India and diaspora
By Ravi Ghosh
Published on 29 January 2024
Critic Ravi Ghosh meets two contemporary artists whose works address the legacies of Britain’s domination of India.
In 2003, the artist Mohini Chandra did something that few in the British art world had thought to do. At Leighton House, the Holland Park studio-home of Victorian artist and former RA President Frederic Leighton, she co-curated a contemporary art show in response to the building’s ornate design and art collection, which is heavily influenced by Leighton’s fascination with the Middle East. His Turkish, Egyptian and Syrian artefacts remain displayed in the house, while the tiling and furnishings of its Narcissus and Arab halls speak to a colonially inflected clash of Arabic and European cultures.
Chandra installed a sound piece, Threshold (2003), along with work by Zineb Sedira, Nahoko Kudo and Shezad Dawood, combining historic objects and sensibilities with the freshest approaches in contemporary practice. Speaking with Chandra ahead of Entangled Pasts, she recalls the uneasy response the exhibition, entitled Presence, received. People complained to Kensington and Chelsea council, upset that modern art was disturbing Leighton’s Orientalist vision. “Sometimes people find this curatorial strategy particularly controversial or difficult,” Chandra explains. Like Presence, Entangled Pasts relies on the interplay of old and new works to produce unexpected, sometimes uncomfortable postcolonial associations, not least in relation to British imperialism on the Indian subcontinent.
Chandra’s photographic series Imaginary Edens/Photos of my Father (2005-15) appears in the ‘Beauty & Difference’ section of the RA exhibition, which also includes a family portrait by Johann Zoffany RA commissioned by a British officer from colonial India and a landscape painting by Agostino Brunias depicting enslaved people washing linens and planting along the banks of Dominica’s River Roseau. Other contemporary works in the gallery are Karen McLean’s Primitive Matters (2010) – sculptural huts presented alongside images of the Magnificent Seven, a group of early 20th-century mansions built in European colonial styles in Trinidad and Tobago – and Yinka Shonibare RA’s Woman Moving Up (2023), which riffs on the American Great Migration by showing a figure ascending a gilded staircase, weighed down by their possessions and past. The Royal Academy’s exhibition deliberately creates these juxtapositions, whereby idealised versions of colonialism (which often soften the reputations of those who administered it) collide with the impulses of today’s artists looking to restore dignity, hope, and crucially, truth, to depictions of non-Western subjectivities and experiences.
This decolonising strategy is more complex than it might at first seem. Artists might have reservations about their works being displayed alongside those that perpetuate racial stereotypes or were patronised by imperial funds. It also demands a level of institutional and public introspection, the latter of which, as Chandra’s Leighton House anecdote reminds us, is far from guaranteed. For others, exhibitions fail to go far enough. In the past five years, direct action has thrown into question the
effectiveness of more passive decolonial strategies, where cultural institutions are often programming reactively. Chandra, who taught at Plymouth College of Art for six years, mentions the toppling of Bristol’s Edward Colston statue as a clarifying moment. “The Black Lives Matter protestors identified that the transmission of culture is incredibly important to change and social justice,” Chandra says. “We’re in the cultural sector, and we have to think about how to keep up with the real world.”
Entangled Pasts pays particular attention to Royal Academy artists’ historic patronage by the East India Company, the corporation pivotal to Britain’s colonisation of India. In the exhibition’s first thematic section, ‘Sites of Power’, hangs Edward Penny’s 1772 portrait of Robert Clive, the first British Governor of Bengal. Penny was the RA’s first Professor of Painting and was commissioned by the Company to depict Clive’s interactions with Bengal’s provincial leader. Clive is presented as creating a charitable pension fund for Company employees, an explicit piece of imperial propaganda. Often shown at the RA during the Company and British Raj periods, such commissioned works “became powerful cultural signifiers of British dominion over India”, writes Dorothy Price, the show’s lead curator, in the exhibition catalogue.
Alongside Penny’s painting is Shahzia Sikander’s Encapsulated Confrontation (2011), a charcoal drawing inspired by the Pakistani-American artist’s animation The Last Post, in which an East India Company figure (an archetypal ‘Company Man’) shatters into fragments. This work was in turn inspired by a 1770s depiction of a Company Man in the V&A, Sikander explains. “I’m interested in iconographies which have the ability to reproduce – and The Company Man is so malleable.” In a related site-specific work presented at Princeton University’s economics department, the figure grows wings and morphs into a representation of Adam Smith, a commentary on the market ambition which fuelled imperialism.
