mosque and a hospital. A set of kitschy gold paisley-print stretchers are laid out like prayer rugs, arranged with medical paraphernalia, such as bottles, syringes and tubes. The walls bear what resemble Nastaliq letters, fashioned out of rusted tools—scythes, scalpels, tongs, tweezers—but on closer inspection (and a knowledge of the script) don’t add up to intelligible words. A sound system plays a layered incantation: a mix of Mumbai street noises and the metronomic rhythm of the azan. However, what sounds like a call to prayer is really a voice saying, in English, “Put the needle into your vein.”

Hussain appears to have employed the title “A Space for Healing” satirically. The art historian Geeta Kapur wrote in the exhibition’s brochure that the piece “offers to put to rest the urban nightmare,” but the overall effect of being inside the room, with its macabre reminders of death, and its harsh light and sound design, is anything but restful. Neither medical science nor religious faith truly offer recuperation from the city.

In Hussain’s installation, mortality is the final constraint on—or perhaps the absolute release from?—the absent body. A running theme in many of the other works in In Order to Join, however, is that the female body in particular endures dozens of restrictions throughout life, as women constantly struggle to retain autonomy and control over their physical being.

WHERE HUSSAIN’S WORK is subtle and nuanced in its attempts to construct a feminist Muslim identity, the Pakistani activist-artist Lala Rukh gestures at the difficulty of that endeavour. Lala Rukh co-founded the Women’s Action Forum, or WAF, in Karachi in September 1981. The organisation railed against General Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq’s dictatorial imposition of the Hudood Ordinance. Under this law, zina, or adultery—not distinguished from rape—became a punishable crime, leading to the severe persecution of women who had been raped and required four male eyewitnesses to prove their “innocence.” The WAF reacted by plastering the city with a poster that reads “Ek aurat, ek gawahi” (One woman, one testimony)—that poster is used on the invitation card for In Order to Join. Another example of such “mass” art, shorn of the triviality often associated with it, is Rukh’s 1983 “Crimes against Women,” a composite of 18 offset-printed posters. These consist of a collage of news clippings about violence against women. The headlines, gleaned from newspapers such as The Muslim, Dawn and The Daily Jang, include “Worker stabs ex-wife,” and “Zina: RI [Rigorous Imprisonment], lashes to woman.” One particularly eerie report quotes eyewitnesses who saw a fleeing woman “done to death” by her brother; its ominousness is underscored by the lack of detail on the actual cause of death, implying an embarrassed elision of the female body altogether.

Rukh’s posters blur the supposed opposition between the public sphere as the arena of violence and the domestic one as a place of refuge. The most common response to the perceived danger women face on city streets, for example, is to impose curfews and restrict women’s movement. This confinement and curtailing of women’s autonomy, however, is itself an act of violence.

The domestic sphere reappears, with a great deal of levity, in the work of the British artist Helen Chadwick. In her 1976 piece “Bargain Basement Bonzana,” a 16-minute segment from a longer video series called Domestic Sanitation, a burlesque household scene plays out. The performers are dressed in uncomfortable latex costumes made to look like comical, inflated bodies—Barbie proportions on one woman, layers of fat and an exaggerated bush on another. They clean, lounge, read the newspaper and listen to the radio. There is some play with what appears to be a BDSM sling. The costumes, music and performance call to mind an unwholesome pornographic film with low production values. Chadwick’s comment on the severe circumscribing of female bodies, whether in the home or in the porn industry—is unmistakable.

The idea of curtailed bodies reaches its apogee in Rosemarie Trockel’s 2010 installation “Spiral Betty,” which uses neon lights on a wall to approximate a T-shaped intrauterine contraceptive device. Trockel has played with this concept for years—the cover of a book draft from 1988, one of a series featured in the exhibition, has a picture of the device on it. According to Titz, some women who saw the exhibition in Germany remembered that the contraceptive “hurt like hell.” “Women who were coming to the show said, ‘This was a mess,’” she told me. “It had become something that would liberate you, but also cause you pain.”

