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Conversations on Tomorrow: 4 Indian galleries exhibit at Sadie Coles in London
Installation view.

LONDON.- “What comes after reason?” Bonaventure Soh Bejeng Ndikung asked last year. By addressing a strain of “reason” – a rational, canonizing, cerebral, and intoxicating form of thought prescribed by the West – Ndikung was adumbrating his intellectual resistance. In art, “reason” might suggest submission to the pervading institutional structures, and satisfying market predilections and aesthetic trends. For Ndikung, however, a departure and de-linking from “reason” would give way to the acknowledgement of what he calls the “multiplicity of beings, and the multiplicities of ways of being in the world – cognitively and phenomenologically”. It is in this spirit that this collaborative exhibition, Conversations on Tomorrow, presents the shape and variety of human terrains—both geographic and psychological—that manifest in and from South and Southeast Asia.

Across the exhibition, each artist cultivates an elastic approach that welcomes the complexity of human co-existence. Through diverse mediums, including painting, sculpture, etching and photography, the artworks speak to issues that, whilst responsive to each artist’s context, transcend them. Each piece extends itself to find universal resonance and offer a renewed understanding of our future. It is perhaps Ali Kazim’s watercolour, Untitled (Ratti Tibbi Series), 2017-18, that most directly addresses patterns of settlement and human interconnectivity. Shattered across a grid of nine white leaves of paper are fragments of terracotta vestiges from civilisations that once populated the Indus Valley around 3000 BCE to 1500 BCE. The variegated deposits form a collective portrait of extinct Harappan communities who revered and used its very matter to create functional items. The image, a visual trail into the past, simultaneously opens up the possibility of thinking forward to contemporary uses of land and shifts in settlement, and provokes the questions of what will be left littered across lands in the future.

Channel, 2014, a series of photographs by Simryn Gill, in its intimation of the conflict between human and ecological life, might suggest an answer. Day to day items –including fabric and plastic waste—cling to branches and wind themselves around roots exposed in a Malaysian mangrove, to the extent that they appear intrinsic to the landscape. There is a disquieting beauty in these objects that stray from the ocean to the land. But the images are singed with the pathos of human disregard for both possession and plant.

Mrinalini Mukherjee’s detailed and caring etchings of verdant landscapes contrastingly implicate the joy of being in nature. These lively images, like Landscape I, 1980, where trees loosen from their roots and dance, have a diaristic quality and form a tender record of Mukherjee’s observations and admiration for India’s ecology.

Prabhakar Pachpute expands on the volatile human relationship to land. His practice has long been invested in exploring humankind’s reliance on the earth’s abundance and the environmental transformations occasioned by this dependency. In Resilient Bodies in an era of Resistance, 2018, a network of soil-clump cutouts, arranged like a tunnel route to treasure, responds to the recent protests and collective action by Indian farmers against the threat of legislative disfiguration of agricultural rights. A body atop this mound strains from a weight mounted on its back, and Pachpute’s sculpture, Rattling Knot II, 2020, comprising a pyramidal mass doubling down on and almost consuming several pairs of legs, relates the exhausted worker’s body. In this apocalyptic world, the extractive practices and the political policies that skew them warp all.

These are challenges that are as local as they are international, as contemporary as they are historic. It might take the visionary thinking alluded to in KM Mudhusudhanan’s work, Conversations with Black, 2019-2022, to reach resolution. Across sixteen charcoal drawings, flattened to the extent that they appear as prints, he considers the malleability of belief systems—be they religious or political—specifically addressing the theory of classical singer Ustad Bade Ghulam Ali Khan (1902-1968) who regarded art and music as forces capable of stimulating cross-cultural unification. In Mudhusudhanan’s incongruous patchwork of images, items appeal to this idea of music as a consolidatory force; a small gramophone is cradled in wire and a bundle of microphones form a bulbous mass. Miniature mannequins are depicted jostling with toy animals as monuments fall.

This “inventory of lost utopias”, as described by Nancy Adajania, shares in its discord with Atul Dodiya’s reloaded Wunderkammer. Encased in shallow wooden cabinets, with apertures shaped like easels, is a collection of trinkets integrated with a monochrome sequence of images. Each depiction is a citation drawn from Dodiya’s close watching and recollection of a seven-minute section of Hitchcock’s Blackmail that focuses on a fatal struggle between a woman and an artist. This storyboard, filtered through Dodiya’s memory and fragmented by his miscellanea, visible through the shape-shifting windows, invites more imaginative associations.

Where Radhika Khimji draws on an array of techniques, combining photography with painting and embroidery, it is to reimagine geographies. In dense and majestic images and installations, Khimji dramatizes and abstracts aspects of the environment. In xxxx (I’m waiting for the title) photographs that once captured caves in the Al-Hajar mountain range in Oman are turned into surfaces for embellishment. Small lozenge markings, based on beads from the god Krishna’s necklaces, appear like ideograms. The tightly wound patterns churn and revolve, open and seeking interpretation.

The simplicity of Mithu Sen’s mark making belies the intensity of her work, Until you 206, 2021-2022. With a pinpoint she pierces paper to form a suite of images that itemise the human skeleton. In Sen’s idiosyncratic anatomical diagrams bones are shown shattered, hands are bloodied and each body part is labelled with a date. The dates reference a timeline, accessible via QR code, which records outbursts of violence in India’s post-Independence history. It is not that Sen consigns these incidents to the past; she deploys them as part of an incomplete monument that anticipates the persistence of brutality. Bound up in each image is therefore pain and premonition suffused with acute anxiety.

Anju Dodiya’s figurative four-piece tableau explores emotional intensities that fester and flare up in the home. A hand here bleeds too, speared by the stem of a plant. Dodiya’s canvases are plumped up by padding and struck through into grids. Across them women are disfigured, seemingly by their pursuits and the domestic settings where many were confined during the pandemic. With flashes of colour there is, however, allusion to the small pleasures—books, gardens, food— that some were able to ace. As a dichotomous view of this period, the images sit between joy and pain, celebration and commemoration.

Conversations on Tomorrow is, in its broadest sense, a provocation to, as Ndikuj suggests, advance perspectives and diffract understandings of place and people. Throughout the works, the interplay between bodies—visible or assumed— and those very real and those imagined environments attests to the versatility of the multiple global South Asias that abound today.

Dr Cleo Roberts-Komireddi

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