Interview: Alnoor Mitha with Reena Saini Kallat,2015


1.  Can you please tell us about your current work and how it deals with the wider discourse of Contemporary Geopolitics in contemporary art?

Reena- Thinking about ‘geopolitics in contemporary art’ is not a space I start working from, so I am not sure how to answer this question. Artists not only challenge fixed positions but also help redefine them through the very nature of their work and while doing so, propose a re-articulation of geographies. One is increasingly seeing interesting work come out of completely unexpected regions and locations that would have earlier seemed remote and distant. And it is primarily from these briskly transforming locations, that one might look beyond the known frontiers, to perceive a differentiated view of the world.

My recent body of work titled Porous Passages builds on ideas of unison and estrangement, on confluence and conflict through politically partitioned countries that often have to share their natural world and thus various natural resources. While national symbols are intended to unite people, they often become points of contestation and conflict, when countries try and monopolise these by claiming ownership; on occasion they even become the root cause of separation.

In Hyphenated lives the new hybridised species of birds and animals, trees and flowers are a coming together of what individually get foregrounded as national symbols from countries now partitioned, birds like (Chukar and Peacock in the case of Pakistan and India, or the Hoopoe for Israel and the Palestinian Sunbird), animals like (the red deer and lion in case of Ireland and UK, or the Markhor and Tiger for Pakistan and India), trees (Sessile Oak and Royal Oak in case of Ireland and UK, Olive for both Israel and Palestine) flowers (Magnolia and Hibiscus for North and South Korea respectively or the Lotus and Jasmine for India and Pakistan). Being native to the same land they symbolically seem to unify the nations they represent, offering a peek into such a moment of unison, in what seems to be either an evidence from the past or propositions for an imaginary future.

In Siamese Trees and Half Oxygen, closely woven forms of the Banyan tree and the Deodar tree, both designated as national trees of India and Pakistan respectively are seen growing like conjoined twins, with one half being formed by each. They are perhaps evidence of the defiance of nature in accepting the artificially imposed divisions on the ground. Through the analogy between the human body and nature in Half Oxygen these trees permeate lungs, while in Anatomy of Distance the woven wires become a spinal column, taking the contorted shape of the ‘Line of Control’ drawn between the two warring nations.

In Ruled Paper, the electric wires emerge on empty sheets of paper piercing even the most basic medium of communication, still to be inscribed, with the boundaries that divide us.

2.     I am particularly interested in the way your work weaves critical ideas around migration, identity politics, a work that stuck in my mind was, (Untitled) Map Drawing?

The flows and movements of travellers, migrants, labour across the world have produced major social and economic implications as well as new forms of cultural exchange. It has not only allowed us to free cultural identities from a physical place but see us all as entwined in a symbolic web as it were.

I made (Untitled) Map/Drawing when I was invited to conceive of a work for the Goteborg Konsthall during the 2011 biennale, keeping Sarat Maharaj’s curatorial premise in mind. I was thinking of the trade between Sweden and India and wanted to work with yarn. I eventually decided to work with electric wires to form the drawing that would trace migration patterns globally, where multitude of actors interact without knowledge of the overall situation. While technology and commerce are blurring geographic boundaries, there are inherent contradictions that the electric/barbed wires seem to suggest both as conduit and barrier, serving on the one hand as channels of transmission and yet on the other as a form of fencing. By changing the instrument of this quasi-cartographic drawing from a pencil line to a wire, I’m interested in the notion of the map as dynamic, streaming and transferring of data, energy, currency and people.

The audio component resonates with high-voltage electric current sounds drowned within deep-sea ambient sounds, slow electric pulses, the hum of engaged tones from telecommunications, mechanical-sounding drone, factory sirens, ship horns intermingle with migratory bird sounds.

3. What sort of research do you carry out? Can you describe your artistic process, of how you started working out of archives, official records and the body of work you developed as a result using rubberstamps.

Research is an on-going part of my studio process. To develop any idea I need to deepen my understanding of it, whether it is researching from books, online, learning through exchange with other people or gaining an experiential understanding by visiting places. At other times research can be just a silent search trying to understand something through the very act of making. It is often simply the work directing me rather than the other way around.

For instance, I first used the rubberstamp as a medium for a sculpture in 2003 when I wanted to include names of people within a mock official document I had prepared, with the Preamble of the Constitution of India, serving as a reminder of the promise of democracy. This was around the time when Mumbai as a city was seeing the rise of the politics of exclusion, with an anti-outsider sentiment. Since then, the source of reference for the names on the stamps have provided meaning or given context to the different bodies of work I have made. In the series of works titled Synonyms, 2007-09 the names were sourced from police records of those officially registered as having gone missing. Listed as forgotten statistics, they formed portraits of migrants, people who live within the neighbourhood, often at a complete disconnect from their families. The sculpture Untitled (Column) shown at the Kennedy Centre in 2011, referenced architectural ruins and fragments, that are disintegrating and in a state of collapse. The surface consisted of nearly 30 thousand rubber-stamps bearing addresses of monuments having gone missing, listed as protected sites under the Archeological Survey of India. For Colour Curtain (between shores and the seas), I tried approaching several Consulates in Mumbai for names of those denied visas to various countries but since they were not permitted to share information from official records, I had to eventually turn to the many stories found online about creative individuals, writers, journalists, sportsmen, musicians etc. being rejected or denied access.

