The ordinary routines that held our days, the simple certainties that comforted us, the invisible cogs that moved us further along a road we called progress—they all tilted out of reach this past year as we braved a global pandemic. Navigating a storm of doubts, we sought an anchoring in terra firma, the solid ground of identity and home. In charting these inner terrains, we were free to investigate like artists do, roaming the countries of memory and inheritance, history and mythology, belonging and yearning, to create new maps for a new world.
Released from the grip of what-should-be, we could ask questions about what-could-be. Like, what is home? Once again like artists, we could break down the walls that constrained us to imagine a different kind of shelter. One that would lean into changing winds and offer an unflinching view of fault-lines, borders and chasms. Making art is the practice of getting comfortable with uncertainty. Of steadying the hand by turning the gaze inwards. Towards the multifaceted, reflective and ever-changing consciousness we call the self.
Perpetually in negotiation with itself, this consciousness thrives in the liminal spaces between binaries and it flourishes in the work of the three primary artists of Shifting Selves – Between meaning, mythology & mirage: Saju Kunhan, Saubiya Chasmawala and Rithika Merchant. Their creations come to life through alterations, manipulations and, often, rejections of the status-quo. By expressing their dissonance with a world straining to return to business as usual, they show us how we may stay a bit longer in the clarifying light of this in-between time.
A negotiation is clearly visible in Saju Kunhan’s Clouds over a landscape, a map of Delhi made on recycled panels of wood. He sheds light on his own—and the city’s—migrant identity by engaging with the subjectivity of maps and their function as history-making devices. The lines of belongingness are blurred as Kunhan quite literally reconstructs boundaries, walking in the shoes of the archivist himself. The technique of image-transfer from paper to wood follows the same intentions of reauthoring as he creates room for accidents, mistranslations and incompleteness.
Saubiya Chasmawala articulates her identity by capturing a conflict with its markers, particularly photography and calligraphy in her series, Batin. She morphs familiar visuals and alters their contexts to challenge authority as well as ideas of ownership. Whether by splicing personal photographs with her own interventions, or through repetitive, hypnotic drawings that render Arabic syllables into an abstraction, she is constantly negotiating with her presence (and absence) in a man-made society. Through these reinterpretations Chasmawallah opens the door to understanding the universal, instinctive need for meaning-making.
Rithika Merchant leaves universality behind as she leaps into the familiar constellations of mythology and subverts them with her retelling. The ubiquitous patriarchal lens of these myths is stripped away through the use of ungendered figurations. She rejects the concrete truths of capitalism for the freeing fluidity of a story still taking shape. Merchant’s practice investigates the modern human condition by playing witness to the monumental changes in our cultural, political and natural landscapes, exemplified best in Birth of a New World. In doing so, her images extend outwards into communality, to a place where home is no longer an individual state of mind. Moving towards a collective consciousness, her work brings the narrative of this show to a full circle.
Though we anchor our inquisitions in the work of these three artists, we also employ their practices as compass points to examine Sarmaya’s collection and spark dialogues that transcend epochs, cultures and mediums. In doing so, Shifting Selves invites you to stand at the ever-evolving crossroads of the self and let go of the familiar in exchange for a moment of the remarkable.