An intriguing reality of assembling under a decolonial premise artists born in or descended from formerly colonised nations is that they have often been challenging imperial histories long before Western institutional interest – “and before decolonial terminology emerged,” Sikander says. This is true of Chandra, who during her PhD at the Royal College of Art in the early 2000s set up a seminar group for students to explore non-Western approaches to art history. She now runs the ‘Empire and Place’ research network at Chelsea College of Art. The aim is to “create a space where different narratives can emerge, not just the official one that we’ve all been taught,” she says.
Imaginary Edens/Photos of my Father sees Chandra delve into her family’s photographic archive, much of which was made within the Indian community in Fiji, descended from British-orchestrated indentured labourers; such workers from China and the Indian subcontinent were used to replace enslaved labour after abolition, but often worked in similar conditions. Chandra cuts her father out of the pictures, replacing his figure with stock backdrops from the photography studios which flourished in the Indian diaspora in Fiji in the 1970s and 80s. The work evokes the in-betweenness of migration (Chandra herself grew up in Australia), “removing the person to think about what they’re dreaming of,” she explains. “I’m asking the viewer to use their imagination. It’s a project about empathy.”
Sikander’s practice has always been influenced by what she terms the ‘colonial residual’ – customs or power structures that have survived beyond the formal end of the colonial period. The Last Post’s title was inspired by the British imperial bugle call to mark the end of the day, which has remained part of Pakistani military pageantry. Sikander came to prominence by pioneering the ‘neo-miniature’ genre, updating traditional Indian iconography with scenes reflecting the entwined – and often fractious – political, religious and social dynamics in South Asia. Her career has been shaped by ‘polarities’ in the region, she says, many of which have their origins in the bloody end to British imperial rule. She has recently been refused visas to India, hampering research where institutions are yet to digitise their archives. There’s an irony, she says, in the fact that Western institutions can access South Asian collections for decolonial projects, but artists from those nations cannot. “History and geography are always syncretic and porous,” she says. “I’m interested in the displacement of time; how we can go outside of the linearity of Western art history.”
These restrictions partly inspired her second work in Entangled Pasts, a bronze of two female deity-like figures titled Promiscuous Intimacies (2020), Sikander’s first sculpture. After settling in New York in the mid-1990s, the artist realised that her early drawings acquired by institutions were rarely being displayed. After collaborating with Gayatri Gopinath, a gender studies professor at New York University who read her work through a queer lens, Sikander decided to work in sculpture to “create and capture the ethos of the feminine in a medium that can bypass these institutional regulations” – that is, to work in materials which are more suitable for long-term, public display in a way that her fragile works on paper are not. Promiscuous Intimacies draws its two figures from an Indian temple sculpture and a Bronzino painting, blending the languages of Indian art and Italian mannerist painting, and positioning feminine desire and intimacy as “a counternarrative to imperial extraction”, in the artist’s words. But there is no meekness here, she says. The aim is to tell stories where the feminine “is brought into conversation with the monstrous, the abject, the vulnerable, the invisible.”
Back in the UK, Chandra has recently been working with archaeologists in Plymouth to examine artefacts from slave ships. She’s interested in “the vulnerabilities of empire… chinks in the armour like ship sinkings, which were catastrophic.” It fits neatly with some of the thinking behind Entangled Pasts, which focuses on the British Navy via works like Hew Locke’s Armada (2017-19). The hope for the exhibition, as Price and co-curator Sarah Lea write in the catalogue, is to create “a forum for acknowledgement, reflection and imagination… to feel the reverberations of images and ideas down the centuries, and to question them.” Reverberations move through both time and space; decolonisation often involves disrupting the linearity of both. “How do boundaries melt?” Sikander wonders. “And how do you give vision to that?” First, by looking around us, Chandra says, and engaging with what we see. “Just because there’s this decolonising principle going on, it doesn’t mean that we can’t appreciate the works of art – whether contemporary or historical.”
Ravi Ghosh is Deputy Editor of British Journal of Photography.
Entangled Pasts, 1768–now: Art, Colonialism and Change takes place in the Main Galleries, Burlington House, 3 February – 28 April 2024.
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