© Shaheen Merali

“Who knows what you said…?

Who knows what I heard?

Some thing stirred in my heart.”1

………is an excerpt from the lyrics of a song featured in the seminal film, Pyaasa, written by the legendary actor and film director Guru Dutt. In these few words, a brief exchange occurs that encapsulates the premise of this exhibition – the desire to know and be touched by what is known and felt by someone else.

The two artists in this exhibition, Reena Kallat and Sara Rahbar, live on different continents, Asia and North America, or sometimes on the same one, namely Asia (India and Iran), from where their observations about the nature of power as it effects belonging informs their individual practices.

Their work speaks about concerns and caution, in a time when power re-infects those already weakened by how it has been nurtured in a post-global society, of absolutes that have made our world spiral into an existential meltdown with the gradual erosion of rights and mobility; – a set of conditions that is leading to an increment in the condition of subalternity. 2 This subaltern status that results from the rise of neo-liberalist cosmopolitanism and a hegemonic globalization, has disturbed fragile states and complicates economic relationships along gender, tribal, ethnic and racial lines.

“If Winter comes, can Spring be far away?” 3

A feeling of intensity, with grimacing smiles, unites the look of the three portraits that are present in the exhibition. Fused with an uncontrollable shyness, these faces speak of subjugating accounts which have drained the meaning from their lives – a significance that alludes logic but produces a tragic effect for those who have succumbed to its finality. These three portraits speak of a terminus, of lives which seem to be tainted by a bitter sadness in a quivering space of the unaccepted……in a form of statelessness, a curbed life or a trampled future.

The work that Kallat has been producing can be seen as part of a growing realization in the picturing of the victims of post-global reality. The recent and sudden drop in status of many people from certain regions of India, Pakistan and Bangladesh, who were dependent on patterns of mass migration for their economic survival, has come to provide a vivid portrayal of the victims of the contemporary haste to build and the shadows remaining in the reversal of this trend. Like a rudderless raft by the wayside of international abandon, these courageous souls, who had trawled their way through multitudes of notary agents and officialdom to win over the processes of bureaucracy, are now abandoned in a no-mans land. Here, between economies and between national recessions, they exist virtually, on paper and by symbolic agreements that no longer can be afforded.

Kallat employs rubberstamps in her sculptural works that talk of the selected method given to this signifier of notional belonging, of an identifiable winner in the contest in life’s lottery for official approval. Here these faceless pedestrians remain indebted to these much-valued stamps, an act that seals their fate and proffers a certain clemency, an escape from hunger and unemployment, one more hurdle overcome in a life which constructs always one more hurdle. These sculptures, Synonyms and Colour Curtain (between shores and the seas) are partly summations of their partaking in the arduous process of bureaucracy and of access or denial beyond the border. Often these stamps are themselves the very force that restricts access.

Her portrayal of the barriers and of cross-border travelers is an ode to the scatterlogical effects of labor in the way globalisation has effectively used Asia and Asians. If there was a primal axis of globalisation, it was in the way that people became an asset, moved around or kept in place by these acts of decree. Driven by their need to survive beyond the daily rations of imploded Asian densities and realities, the fantasy of globalisation provided the impulse, the strength and, in some cases, the eventual possibility to forsake the meager economic standards of their homeland. The possibilities of a grander vision of hub capitals and shopping cities, emerging out of deserts and global nightmares, created an insatiable, tameless ambition amongst the subalterns, responding to the swift and loud calling for their bodies.

It was in this uncontrollable moment of labor as goods, trickling slowly but surely from Asia, and especially South East Asia, to quivering impetuous states by the Arabian Seas that a dark turn in the world’s economic fortunes started to make itself felt.

Central to the sculptural works, particularly the large-scale portraits, Synonyms, assembled from the type of rubber stamps commonly used in offices is a jigsaw of the rejected or disappeared, magically re-appearing like a forlorn apparition. Their benign gaze is made manifest in an aura of a contemporary recording that charts the demise of the right to entry or existence. Never before has the sense of the globally contrite been so finely explored.

A fierce desperation, of loss and the lost is further developed in the accompanying works on paper, Your Mileage May Vary; here aspirations and expectations, displacement and un-belonging are found within a maze of restrictions and controls. It is a truism that all opposites attract and repel, like black and white and these spills and the topographically drawn co-exist on one plane. In this way Colour Curtain (between shores and the seas) is physically formed by linking differing information within one site; that of a set of rubberstamps carrying the names of individuals who have been denied visas to various countries on the basis of their class, culture, nation, religion, politics or other such notions of personal identity in combination with colors derived from various national flags.

