New Dubai exhibition of South Asian artworks shines light on time

The disparate works being shown at Ishara Art Foundation feature artists from different generations

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A new group exhibition at Ishara Art Foundation in Dubai’s Alserkal Avenue brings together works by 20 contemporary artists from South Asia and its diaspora. The artworks span photography, installations, sculptures, video and watercolours. They all, however, aim to do one thing: highlight the slipstream of time.

In metaphysical terms, uncovering time is a slippery undertaking. Yet, the artists featured in Notations of Time show, in concrete terms, how its traces and tracks remain evident, not just in terrestrial and cosmic dimensions, but also in the political and philosophical.

Curated by Sandhini Poddar and Sabih Ahmed, the exhibition stages a dialogue between generations of artists to highlight entanglements of the past, present and future.

Among the opening works is one part of Chandraguptha Thenuwara’s Beautification. In the 2013 work, titled Check Your Memory, bricks are engraved with dates and arranged on the floor in tiles. The work, Ahmed says, is a “calendar made in cement” and echoes the artist’s years-long practice of the massacre and genocide of a large section of the Tamil population in northern Sri Lanka.

“These are the dates of major events in a longer history of colonialism, postcolonialism and also the civil war in Sri Lanka,” Ahmed says.

“The reason the project is called Beautification is that many monuments and edifices were destroyed during the civil war, particularly in Jaffna.

“What Thenuwara does, is he interrogates how the ruling government ends up covering up all the damages, and they do that with beautification drives. So, you see someone building a new monument after destroying another. You end up seeing buildings with bullet holes reconstructed. So the beautification tries to conceal history, cover the things you don’t want to talk about.”

The other components of Beautification are placed around the exhibition space and feature sculptures of the severed hand, head, as well as scales of Themis, the Greek personification of justice. Made with cement, the detached works evoke a sense of broken justice.

“One of the questions we asked in this show is what is the relationship of time and justice? How much time does justice require and can time itself deliver justice?” Ahmed says. “A lot of people think, say, time heals, but maybe sometimes time also delivers justice, or it doesn't.”

Across from the cement installation of Beautification is a series of photographs by Soumya Sankar Bose, 32, a photographer who is a generation younger than Thenuwara but also explores erasures in history.

The series, titled Where the Birds Never Sing, shines light on the Marichjhapi massacre, an atrocity that began in 1979 when Bengali lower caste refugees were forcibly evicted from the Marichjhapi Island in India’s West Bengal. In the following two years, thousands died by starvation, disease and police gunfire.

“In this series, [Sankar Bose] has captured historical moments through re-enactments,” Ahmed says.

“A lot of forest dwelling communities resided in Marichjhapi. Because of the rise of deforestation and also the authorities having a problem with those communities, there was a major massacre. No history book or archive properly recorded it, people remember it through memory. Those who survived.”

In the absence of an archive, survivors began documenting the events through theatre. Those who fled the massacre, Ahmed says, began joining theatre groups and re-enacting their experiences. Sankar Bose visited those theatre groups, meeting survivors to understand what they went through, including a schoolteacher who died soon after the project was completed.

Another intergenerational pairing comes with the works of Lala Rukh and Mariah Lookman. A diptych by the late Rukh, a Pakistani artist and activist, presents on carbon paper undulating graphite lines that shimmer with light, similar to the folds of a calm sea.

“She was a prominent and active feminist activist in Pakistan,” Ahmed says. “She used to create these minimal drawings and paintings of seascapes. This was broadly what she was doing for a long time — seascapes shimmering in the dark night. They look transcendental. They look spiritual. They could mean so many things.”

Rukh was taught at an art school in Pakistan, with many of her students, including Lookman, going on to be renowned artists themselves. An artist who divides her time between Sri Lanka, Pakistan and the UK, Lookman presents Night Song, an installation comprising two monitors, displaying a video and sound collage.

“[Lookman] works a lot with video,” Ahmed says. “She was very inspired by [Rukh]. Night Song is basically asking how we see in the night. What songs do we hear? We end up seeing patterns, night vision cameras, helicopters, and even text.

“The reason we're putting these two together is to talk about generational time,” Ahmed says. “Maybe a very important area to read time is how time passes through generations of artists, teachers, friends and colleagues.”

Elsewhere, Sheba Chhachhi, a photographer and women’s rights activist based in New Delhi, presents a series of intimate photographs of an elderly caregiver who Chhachhi visited while going through a rough health patch.

“This is actually a rare piece of work that’s not so commonly circulated,” Ahmed says. “It’s called Silver Sap. It shows photographs of an old woman who has been a caregiver, a healer travelling from place to place, offering her services in massaging and healing people who are in stress or having ailments.

“At some point, [Chhachhi] visited her and this lady helped her recover, so she created these series of portraits that refrain from photographing the woman as a straight-up portrait [of her face]. In relation to Notations of Time, you can read time on skin, on bodies and on hands.”

The work could be seen of as voyeurism. “Voyeurism is when someone, usually a man, is looking at other people, often women, without them knowing, right?” asks Ahmed. “Another important aspect of that kind of violence, of looking at someone and without them properly knowing, is an element of disaggregating the body. You reduce the other's bodies into just body parts.”

Chhachhi’s works circumvent this pitfall with the evident care she takes in photographing her subject. “It’s not reducing a person to specific parts, but body parts suggesting something intense and caring.”

Notations on Time also presents works by Haroon Mirza, who touches upon the cosmic with his installation Light Work; Gauri Gill and Rajesh Vangad, whose geometric figures are carried over a generation with the works of Ladhki Devi; Amar Kanwar’s Listening Bench; and selections from Ayesha Sultana’s Detail of Breath Count series, which annotate the pace and rhythm of breath.

Notations of Time runs at Ishara Art Foundation until May 20

Updated: January 30, 2023, 3:11 AM