Indian and Pakistani artists exhibit at the Venice Biennale


Indian and Pakistani artists exhibit at the Venice Biennale

My East Is Your West is a historic collaboration

By Georgina Maddox  May 12th, 2015

It all began over a cup of coffee at the Venice Biennale in 2013. Pakistani artist Rashid Rana and philanthropist Feroze Gujral were discussing the conspicuous absence of a permanent Indian or Pakistani pavilion at the world’s biggest contemporary art exhibition. India had shown there somewhat cohesively for the first time only two years earlier, and Pakistan, way back in 1956. These representations, according to them, had not been much more than “tokenistic” either.

“After grumbling for a bit, we both realised that if things were going to change, we would have to change them. This is when we floated the idea of an India-Pakistan exhibition,” says the Lahore-based artist, who encountered visa problems which kept him from attending the Kochi-Muziris Biennale (KMB) in December last year, where the historic My East Is Your West project was announced. This collateral event at the 56th Venice Biennale aims to foster a meaningful cross-border conversation between the mercurial neighbours and disable cultural clichés that dog the subcontinent.

The patron

Feroze Gujral is the genuine article in the way that matters most: she provides the financial muscle for beleaguered practitioners to be able to dream and invent in a largely apathetic political atmosphere. The ex-model and entrepreneur took up the cause in 2009 when she started The Gujral Foundation along with architect husband Mohit, son of Satish Gujral, doyen of contemporary art in India. The non-profit trust has since funded and promoted several important initiatives, including both editions of the vulnerable-and-game changing KMB. And now for the unprecedented My East Is Your West, she has partnered with Martina Mazzotta, head curator of the Fondazione Antonio Mazzotta, who is overseeing programming of the collateral events at Venice.

The exhibition, which is housed in the 18th-century Palazzo Benzon, in the centre of Venice on the Grand Canal, suggests an alternative universe in which the two countries have negotiated their complex, entwined histories and rubbed away the fault lines. Both regions, incredibly, will present as a single entity. “While we share a common history, we have a divided present. We are now working together for a more collaborative future,” she says.  

The artists

While Rana, 46, represents Pakistan, friend and contemporary, Mumbai-based Shilpa Gupta, 38, is the Indian face of the project. Gupta was the obvious choice as her work has dealt with cross-border themes since the mid-’90s. Her notable Aar Paar series (2002-2006), a public art exchange project, which she initiated along with Pakistani artist Huma Mulji, had artists from both countries swapping posters depicting notions of unity and separation and mounting them across public spaces in Karachi and Mumbai. “While Aar Paar was really an exchange programme, for My East Is Your West, I worked in proximity with Rashid to examine our overlapping concerns,” says Gupta. Concerns like dislocation, transnational belonging and the impact of cultural and political conditioning in determining our identities will be matters of contention. Rana is good for it.

He’s actually managed to dissolve borders with his distinctive oeuvre, becoming one of few artists with a stronghold in both countries. His layered work, in which first glances are nearly always deceptive and the truth is made clear only upon closer inspection, seeks to explode ideas of what we think we know. Consider his 2004 Veil Series: depictions of burqa-clad figures end up being collages of blurred pornographic stills of women when viewed up close, calling out the hypocrisy of objectifying women while expecting them to be ambassadors of Muslim culture.

At the Biennale, Rana challenges East-West dichotomies: “I want to create five rooms and encourage viewers to walk through each, treating it as a chapter in a book that connects Venice, Lahore and Delhi.” Gupta similarly wants to “point out that people are not monoliths of a single culture or gender; they are different and individualistic.” Right now, she is fascinated by the symbol of the fence, which like borders, “is porous and defunct,” and uses it in her work.  

The curator

Creatively shepherding the project is Berlin-based Natasha Ginwala, who at 29 has enormous experience behind her already. Besides contributing regularly to international art journals, she was a member of the artistic team at the 8th Berlin Biennale for Contemporary Art last year as well as curator for a short film project titled Metabolic States: Becoming Image at KMB.

As curatorial advisor and curator of public programming for the project, Ginwala feels that even the venue is in sync with the intention. “The Palazzo Benzon was owned by the Contessa Marina Querini Benzon, whose soirées attracted creative minds (Lord Byron, Ugo Foscolo) from all over the world. Our project also unites artists from disparate regions and I can say that Gupta and Rana will deal with time and location as the overarching theme.”   