4.     As an artist based in Mumbai, do you feel that your work and the materials you use communicates to both the local and international audience? I am intrigued in the diversity of materials you use to convey a message or simply to transform the architectural vernacular of a particular building/space, I guess in this instance the Bhau Daji Lad museum becomes a symbolic act of retracing the colonial past to the new India, and with its new political identity and how you have literary “webbed” names through this “organic” sculptural façade that unfolds multiple narratives, can you expand more on this?

Since the Bhau Daji Lad Museum stands situated at Jijamata Udyaan, (once called the Victoria Gardens) in the natural environment of the zoo, I wanted the sculpture to have an organic form, one that has some sort of a relationship to its surroundings. While thinking of the Museum’s history and its mutating relationship to the city of Mumbai, what occupied my mind about the transforming city are the changing street names; in what manner streets define a city’s imagination and how their names speak to us about the people who occupy them. The Museum itself had undergone a change of name from the Victoria and Albert Museum to Dr. Bhau Daji Lad Museum, a century after its inception. Conceived at the time of the British rule, the museum and its collection narrate some of the earliest moments in the city’s history through its industrial and artisanal past, through the changing life patterns of its people across maps and historical photographs. The early 90’s as part of the decolonization spree saw the change of street names in Mumbai from colonial names to indigenous ones. While renaming is either geographic, commemorative, often linked to language, in case of Mumbai it has been more political than cultural and never without controversy. It’s been a real struggle between the cosmopolitan identities over local or regional claims.

‘Untitled (Cobweb/Crossings)’, is an oversized web formed with hundreds of rubber-stamps that weaves the history of the city onto the façade of the city museum. Each one bears the colonial name of a city street that has now been replaced by an indigenous one. Part of the bureaucratic apparatus, rubber-stamps metaphorically either seem to endorse or stamp histories out of existence; with the name change certain histories gradually get wiped out.

5.    Your work responds to many aspects of contemporary South Asian cultures, and conflicts. The cultural similarity and the partition of people living in Pakistan and India has been referenced and documented in various archives. However, I am particularly interested in the “Borders”, the Boundary lines that are crossed by ordinary people living in India and Pakistan. A work entitled,  ‘Crease/ Crevice/ Contour’, a series of 10 photoprints, a registry of names, appears stamped across bare backs of women, in shapes replicating the changing extent of the Line of Control that marked the boundary between India and Pakistan between October 1947 and December 1948. This is a remarkable piece of work almost tattooed on the flesh of female bodies; can you please describe the reaction you got from the local Indian/Pakistan audience?

Reena: In ‘Crease/ Crevice/ Contour’ the body is treated like a document, with the stamped marks bearing names of people who had signed the peace agreement between India and Pakistan in 2004, as a gesture of healing. This work hasn’t been shown in Pakistan but when I showed the work in Delhi, there were immediate associations made with the continued vulnerability of the female body to the brandings of territorial claim, as was the case during the partition of India. It was common for men of other communities to first rape and then further ‘violate’ the bodies of women by inscribing on their skin nationalist slogans in an attempt to create a memory, to declaring the body and thus them, as having been ‘claimed’ like a piece of land. While the genesis of some of these works come from early childhood stories about my father being born in Lahore and his elder brothers move to India post partition, these later developed into deeper personal investigations of shared national histories.

6.    Another work that continues with this genre of working is: Light Leaks, winds meet where the waters spill deceit. Again you have made a seductive sculpture that depicts the gates at the Wagah Attari border. The work reminds us of two nations side by side immersed in deep velvety red, or blood red as the case may be. What exactly did you want to achieve?

The sculpture is modelled on the gates that demarcate the boundary between India and Pakistan at the Wagah Attari border; with one gate from each side of the border forming this third entity that metaphorically seeks to collapse the distance between the countries. The surfaces of these misaligned gates are enveloped with red sacred thread (usually found in temple rituals and also seen at particular mosques in India), that is tied to have wishes fulfilled and are meant to be untied when these get accomplished. The sculpture swathed in layers of untied thread appears to root the gates while each end bears a fly Zapper, emitting UV light from florescent tubes and low frequency waves through the electrified grid. I had first experienced seeing the border between India and Pakistan while flying over the ‘Line of Control’ in 2001. The pilot directed our attention to the row of lights running along the border demarcating and dividing the two nations. The sight had a chilling impact on me, to see what appeared almost like a wound, an incision on the landscape running as far as our vision travelled on both sides.

7.    My final question, do you see your work produced in India and seen in the West as “peripheral” or very much part of the new era of post colonial discourse, that brings a new debate and new artistic modes of practice very much at the “Center” of ongoing cultural artistic journeys?

Reena: I feel these ideas of the center and periphery, are rather shifty. Center(s) emerge and they might become peripheral again. What I make certainly comes from my lived experience of contemporary realities. How meaningfully it resonates with the rest of the world I’m not sure, however I do know that the course of discourse changes and artworks live beyond the historical period when they were made.