In Order To Join allows women to become interpreters of history

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.”

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.