Your Mileage May Vary takes a similar re-routing of details of individuals’ names and combines them with maps and mazes to suggest lost journeys and unending departures or arrivals. Kallat states “Even as cultures blend with a greater movement of people and information than any moment in human history, borders have become more controlled and monitored than ever before”.4 The contemporary border has ceased to be mere crossings but more a space in which the contraband and the pirated in terms of goods, people and modern slavery is enforced and exchanged. Your Mileage May Vary starts to suggest such a sinister domain, a new place full of sorcerers and gangsters and pirates who make things disappear and where children, women, drugs, organs and arms remain un-rendered, undocumented. This maze of officialdom creates a seemingly haunted place, redolent with both mystery and misery. These occluded spaces remain indicative of a crisis in constant appropriation and the mist of realities that paralyses normality. Borders are no longer guarded domains but contested environments and we have to ask what is their purpose and whom do they really serve? They are, after all, grounds in which to plunder, rape and dehumanize our already demoralized world, in this existential crisis. Kallat asks here not who we are but what we have become.

The sartorial rage

Sara Rahbar’s Those expectations for sunshine is a series of tightly arranged material, which is highly suggestive in its mixed provenance, making the audience react instantly to its redolent references of today’s regrets and future’s fears.

The title, Those expectations for sunshine, already proposes such a prospect but it is in the correlation and co-relatedness of the prints and their signifiers that one starts to unravel the meaning of what is implied. An old Afghan coat reveals its inner lining to be sewn from an American flag and a set of the Islamic Republic of Iran’s flag droops in a post-coital fashion from a set of old wooden pulleys. This set of flags and garments are foundational sources, which have, over a period of time, come to represent specific and contrary historical accounts. In viewing them together, a unique set of values springs forth in an assembly of suspiring images. Symbolically, the American flag has now come to represent a spectrum of beliefs, of divergent statuses; some see it a symbol of evil and others see it as a force of civility, whilst the flag of Iran has recently been more internationally recognized for its emerging discourse around its own second revolution. Within these two diametrically spirited symbols, the Afghan coat, once a symbol of the relaxed urbanity of the sixties, starts to veer away from its popular but faded hippiedom and begins to mourn the sustained campaign of war and its driving force, opium. Rahbar delineates the space for consideration by stimulating us, nudging us to think in terms of combinative suggestions- specifically as to what do these three countries mean to us now?

Rahbar is an adept inventor, often astutely combining factors so as to give unusual capital to an image, a brief of complicit arrangements, wherein chaste meanings are combined and a sort of visual combustion, that often challenges assumptions, allows a discursive release. Those expectations for sunshine speaks to its audience through the use of everyday objects and, in drawing them into close proximity, the lack of rationale in the overriding globally recognized geographies of values is exposed.

She offers an exploration of the dilemma about where freedom is now represented in the world and which places do we consider to form our diametric opposite – the axis of our evils. We are left to see and feel the taste of our politics and our hypocrisy in an arrangement of stains and symbols.

The photographic series, Love arrived and how red, focuses on an unfulfilled, maybe even failed, human condition of stricken love which she astutely weaves to create a metaphoric reading of the deplorable state of both the nation-state and society. She employs her band of symbols including the flag, the uniform and the proxy dressing of formalizing liaisons- a wedding dress. A complicated set of Hogarthian images emerges, filled with pain and details of distance, of one season and another treason, of traps and of shame as the series evolves into a culmination of probable death, suicide or matricide – an immense underworld of distorted emotions and a calculated soaring of the out of control.

Love arrived and how red interrogates the common institutionalized methods of organizing life and ambition within a heterosexual (therefore normative) praxis, resulting in a lethal set of symbolic and emotional encounters. The premise explodes in the midst of the very act of coming together, of an imagined set of possibilities which combust to proclaim the impossibility of happiness or of bilateral belonging. The images suggest that all enstrangements and differences slowly crumble under their own imperfections and predict their own eventual undoing, revealing only opposites that fight and flee.

The failure that these images argue is inherent in all socially approved relationships and the weakness apparent in all political acts including diplomacy, is here made evident. The male and female couple, dressed as bride and groom in a set of tribal and nationalistic outfits, make explicit the ‘war’ of the last thirty years of the two countries represented, delineating a contrary Iran, its face turned deliberately away from the USA.

