Never Run Away by Shaheen Merali,2010

“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.