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WAG exhibition focuses on Indian subcontinent's turbulent past and hopeful future

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 9/5/2019 (462 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Though India is the second most populous country in the world, work by modern Indian artists is all too rarely seen in Canadian galleries. 

Art preview

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Vision Exchange: Perspectives from India to Canada

  • Winnipeg Art Gallery
  • Free public opening Saturday, May 11, 7 p.m.
  • Runs to Sept. 8

The Winnipeg Art Gallery’s Vision Exchange: Perspectives From India to Canada aims to redress that wrong with a bold exhibition that challenges western views and perceptions about India’s past and its present.

"It’s a chance to understand India," Stephen Borys, director and CEO of the WAG, says, "its histories, its geographies, the politics, the diaspora and even the pre- and post-colonial conversations, to learn from the perspective of Indian artists, to understand better how they see themselves, how they see their country, whether they’re living in Canada or India or London.

"The same way we are championing art as a voice for the Inuit Art Centre, the strongest and the only voice here is the voice of the people who are connected to this country."

Sunil Gupta's photographic diptychs (left wall)</p>

Sunil Gupta's photographic diptychs (left wall)

The show, which originated as part of the NGC@AGA exhibition series, a collaboration between the National Gallery of Canada in Ottawa and the Art Gallery of Alberta in Edmonton, was at the Art Museum at the University of Toronto in March. After its Winnipeg Art Gallery stop, which runs to Sept. 8, it moves to the MacKenzie Art Gallery in Regina and then the National Gallery. Curated by Catherine Crowston of the Art Gallery of Alberta and Jonathan Shaughnessy at the National Gallery of Canada, it features more than 150 works by 20 artists in about 6,000 square feet of gallery space.

The exhibition’s title, Vision Exchange, comes from the name of an artistic workshop founded by Indian painter Akbar Padamsee between 1969 and 1972. The Vision Exchange Workshop, or VIEW, aimed to bring together painters, sculptors, writers, filmmakers and photographers from across the country.

The gallery has re-created Padamsee’s studio apartment in Bombay (now Mumbai), where these artists from many disciplines met to talk about contemporary and avant garde art in India, which, at just two decades after the bitter events of Partition in 1947, was in a state of disruption.

Thukral & Tagra’s Farmer is a wrestler (detail), 2018, is a work addressing the crisis among farmers in the Punjab, where at least 7,000 have committed suicide in the last 15 years. (Carolyn B. Heller)

Thukral & Tagra’s Farmer is a wrestler (detail), 2018, is a work addressing the crisis among farmers in the Punjab, where at least 7,000 have committed suicide in the last 15 years. (Carolyn B. Heller)

The exhibition moves on to encompass Padamsee’s vision, including modern work from photographers, video artists, painters, multimedia artists and more.

"We’ve tried to maintain the organization not by chronology but by theme; however, it intersects and it overlaps," Borys says of the exhibition’s three main ideas: histories, land and borders and diasporas. 

Thukral & Tagra’s Farmer is a wrestler incorporates visions of domesticity and the land — wall sconces are arranged in the shape of the River Beas in the Punjab — around a piece that represents the desperate struggle of agricultural workers, showing men engaged in a traditional form of wrestling.

Sunil Gupta’s photographic diptychs, from his series Homelands, are moving, meaningful juxtapositions of scenes from places the HIV-positive artist has lived — Delhi, New York, Montreal and Toronto — which reflect different parts of his life and history. The viewer sees worlds that exist within a single man: cosmopolitan, ancient, modern and traditional.

Gupta’s work is in some ways representative of much of the exhibition, which addresses conflict, both inner and outer, in clear artistic language.

"I’ve never seen such a proficient way, through art, to deal with issues that have been misunderstood or improperly told," Borys says, adding that if there’s an esthetic trait binding the work together, it’s an innovative graphic and photographic element. 

"Here’s a perfect example," Borys continues, gesturing at Sarindar Dhaliwal’s striking The cartographer’s mistake: the Radcliffe Line, a vivid marigold map of the Indian subcontinent created by the Punjab-born artist, who now lives in Toronto.

Sarindar Dhaliwal's work entitled The Cartographer's Mistake: the Radcliffe Line.

Sarindar Dhaliwal's work entitled The Cartographer's Mistake: the Radcliffe Line.

"We know the division between India and Pakistan," Borys says, referring to the drawing of borders in 1947, after the passing of the Indian Independence Act, in a way that would leave as many Hindus and Sikhs in India and Muslims in Pakistan as possible. The task was left to British lawyer Cyril Radcliffe, who had never visited India. 

"But when you read the text or understand how the artist was able to talk about this quite frankly — that a non-Indian person decided where that line would be — but then to use an Indian flower, it’s a beautiful work but it’s laden with serious politics."

Much of the work is similarly didactic, with a point of view that’s often understandable without needing to read the accompanying placard. But that doesn’t mean it’s lacking in whimsy or humour.

Take Winnipeg artist Divya Mehra’s monumental work, titled Afterlife of Colonialism, a reimagining of Power: It’s possible that the Sun has set on your Empire OR Why your voice does not matter: Portrait of an Imbalanced, and yet contemporary diasporic India vis-à-vis Colonial Red, Curry Sauce Yellow, and Paradise Green, placed neatly beneath these revived medieval forms: The Challenges of entering a predominately White space (Can you get this in the gift shop?) where all Women and Magical Elephants may know this work, here in your Winnipeg, among all my Peers. (Mehra intentionally uses the strike-through in the title.)

A reimagining of the Taj Mahal — the 17th century marble mausoleum in Agra — as a green, inflatable bouncy castle, the 4.5-metre tall structure has been installed in the WAG’s historical salon amid gilt-framed paintings by mostly white European male artists. 

Divya Mehra’s Afterlife of Colonialism, a reimagining of Power… turns the Taj Mahal into a bouncy castle. (Supplied)

Divya Mehra’s Afterlife of Colonialism, a reimagining of Power… turns the Taj Mahal into a bouncy castle. (Supplied)

By reducing this grand achievement in Indo-Islamic architecture to the equivalent of an Instagram-friendly fun-house attraction, Mehra comments on the way tourism and commercialization diminish iconic sites, which have become reproduced on keychains and in snow globes until their historic meaning is lost.

Less grand in scale, but equally provocative, are Mumbai artist Shilpa Gupta’s framed works of white thread on white paper. Each filament outlines the shape of a different tree — mango, pecan, olive — but the simple beauty of the pieces is undercut with the artist’s note that the thread’s length is in ratio to the length of different border fences in the areas where those trees grow.

Borys believes the work in Vision Exchange and the way it addresses such issues as colonialism and forced migration will resonate with audiences who might not expect such a bold approach.

"What are people’s perceptions of what is Indian art today?" he asks. "Is it the 18th-century watercolours? Is it the Nepalese bronzes?

"This is all contemporary art and I think it will be an eye-opener, even for some in our Indian community."

Twitter: @dedaumier

Jill Wilson

Jill Wilson
Senior copy editor

Jill Wilson writes about culture and the culinary arts for the Arts & Life section.

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Updated on Thursday, May 9, 2019 at 10:41 PM CDT: Fixes photo captions

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