Rahbar is passionate in her choice of textures and fabrics, as is evident in her lengthy conversations with thirty odd assemblages known as the Flag series. The authority gained, both from the process of making and from drawing from research to understand the meanings and qualities of a constructed world of textiles and embroideries, finds itself in her photographic series Love arrived and how red and, in a more subdued manner, in the recent You have come late, and I have lost my chastity.

Nuances, pertaining to gender, power and animalism, are subtly used to allow a fine-tuning between the protagonists, leaving a sour taste around notions of nationalisms, imbued and directed within and without the frame. Both series of works are not meant to be discrete discussions on gender relationships but rather to use symbolism and a sense of movement that collapses the space in between to reveal a caustic narrative.

The dramatic lighting, the costumes and the theatricality, including the army paraphernalia and the flags in Love arrived and how red, the gangsters’ suit and the dark tights in You have come late, and I have lost my chastity have obvious connotations for any spectator, tracing and binding our sense of a vocabulary drawn from the anthropological to the cinematic. Both series remain unapologetic in using the ambition and structure drawn from the cinematic and this usage allows the work to construct many paradoxical relationships of a complexity that depends on our relation to the history of this genre.

You have come late, and I have lost my chastity plays on our recognition of these images, from some sort of image bank that is derivative of dance forms and soap operas, where women are forced into submission by force and the act of aggression is based on notions of sexuality. The notion of honor killings, domestic violence and crimes of passion come to mind, but the slow releasing violence in Lynchian slow motion provides a vantage position from which to understand the place of violence in our world. As Hannah Arendt explains “The more dubious and uncertain an instrument violence has become in international relations, the more it has gained in reputation and appeal in domestic affairs, specifically in the matter of revolution.”5

Lets prepare today so that tomorrow we don’t stare at the cries of darkness.

Many are those who have recently been talking about patterns that have developed in the first part of this new millennium, particularly from the seminal events of its first decade, which now affect all of us so sharply. The notion of suicide, in terms of frequency and those who use it is as a weapon, seems to be one of the most excessive, costly and maybe, even unsustainable traits of the new millennium. Travel, borders and security are all recognizable issues of concern that protrude into every second of our postmodern realities.

No longer can we be certain of any route or place beyond the fact that the whole world and all its peoples are now burdened and on the verge of serious crisis, anytime and anywhere. The constancy of threat and the doom and gloom in situ, has affected many artists’ practices and, like many others in the creative fields, they are trying to come to terms with this situation from within their own particular language, history and abilities to contextualize these hyperbolic times.

Their concern and the potency of the current state of exception, of a global apartheid and of internal strife, marks a defining shift from the discourses of wholehearted globalization, where subject or subjectivity were located by cross borders’ references. Never Run Away discusses an account of the ebbing dynamics of unrealized citizenship, not the recent here or there, but a constant without everywhere.

Never run away is a curatorial premise based on those who no longer can run away. It brings together an understanding of the place of not belonging, an exposed fracas, a non-consensual image of cruelty which binds and confers “an anotherness” within, that is starting to be examined forcefully by artists and writers who share a historical and cultural similarity.

In a world of multiple themes and anthologies, the chaos that these terms of loss, disappearance and holding back create, provides an omnivorous, sociological and artistic push for any enquiry. It is through its indexical qualities that it provides an enriched metaphoric ground for further private contestations.

Particularly in this remarkable passage of history, of the credit crunch and hibernating institutions, of unilateral ‘just wars’ and some of the most uncertain global conditions, it is important to take stock of this “worlding” and this exhibition, Never run away, alongside other emerging forums that represent the post-market dialogue, provides an invaluable space in which to study the predicament of culture at a time of deflation and when the ebb is the condition acting as a stimulation in comprehending culture. As Simone de Beauvoir explains “I tore myself away from the safe comfort of certainties through my love for truth — and truth rewarded me.”6

1.       Pyaasa, lyrics from Jaane Kya Tune Kahi, Directed by Guru Dutt, 1957.

2.       “A person rendered without agency by his or her social status”. Robert Young J. C., Postcolonialism: A Very Short Introduction. (New York: Oxford University Press), 2003.

3.       P.B.Shelley ‘Ode to the West Wind’ English Poems. Ed. Edward Chauncey Baldwin. New York: American Book Company, 1908.

4.       Reena Kallat, unpublished e-mail Dec 2009.

5.       Hannah Arendt, On Revolution, New York: Viking, 1963.

6.       Simone de Beauvoir All Said and Done p. 16, 1972.

Shaheen Merali is a curator and writer based in London.