My East Is Your West is showing at the 56th Venice Biennale from May 5 to October 31. Labiennale.org

Photograph: Dwaipayan Mazumdar

It all began over a cup of coffee at the Venice Biennale in 2013. Pakistani artist Rashid Rana and philanthropist Feroze Gujral were discussing the conspicuous absence of a permanent Indian or Pakistani pavilion at the world’s biggest contemporary art exhibition. India had shown there somewhat cohesively for the first time only two years earlier, and Pakistan, way back in 1956. These representations, according to them, had not been much more than “tokenistic” either.

“After grumbling for a bit, we both realised that if things were going to change, we would have to change them. This is when we floated the idea of an India-Pakistan exhibition,” says the Lahore-based artist, who encountered visa problems which kept him from attending the Kochi-Muziris Biennale (KMB) in December last year, where the historic My East Is Your West project was announced. This collateral event at the 56th Venice Biennale aims to foster a meaningful cross-border conversation between the mercurial neighbours and disable cultural clichés that dog the subcontinent.

The patron

Feroze Gujral is the genuine article in the way that matters most: she provides the financial muscle for beleaguered practitioners to be able to dream and invent in a largely apathetic political atmosphere. The ex-model and entrepreneur took up the cause in 2009 when she started The Gujral Foundation along with architect husband Mohit, son of Satish Gujral, doyen of contemporary art in India. The non-profit trust has since funded and promoted several important initiatives, including both editions of the vulnerable-and-game changing KMB. And now for the unprecedented My East Is Your West, she has partnered with Martina Mazzotta, head curator of the Fondazione Antonio Mazzotta, who is overseeing programming of the collateral events at Venice.

The exhibition, which is housed in the 18th-century Palazzo Benzon, in the centre of Venice on the Grand Canal, suggests an alternative universe in which the two countries have negotiated their complex, entwined histories and rubbed away the fault lines. Both regions, incredibly, will present as a single entity. “While we share a common history, we have a divided present. We are now working together for a more collaborative future,” she says.  

The artists

While Rana, 46, represents Pakistan, friend and contemporary, Mumbai-based Shilpa Gupta, 38, is the Indian face of the project. Gupta was the obvious choice as her work has dealt with cross-border themes since the mid-’90s. Her notable Aar Paar series (2002-2006), a public art exchange project, which she initiated along with Pakistani artist Huma Mulji, had artists from both countries swapping posters depicting notions of unity and separation and mounting them across public spaces in Karachi and Mumbai. “While Aar Paar was really an exchange programme, for My East Is Your West, I worked in proximity with Rashid to examine our overlapping concerns,” says Gupta. Concerns like dislocation, transnational belonging and the impact of cultural and political conditioning in determining our identities will be matters of contention. Rana is good for it.

He’s actually managed to dissolve borders with his distinctive oeuvre, becoming one of few artists with a stronghold in both countries. His layered work, in which first glances are nearly always deceptive and the truth is made clear only upon closer inspection, seeks to explode ideas of what we think we know. Consider his 2004 Veil Series: depictions of burqa-clad figures end up being collages of blurred pornographic stills of women when viewed up close, calling out the hypocrisy of objectifying women while expecting them to be ambassadors of Muslim culture.

At the Biennale, Rana challenges East-West dichotomies: “I want to create five rooms and encourage viewers to walk through each, treating it as a chapter in a book that connects Venice, Lahore and Delhi.” Gupta similarly wants to “point out that people are not monoliths of a single culture or gender; they are different and individualistic.” Right now, she is fascinated by the symbol of the fence, which like borders, “is porous and defunct,” and uses it in her work.  

The curator

Creatively shepherding the project is Berlin-based Natasha Ginwala, who at 29 has enormous experience behind her already. Besides contributing regularly to international art journals, she was a member of the artistic team at the 8th Berlin Biennale for Contemporary Art last year as well as curator for a short film project titled Metabolic States: Becoming Image at KMB.

As curatorial advisor and curator of public programming for the project, Ginwala feels that even the venue is in sync with the intention. “The Palazzo Benzon was owned by the Contessa Marina Querini Benzon, whose soirées attracted creative minds (Lord Byron, Ugo Foscolo) from all over the world. Our project also unites artists from disparate regions and I can say that Gupta and Rana will deal with time and location as the overarching theme.”   

My East Is Your West is showing at the 56th Venice Biennale from May 5 to October 31. Labiennale.org

Photograph: Dwaipayan Mazumdar