“Spiral Betty” spoofs the famous earthwork “Spiral Jetty.” Courtesy Sprüth Magers Berlin London

Spiral Betty also includes an inside joke: its large scale mocks the monumental works produced by the almost entirely male clique of “land artists,” who landscaped nature to create their pieces. The title is a direct parody of “Spiral Jetty,” Robert Smithson’s “earthwork” at Utah’s Great Salt Lake, constructed in the 1970s.

Land Art and monumental scales return, in differing forms, in the works of Astrid Klein and the Mexican artist Ana Mendieta. Much of Klein’s work consists of photography, and she reacted to the largely male tendency to work with oversize objects by occupying large spaces herself. For example, in her large-format photo collages from the Broken Heart series, created in the early 1980s, the artist overlaid mass-media, sexualised images of actresses such as Brigitte Bardot with text from the German novelist Arno Schmidt’s weighty 1971 volume Zettels Traum.

Another example of the way Klein manipulates scale is her work with mirrors, which first appeared in 1993 with a set of 18 reflective panels shot through with a 9 mm gun. Five of these are on display at the exhibition, forming spidery arrangements that warp reflections in ways reminiscent of a hall of mirrors. The work is a grim reminder of the far-left militancy and attacks by the Red Army Faction that affected Germany in the early 1970s, when Klein was pursuing her fine arts degree in Cologne.

Mendieta employs the tropes of Land Art in her silueta—silhouette—videos, produced in the early 1970s. Shot in the open, these focus on Mendieta’s “earth-body” sculptures, based on a scale model of her own body and fashioned outdoors out of sand, grass and rocks. These primeval forms are then subjected to the elements—fire in one, flowing water in another—suggesting the artist’s connection with the earth. The 1975 installation “Alma, Silueta en Fuego” (Soul, Silhouette on Fire) shows a figure that resembles a corpse, which is set on fire, while the 1981 “Birth” has one gently exploded by gunpowder—a reference to a Cuban belief in the material’s healing power.

IT IS IMPOSSIBLE to completely break down the works of some of the international artists without a close reading of their contexts and the references their creators were drawing upon. Despite the time-lag, however, all the works bear a sense of immediacy—or, seen a different way, timelessness. Neither the issues the artists were confronting, nor their experiences as female subjects and chroniclers of their moment, seem to have varied much through the decades that separate them from the contemporary viewer.

The exhibits at the Max Mueller Bhavan are more loosely linked than those on display at the CSMVS, which are arranged according to two schemes: the ground floor is devoted to performances and videos that examines the body in conjunction with its natural and political environment, while the first floor has text-based works that link the personal and the political. The natural history, numismatics and miniature painting galleries at the CSMVS, accomodated in the main gallery structure, draw hundreds of visitors every day; but the travelling exhibitions hosted here are typically mounted in separate, dedicated galleries. This time, though, the curators decided to place some works in the vitrines in a first-floor rotunda, where parts of the permanent historic collections are housed—a first for the CSMVS, Tamhane told me. “We were really keen to have as many people as possible view them,” she said.

Though drawn from disparate contexts, work by artists such as Lala Rukh and Mona Hatoum communicates seamlessly in the show. Courtesy Goethe-Institut

The rotunda hosts the work of Trockel, the Indian artist Sheela Gowda, and Grauerholz. Broadly, all three artists employ texts as images. Each of them brings historical loss—on a national, civilisational or grand cultural scale—down to a comprehensible level. Grauerholz marks her presence with two quietly devastating photo series. The first, “Privation,” from 2001, is a set of scanned images of burnt books from Grauerholz’s personal library, which she lost in a fire. Even though the images are two-dimensional, the frayed, charred state of the pages they show imbues them with a sculptural quality.

