fine print

Radical hospitality and the work of Mithu Sen

For fine print’s twenty-seventh issue, HOSPITALITY, artists Aakshat Sinha (Dehli) and Daniel Connell (Tarntanya/Adelaide) had a two-day conversation about their respective practices and the radical hospitality of Indian artist Mithu Sen.

Article by:

7 day Healing program through arts, Identity Art Mix Festival, Delhi, India, June 2019. Courtesy of IAM Festival.

Play Audio

Daniel: Aakshat, you trained as an engineer in Russia and then as an artist/painter. I see your art now as a creator of spaces for people to encounter ideas and each other. How is your practice of social engagement perceived in India?

Aakshat: Art in India and perhaps in Australia too, can’t let go of the (saleable) object.

D: Agree, yes.

A: But art at its core gives legitimacy to different voices. Art for me is a verb, not just an object of reverence or ridicule. I started this artist-run, multi-disciplinary festival called IAM — Identity Art Marathon (now Identity Art Mix) in a rented gallery space in Delhi. It ran for two years (until COVID-19) across 25 days and with over 40 art events.

D: Are such grass-roots art festivals common in India? You programmed Urdu calligraphy workshops alongside contemporary art exhibitions as well as stand-up comedy acts, how was that received?

A: Traditionally India has many festive gatherings using music, dance, puppetry and theatre. There are some corporate styled contemporary versions, but artist-run events are rare, and I know of none that juxtapose multiple art forms simultaneously. The audience for each IAM event is very different, possibly conservative, traditional, or contemporary but between events curiosity draws people into each other’s spaces.  The unsaid intention of the festival is to encourage interaction and create an atmosphere of acceptance. The festival’s success is defined by the diversity of age groups, of contrasting economic and social backgrounds conversing. The first year saw one thousand, the second almost four thousand visitors. I also run jointly with Ranjan Kaul, an online art blog Its intent is to deliberately undermine the use of inaccessible and alienating art language. As you know India has a massive population. Sometimes keeping people out is more a priority than inviting in—we wanted to invert that. We started a weekly Wednesday Clubhouse session for people to share opinions on art. These sessions are designed to welcome diverse voices to speak without fear of ridicule. Art should start conversations, not simply end with financial transactions.

D: In India there is this common phrase Atithi Devo Bhava, ‘the guest is God’. Every culture seems to pride itself on hospitality but this contrasts to how in reality the stranger is received, certainly in Australia.

A: This raises the complexity of how we see strangers, vs foreigners and guests. In India a stranger is someone who looks similar, but we don’t know them.  We tend to start from a visual stereotype. The foreigner is the person who looks different. In India the fairer the skin the better the treatment—an ugly colonial legacy. The guest is someone who has a right to be invited in. We generally don’t see strangers as guests. Daniel this is a conversation not an interview let me ask you, both India and Australia have a British colonial past, what is the stranger/guest dynamic there?

D: A huge question — Australia is a mosaic of Aboriginal nations with a recent settler history imposed. True custodians of the country only have the right to welcome. That’s not me. Maybe I am a stranger or a guest? India and the Aboriginal nations have this deep ancestry connection. In contemporary times, there have been many waves of migration to this country. The current wave is from India. Are you aware of this?

A: I know that a lot of my friends have shifted to Australia.

D: Do you know what their experience of hospitality has been here?

A: I haven’t heard anything bad but all of them are from affluent families. Money does allow people to blend into societies.

D: Yes, money from migrants is one of Australia’s biggest income streams (1). Migration is rarely spoken of as an industry but for Australia it is. Many migrants do struggle to get work and decent accommodation. In 2016 my friend Deva and I rented this relatively cheap place with five bedrooms then experimented with creating accommodation for migrants. We operate it like a share house. There’s no bond but there is one verbal contract, everyone agrees to be kind to each other. We had no money but furnished it with recycled furniture. Now over five years, 23 people have called it home and we still gather as the Matilda Street ‘family’ and have a WhatsApp group.  

Matilda Street, celebration of Noongar Elder Justin Mogridge’s birthday with Alison, Deva, Ashar, Puneet, Ashwini, Praveen, David, Ram. Photo: Daniel Connell

A: That is hospitality as art, sustained social practice.  I think of the term residual memory. Each person who comes through Matilda Street will recall different things. You and Deva have made the house a repository of collective conversations and events. When society stagnates art can re-vitalise it.

D: I agree. That’s mostly what art does. Art signifies that the unfamiliar is allowed to exist without a utilitarian imperative and social practice art prioritises the invisible between subjects rather than individual narratives. We have a lot to thank feminism for, which has exposed and re-valued this de-centred perspective. Griselda Pollock (2) and Bracha Ettinger (3) described the non-phobic response, enacted by women. The masculine body in contrast, must learn to welcome via cultural norms, social or religious expectations, rules of chivalry, Geneva conventions etc. Men must be taught explicitly ‘don’t kill the other’. Hosting an unknown entity, is deemed radical by patriarchy.

I want to draw in the work of Mithu Sen here. In the United States, Mithu inverted the norm by offering hospitality as a stranger/guest to local inhabitants. Mithu affirms the body as the only truly sovereign territory and site of hospitality. There is always this mix of insider and outsider going on in us. Mithu’s work challenges our fear of having the right to engage.

A: Mithu’s work doesn’t fit the ‘Indian’ bracket through the Western gaze of curators, but her work is extremely important: comforting, radical, hospitable, challenging and disruptive. Her ‘unhome’ work is called ‘radical hospitality’. In one iteration of this work she’s an Indian Artist-in-Residence in a New York apartment making documented and undocumented conversations over many days. Interestingly, Mithu could be the insider and the outsider, depending on which filter you use to define it; nationality or the occupancy of the apartment. Each visitor along with the artist build residual memory or some say the excess of encounter and this invisible phenomenon is the art.

D: I think Mithu’s work reclaims/invokes the Indian concept of darshan seeing all phenomena with ‘one eye’; the invisible witnessed too.

A: But offering hospitality is only the start, after we need to listen, argue, wrestle, respect, celebrate, laugh and socialise across difference, as you and I are doing now. Sustained relationship is the new and old work in making art. We are different and similar. This distinction makes us unique and common. The invisible is visually absent but omnipresent in ideas and made manifest in art. Hospitality is the womb of art.

Stills from Mithu Sen, Unhome, 2017,