A river understands me: Tales of Indian Art Engagement
by Zoe Freney
In November 2017 four South Australian artists travelled to India on an Arts Engagement Program aimed at strengthening cultural ties between South Australia and India, especially with our sister state of Rajasthan. Lead artist Daniel Connell and artists Jessie Lumb, Jake Holmes and I spent over three weeks facilitating a range of creative programs and intercultural conversations. These were undertaken in government schools for disadvantaged children in Mumbai, in private secondary schools in Udaipur and Jodhpur, and with professional and emerging artists in Jaipur. While the South Australian Government’s strategy focuses on developing links in areas of investment, trade and education, it was important for us as artists to realise instead the ‘affective possibilities’ of art in opening new dialogues based on hospitality and generosity (1). Approaching these intercultural conversations from a feminist standpoint, I was interested especially in women’s practices, the teachers, students, artists and traditional craftswomen we met and worked with, our situated and embodied knowledges, and the possibilities of seeing from one another’s points of view (2).
In advocating for a new cosmopolitanism, philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah points out we can all only start from where we are (3). It began for Jessie, Jake and I with iced lattes in the inner suburbs of Adelaide as Daniel outlined the itinerary for the program and we tried in vain to keep up. Later there would be cold coffees in cheap cafes in steamy grey Mumbai, and in a Maharaja’s palace, surrounded by marble and mirrors. There would be chai, lots of it, whenever we wanted and when we didn’t. We had wine on roof tops, in a city so big I never saw the edges of it, and in the shadow of an ancient fort in the Blue City of Jodhpur. We were shown the world from a view that was not our own.
In Mumbai we worked in high schools, the Aseema Foundation and Muktangan schools, which provide education to children who would otherwise not be in school. Both of these are NGOs that work within government structures but provide a child-focused curriculum. The Muktangan program also supports members of local communities, mostly women, to train as teachers who thus become educators with community knowledge. These are inner city schools standing in the shadows of Bollywood excess in Bandra, and dwarfed by the corporate skyscrapers now built on the ruins of the old cotton mills in Parel. The intercultural conversations we shared in these schools are contextualised by what Geeta Kapur described twenty years ago as ‘a civil society in huge ferment… and a demographic scale that defies simple theories of hegemony’ (4). Old dichotomies of East and West are no longer relevant, if they ever were, as we look instead to foster connectivities in India-Australia relations through the potentialities of art.
In Jaipur we were welcomed as collaborators and co-creators, in a project that came to be called Sisters Sangam. Sangam means a confluence, especially of rivers, whose waters meet and become one. This approach bears out what Marsha Meskimmon argues for in the deployment of a cosmopolitan imagination, ‘… a dynamic exchange (in which) subjects are intercorporeal, transindividual and generous – open to encounters with very different others’ (5). The artists from Australia and Jaipur met in a new, purpose-built gallery at the City Palace in the heart of the Pink City. In a project driven by ‘an ethics of “giving” and “receiving,”’(6) we opened conversations with the idea of the sister-state relationship, and the power and generosity of the feminine connection, giving value to women’s experiences and narratives around meeting with and hosting the other.
Artists and their works surprised and challenged us as we invented solutions through collaboration. I worked on a large painting with Meena Mahawar and Shama Mawahar, craftswomen who work every day producing embroidered textiles at the NGO Princess Diya Kumari Foundation (PDKF). Without a common verbal language, the images we made, driven by local and traditional embroidery motifs, became important shared ground. Working together with ‘loving care’ we were able to begin to understand and accommodate our specific experiences (7). Jessie made soft-sculpture positives to fit the negative spaces of palace archways, with the problem-solving alacrity of the women of the PDKF and the prompt procurement of 40 kilograms of mattress stuffing. Jake made piles of hand-stitched fabric rocks, which, overlaid with audio and visual work by photographer Himanshu Vyas, formed an installation that evoked shared connections to place, home and belonging. Daniel and sculptor Hansraj Kumawat built a life-size steel camel in Hansraj’s studio to mark the shared histories of South Australian and Rajasthan cameleers. The measurable outcomes of the project include wide-reaching media coverage and an exhibition that was seen by tens of thousands of visitors (8). Harder to quantify are the relationships made and strengthened through engagement in ‘Conversations across boundaries of identity’(9).
The final week of the program was spent in high schools in Udaipur and Jodhpur. Maharana Mewar Public School in Udaipur is part of the Palace Complex, a 500-year-old fusion of Rajasthan and Mughal styles, which seems to rise up out of the tranquil waters of Lake Pichola. We stayed in the palace and took a boat over the lake as the red ball of the sun slipped down the sky. After two days of conversations and collaboration with students we left behind us, on a wall of the ancient palace, two murals marking the strong and enduring ties between South Australia and Rajasthan.
On my final day in Jodhpur, we went as tourists to the Mehrangarh Fort, high above the city. The architecture is breathtaking, from the huge entry gates, pocked with cannon ball holes, to the intricately carved Jaalis, the stone window screens that admit cool cross breezes but hide women’s faces from the outside world. We stopped and took photos of one another bathed in rainbow light that poured through stained glass windows. Riding back to our guest house, squashed together in the autorickshaw, peering out at the crush of traffic, I saw a dead horse on the roadside, its elegant white legs jutting out from under a canvas cover. This image stayed with me as we sped on, set free from its story to become part of my own. Stories, like the plaster trees and cardboard cities we made with students in Mumbai, grow into new worlds with the telling. Collaborative, intercultural arts practices are also active in the building of new worlds, worlds of lived truth and imagination, where hegemony gives way to a multitude of experiences, narratives and viewpoints.
Michelle Antoinette and Caroline Turner, Contemporary Asian Art and Exhibitions: connectivities and world-making, Australian National University, Canberra, 2014, p.23
Donna Haraway, ‘Situated Knowledges: The Science Question in Feminism and the Privilege of Partial Perspective,’ Feminist Studies, Vol. 14, No. 3 (Autumn, 1988), pp. 575-599, p.583
Kwame Anthony Appiah, Cosmopolitanism : ethics in a world of strangers, Allen Lane, London, 2006, p.38
Geeta Kapur, ‘Dismantled Norms: Apropos other Avantgardes,’ in Tradition and change: contemporary art of Asia and the Pacific, The University of Queensland Press, 1993, p.97
Marsha Meskimmon, Contemporary Art and the Cosmopolitan Imagination, Routledge, London, New York, 2011, p.6
Michelle Antoinette and Caroline Turner, Contemporary Asian Art and Exhibitions, 2014, p.33
Donna Haraway, 1988 p.583
Daniel Connell, Department of State Development South Australia - Indian Engagement Art Engagement Program Final Report, 2017
Appiah, 2006, p.85