In this case, private grief acquires a political tint when Grauerholz draws a parallel between the damage to her collection and the mass destruction of books and libraries to annihilate a people’s history. In an accompanying statement, she cites Carsten Frederiksen, the deputy director of the Library Federation in Copenhagen, who was involved in a UNESCO-supported initiative to rebuild libraries in Kosovo after the war between Serbian forces and Kosovar Albanian separatists in 1998 and 1999:

all ethnic Albanian material in Kosovo were removed from the libraries or fired or sacked about 10 years ago… no new books in the Albanian language have been acquired since 1991. And in this sense you might speak of ethnic cleansing in the libraries.

A sense of bereavement also abides in Grauerholz’s 1999 “Schriftbilder”, literally “typeface,” a series of gelatin prints of lost or dying scripts displayed on the walls of the rotunda. These include ancient scripts, including Babylonian and Egyptian hieroglyphs; obscure ones such as Estranghelo (an early form of the Syriac alphabet) and Lontara (used in several languages spoken by tribes in Sulawesi, Indonesia); and some truly inexplicable choices, like Devanagari and the Tibetan script. (The last two aren’t extinct by any measure, but Grauerholz is perhaps auguring a dismal fate for them in an increasingly linguistically flattened world.) Created two years prior to “Privation”, “Schriftbilder” almost seems to presage Grauerholz’s later work. No translations accompany the prints and the viewers’ inability to understand the printed words mirrors the very real incomprehensibility of the script, turning meaningful symbols into impenetrable images.

These dead scripts share wall space with dire news. Sheela Gowda’s 2008 “Best Cutting” is a digital collage of newsprint from the fictional Chronic Chronicle, which bears the outlines of trouser and tunic patterns, of the kind used by tailors. The newspaper impersonates an actual one, but the carefully contrasting newsclips in it are, terrifyingly, true stories. Photographs of garlanded politicians, including LK Advani, are juxtaposed with news about the Ayodhya verdict and a food article urging readers to “Try a glass of ‘karela.’” A think piece entitled “Indians in the world: how we see ourselves” appears next to an article about the Bangladeshi novelist Taslima Nasreen’s withdrawal of “objectionable material” from public circulation. Other pieces bring out the bizarreness of the Indian polity—wedged next to a report on Zaheera Sheikh’s sentencing for perjury in the Best Bakery case is a tiny column advertising “Quality mushrooms.” Gowda’s political intentions draw both gravity and flippancy from her gallows humour.

The collages echo the concept of text as an object, but that idea is more fully realised in Jamelie Hassan’s neon installation “Ê”, displayed at the Max Mueller Bhavan. The title, pronounced “noon,” uses the fourteenth letter of the Arabic alphabet, which has conflicting connotations: It has no ascribable meaning, yet is considered a mysterious or device letter in the Quran. Owing to its vessel-like shape, Sufi poets such as Rumi regarded it a symbol of the inkpot. When Hassan first created the piece, in 2009, she was interested in the character’s “mathematical aesthetic.” Over the last year, however, the letter has achieved astonishing resonance in another part of the world. A red Ê—signifying “Nazarene,” a derogatory term for Christians—was used by Islamic State fighters to mark the homes of the besieged community in Mosul. The letter gained even greater currency in August 2014, when Facebook and Twitter users began to use it as a profile picture to express solidarity with Iraqi Christians.

In some ways, bringing together these diverse artists from a variety of nationalities and ethnicities is itself an act of solidarity. Some feminist theorists dismiss or deny the existence of a universal female experience—a way of looking at the world peculiar to women—which glosses over boundaries of time, space and individuality. In Order to Join defies them. Viewed in isolation, the exhibits act as individual registers of a historical moment. Together, they acquire a vigour, a momentum and a voice far more unified than the sum of its parts.

Karanjeet Kaur is the former deputy editor of National Geographic Magazine (India). She writes on art, culture and travel, and has reported for Mint Lounge, Time Out, Yahoo! India, Art India and Mail Today in the past. She tweets as @kaju_katri.